Family: Closeness will help get Hawkeyes through an unpredictable season

By John Bohnenkamp

IOWA CITY — They came together for heartbreak far away from their locker room.

On the day Iowa was set to open the men’s basketball season, the Hawkeyes got together on Wednesday morning for the funeral of Dr. Mark Nunge, the father of forward Jack Nunge.

Mark Nunge, an emergency services physician in Newburgh, Ind., died early Saturday morning.

The Hawkeyes couldn’t be with their teammate for his father’s funeral — such is life in the COVID-19 pandemic. So they got together virtually for the funeral.

A few days ago, it wasn’t part of Iowa’s game-day script.

“It was important for us to do that,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We’re pretty regimented with our pre-game routine, and that’s not something that you never want to also have to schedule. But we love Jack.

“We’re there for Jack.”

Luka Garza was part of the same recruiting class as Jack Nunge, 6-foot-11 bookends whose careers have taken different paths. Yet there is a connection that Garza embraces.

“It was definitely unlike anything I, or anyone else on this team, has experienced before,” Garza said of the day. “I love Jack. He’s my brother. We came in together. I can’t imagine what he’s going through. But we’re trying to be there for him. And that’s what we were trying to do this morning — just show support for his family.

“His family is our family.”

Family, indeed.

Iowa’s 97-67 win over North Carolina Central later Wednesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena had a lot of signs on how the Hawkeyes are going to get through this season.

A college basketball season is always about survival, even if there is no pandemic. Novembers and Februarys feel like they last forever — November games against opponents from smaller conferences picking up a check feel like ones to endure, February games are played with the March finish seeming so far away even if you can hear the clock of the season ticking. Decembers and Januarys have rivalries and the start of conference play to grab your attention, but the other months are drags on the emotions.

It’s a script where the best actors find a way to the ending.

This season, when a virus could take you out or take out an opponent, the pages of the script are going to be constantly rewritten, and the ones who will get through this are the ones where the cast knows each other so well the improvisation can be a work of art.

Garza was Garza on Wednesday — the only unanimous selection to the Associated Press preseason All-America team had 26 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes, his 17th consecutive game of 20 or more points and the 21st double-double of his career.

He unveiled a fade-away jumper that had him smiling as he headed down the court after the ball had snapped the net, the latest shot in his artistic collection of offensive moves.

“Whenever it leaves his hand, you’re surprised when it doesn’t go in,” McCaffery said. “He just has an uncanny knack, and touch, around the basket, and it also extends out on the floor, which makes him a handful to guard. We’re just thrilled that he keeps working and he’s such an unselfish guy.”

“You know, I think that’s a move I’ve worked on a lot,” Garza said of the shot. “Trying to add some moves in the post, and just trying to get comfortable making different moves. It was nice to get that one through.”

But this was a game that belonged to two players off the bench — redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffery and true freshman Keegan Murray.

Family, again.

McCaffery, the son of Fran McCaffery, had 16 points, while Murray, the son of former Hawkeye Kenyon Murray, had 12 in his first game.

Patrick McCaffery played in just two games last season before health issues related to his 2014 treatment for thyroid cancer ended his season. Murray was an unknown coming into the season, but was the first of Iowa’s 2020 recruiting class to enter the game because of what he’s done in practice this season.

Iowa has eight returning players, seven with starting experience. It’s a group that has logged more than 11,000 minutes.

But this is one of those all-hands-on-deck seasons because of the unpredictability of the virus. Everyone, you feel, will have a role at some point.

So if a Patrick McCaffery can get 16, and a true freshman can get 12, you take it and run. It’s pure profit.

The rest of Iowa’s starting lineup had its moments. Connor McCaffery, another son of Fran, had three points and actually played some at the ‘5’, meaning he’s now played every position in his career. CJ Fredrick had 10 points. Joe Wieskamp had nine. Jordan Bohannon, a fifth-year senior coming off surgeries to both hips in the last 18 months, had six.

No, not big numbers. But there was no need on this day. They will be there when needed.

The significant moment came before the game, when the Iowa players and coaches took a knee as the public address announcer read a statement about racial injustice and equality.

EQUALITY was the word on the back of every Hawkeye jersey, to be on display all season.

When the statement was finished, the players and coaches stood for the national anthem.

It was a moment where the script was written by the players, and it pleased Fran McCaffery.

“We were in support of those words, 100 percent,” he said. “That’s why we knelt. And then they also felt strongly about standing for the national anthem. I respect that, immensely. I’m proud of them.

“It was pretty much what the players wanted to do. We talked about it a long time ago what we wanted our message to be.”

Family, indeed.

Photo: Iowa players kneel before the national anthem preceding Wednesday’s season opener against North Carolina Central. (Photo courtesy of hawkeyesports.com)

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