Iowa's last tune-up went off with little difficulty, as the Hawkeyes cruised to a 99-58 victory over visiting Western Illinois. Luka Garza led the way (shocker, we know) with 35 points and 10 rebounds, and Jack Nunge returned to the team and poured in 18 points of his own. As expected, the game was never in doubt, and the Hawkeyes can now set their sights on next Tuesday's game against the visiting North Carolina Tar Heels.
What Iowa's getting out of its bench so far is just miles ahead of last season, and that might be what pushes this team from good to great.
Jack Nunge was a welcome sight on the court in many ways: this was his first game since tearing an ACL against
DePaul Cal Poly* last season, and he had been out to begin the year to mourn the unexpected death of his father in November. It was also welcome because, well, Nunge can ball — he used his 6'11" frame as well as we've ever seen, with an array of post moves, a pure three-point shot, and quite possibly the best rim protection on the team. If he's got this kind of energy and output waiting for the Big Ten portion of the schedule, Fran McCaffery's going to have some very hard decisions to make on portioning out minutes.
*Whoops. - ed
And then of course, Luka Garza. Garzilla had another ridiculous first half, with 30 points on 11-17 shooting; by comparison, WIU as a team had just 26 at the break. It's simple: he's the best offensive player in the country, and against lower-tier competition, he's simply unstoppable. That dynamic is going to change very soon, with only one rinky-dinker left on Iowa's entire remaining schedule (KenPom #267 Northern Illinois, December 13), but Garza facing quality opponents is what we've been waiting to see for so long.
As for the game, yeah, a 41-point margin speaks for itself, especially when one player outscores the opposition before halftime. But there was one little stretch where this game started to turn a little sideways, and it's worth mentioning. Early in the second half, Iowa saw its 27-point lead chopped down to 15 in about five minutes' time. Western was forcing turnovers, Iowa was sloppy on defense, and the WIU coach was doing that quick clapping thing after each bucket that coaches only do during big comebacks. Iowa looked like it was dipping into its bad habits from the last few seasons, and that familiar dread was seeping back in.
This Hawkeye defense responded a little differently, though, ripping off a 22-2 run in response and finishing the game by outscoring the 'Necks 38-12 in the last 13 minutes of play. Nunge played great ball on both ends of the floor during this stretch, Joe Toussaint settled down and made some big-time plays, and Keegan Murray was exactly the type of two-way energy guy Iowa needed. Yes, this is just Western Illinois, and just Southern, and just NC Central, but what Iowa's getting out of its bench so far is just miles ahead of last season, and that might be what pushes this team from good to great (no disrespect to Bakari Evelyn, who certainly tried his best out there last season).
One last note, with the high-profile games kicking up, this might be one of the last (if not THE last) BTN broadcasts with Jess Settles on the call, and he was certainly in rare form tonight, taking a swipe at Joe Wieskamp's elaborate proposal setup for fiancée Makenzie Meyer (!), and firing this bit of legendary shade at the prior coaching regime in Iowa City:
"All these Fran McCaffery-era guys are knocking me out of the Top 10. With all due respect, if Coach Lickliter was still there, I'd be securely in the Top 5." https://t.co/KtVvzllt0x— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) December 4, 2020
A touch unfair, sure, but it certainly got Iowa fans to sit up straight for the next few minutes.
Five days to prep for North Carolina. We're cutting the breaks and headed down the mountain. This is where it gets fun.
GO IOWA AWESOME.