IOWA CITY — It’s not often that you see a college basketball player start 14 games as a freshman, then decide to take the following year off to work on his body and his game.
Normally, if a player is going to redshirt, he will do it that first year of college. Not many do it the second year unless some sort of injury is involved.
But Jack Nunge did it.
And he’s very glad he did.
Nunge packed on more than 10 pounds of pure muscle, worked on his skills, fine-tuned his mental approach and appears poised to possibly become one of the marquee players for the Iowa basketball team next season.
With Tyler Cook departing for the NBA, there is a vacancy in the starting lineup at power forward, and Nunge will be in the mix to win the job. He said he wouldn’t be as ready if he hadn’t redshirted last season.
"It helped me grow in different ways in being a player on the court," the 6-foot-11 forward said this week. "It’s just another year of maturity that I get to see the game and know what to improve on."
There was no question where Nunge needed to make the greatest strides. He got shoved around consistently in the post during the 2017-18 season to the point where a few teammates referred to him as "Bambi."
"You definitely need to be a grown man to play in the Big Ten," Nunge admitted.
He quickly found it was drastically different than what he faced as a first-team all-stater at Castle High School in Newburgh, Indiana.
"In high school, you’re the biggest guy," he said. "Even if you’re not the strongest, you’re the biggest so you can use that."
After a solid year of work in the weight room, Nunge said he definitely can feel a difference. Teammates who were able to back him down into the post in practice and pickup games don’t do it any more. More often than not, Nunge is backing them down.
Bambi has become a moose. He said his weight wavers between 240 and 250 pounds after he finished his freshman season at about 230. It’s not a huge increase.
"But that’s pure strength," he said.
He said he didn’t have any sort of specified diet to help him pack on the pounds.
"I was just lifting and making sure I got my protein after a lift, getting the right kind of food in your body to make sure your lift was beneficial to your body," he said.
Nunge was named the MVP of the Prime Time League the summer before he even enrolled at Iowa, and he showed flashes of what he is capable of during his freshman campaign.
He scored 17 points against Grambling in just the third game of his college career and collected 16 points and a career-best eight rebounds in a difficult environment on the road at Iowa State. He scored in double figures in six of his first 11 games, then did it just once more the rest of the season, flipping in a career-high 18 against Ohio State in February.
He finished with averages of 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds while also finishing second on the team in blocked shots.
He actually played a considerable amount of small forward as a freshman, making half of his 14 starts there. Although he’s likely to play more power forward this season, possibly even spelling Luka Garza occasionally in the post, he wouldn’t discount the possibility that he might still occasionally play the 3.
He said the 3 and 4 positions are largely interchangeable in Iowa’s system.
"I’ll just say I’m a forward," he said.
Nunge added that the year off didn’t just help him in terms of strength. He got a chance to sit back and watch how other players prepared. He feels he learned more about the game.
"I love basketball," he said. "It’s my favorite sport to play, and it’s pretty much my life. Everything revolves around basketball."