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Stats vs. Eye: The Luka Garza/Jack Nunge Dynamic

When Garza & Nunge share the court, they seem a step slow - do the stats back it up?

NCAA Basketball: Northern Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One area throughout the season where I’ve found myself continuously yelling inside my head while watching the #5 Iowa Hawkeyes - the oft nearby, potentially asleep infant keeps me from screaming out loud - is when Fran McCaffery rolls out Jack Nunge and Luka Garza to play together.

Too often, it seems, they’re a collective step slow on defense and occupy too much of the same space on offense. However, a recent deep dive into Pivot Analysis’ database has shown that to not be the case. At least, not always.

At face value, the dueling bigs lineup has Iowa playing below when either Garza or Nunge are on the floor. In games where both guys were available (Western Illinois onward), they’ve posted the following net points/possession:

  • Garza only: +.229 points/possession (327 possessions)
  • Nunge only: +.275 points/possession (120 possessions)
  • Both on court: +.181 points/possession (155 possessions)
  • Neither on court (minus garbage time): +.174 points/possession (23 possessions)

What is most important out of this batch of data is Garza, Nunge, & Garza/Nunge are additive to the product on the court through eight games of available data.

There are sample size issues with the “neither” category, but there’s a case Iowa will rarely operate without either guy on the court going forward. In each of Iowa’s conference games (plus Gonzaga & North Carolina) at least one of Iowa’s big men have been on the court for all 40 minutes. I suppose there’s discussion for a different day about whether Iowa should employ more “small ball” but it is an argument without a real fact base.

As far as what Iowa looks like with both guys on the court, the numbers become muddled because the Hawkeyes have performed with a wide variance based on their opponent. For the sake of clarity, possessions without either Garza or Nunge have been removed:

Stats via Pivot Analysis

The outliers here are obvious. When Garza and Nunge shared the floor against NIU, they had went on a 15-2 run when Nunge checked in during the first half. The pair performed unsuccessfully against Minnesota, yielding a 7-0 run in 4 possessions at the exact same juncture in the game. After halftime, Fran adjusted and brought in Joe Toussaint & Patrick McCaffery first of the bench and used Nunge only to spell Garza.

Outside of that four possession stretch, the Nunge/Garza pairing has performed well which runs counter to what it feels like. It’s all because of one thing: defense.

Garza/Nunge Defense

Defensive Four Factors Iowa (9 games) Garza/Nunge both on
Defensive Four Factors Iowa (9 games) Garza/Nunge both on
eFG% 48.90% 43.80%
OREB % 32.90% 37.90%
TOV % 16.30% 12.60%
FT Rate 13.20% 9.70%

Iowa, overall, contests shots better without fouling. The defensive rebounding does slip a smidge, as do the turnovers but the degradation there does not override the improvement seen in contesting shots. Iowa opponents shoot 0.98 points/shot overall and just 0.88 points/shot with Garza and Nunge on the court.

Iowa actually yields a higher percentage of shots at the rim with the two bigs on the court - 54.5% vs. 47.5% - but does a much better job at contesting them. Opponents make just 38.1% of shots at the rim with Garza/Nunge on the court vs. 48.1% overall which results in a reduction from 0.96 points/shot at the rim to 0.76.

Going forward, Fran McCaffery will have to continue pushing the right buttons to get the best out of this team. Much like his adjustment to move away from Luka Garza and Jack Nunge together against Minnesota, he was quick with his hook on Nunge against Rutgers despite playing very well throughout the first half.

Yet the two bigs have shown an ability to play well together by improving Iowa’s interior defense. Considering Iowa often struggles to contain players on the perimeter, there is immense value in what Nunge & Garza bring while on the court together.

There are certainly areas where the Hawkeyes can get better when they share the court - rebounding would be the biggest priority - but the duo’s performance demonstrates why they are deployed early and often.

Even if the eye doesn’t match it.