The 6-foot-7 forward’s shot didn’t come during the first stint of the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten roster, but he’s recovered in recent games.
Payton Sandfort of Iowa men’s basketball is no stranger to heating up over the course of a season.
The 6-foot-7 native of Waukee, Iowa, made his way onto the scene as a true freshman in Iowa, averaging five points per game for the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten tournament title team. Sandfort established himself as one of the top 3 scoring threats in the Big Ten midway through the 2021-22 season when he knocked down 36.6 percent of his triples in the first year.
Throughout the offseason, Sandfort was highlighted by coaches and teammates as a potential breakout candidate. He seemed poised to improve his freshman 2022-23 season’s shooting splits across the board, but after a solid start in the game outside of conference, Sandfort’s percentages fell significantly.
Despite a 24-point performance against Southeast Missouri State on December 17, Sandfort struggled throughout the Hawkeyes’ December roster. He started the Big Ten with three straight games without converting a field goal, shooting a combined 0-for-19 against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Penn State and scoring two points overall.
However, amid his shooting, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery told reporters that Sandfort’s value to the team isn’t limited to stretching the ground.
“He’s working hard, staying tuned, and staying positive,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes guys who are good shooters get a reputation for being just a shooter. Payton Sandfort is a really good basketball player. Only he [plays] a complete game, he is defensively active and can play in several positions.”
Sandfort appears to have flipped a switch after a New Year’s loss at Penn State. He began to heat up, scoring 11 points in a two-point win over then-No. 15 Indiana by 4-for-9 shooting on Jan. 5.
His mini-breakout performance came three days later against a tough Rutgers team. En route to a 22-point breakout, Sandfort knocked down six of his eight field goal attempts, including 4-of-5 from behind the arc and 6-of-7 from the charity streak.
“I was kind of mad at myself at half-time,” Sandfort said after the overtime win. “That was not me [being] aggressive enough… In the second half I just wanted to be aggressive and make plays. I’m just happy that we won.”
McCaffery praised Sandfort’s resilience after facing adversity early on.
“He didn’t make a lot of mistakes,” McCaffery said. “He’s obviously made big plays. You remember that. But I remember that he did everything right. He was closely guarded… They chased him around, they physically handled him, and he just kept moving.”
Sandfort has credited those around him with recovering from his struggles. He sought professional help to solve the problem.
“It was a weird stretch of something I’ve never really gone through before,” Sandfort said. “I’m kind of grateful for that because it opened my eyes to some things that need some work because I’m really hard on myself. It was nice to have a few people telling me ‘it’s going to be okay’ – sports psychologists, coaches, family members.”
After a 12-point performance in a home win over Maryland, Sandfort has increased his season stats to 10.2 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting — an increase from his conversion rate of 41 a season ago. His 3-point shot percentage is currently below his rookie performance, but Sandfort’s numbers and confidence are rising.
Teammate Filip Rebraca told reporters Sandfort’s return to sniper status improved the team’s game as a whole.
“It was really good [to see him break out of his slump]said Rebraca after Sandfort’s 22-point performance at Rutgers. “He missed a few in the beginning but once it started falling it’s like it’s never going to end. It’s really nice to see him score because we need him.”