Fran McCaffery knew prior to his 13th season in Iowa that he put together “the most difficult schedule I’ve ever put our team through” knowing he had an experienced roster with varied positions. So obviously I feel like they can handle it. I look forward to the challenge.”
The first major Test of the 2022-23 calendar came Wednesday night against Seton Hall, a lively program that regularly reaches the NCAA tournament and looks set to do so again.
The Hawkeyes passed with flying colors, fending off every attack from Seton Hall and prevailing 83-67 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. This was a good road win against a team ranked 35th in KenPom metrics, improving Iowa to 3-0 in the young season.
“Seton Hall will probably be an NCAA tournament team this year,” said Kris Murray of Iowa, who scored 29 points with 11 rebounds in a fantastic performance that we were capable of.”
Here are five thoughts on the Hawkeyes’ victory.
A whole host of NBA scouts watched as Murray lived up to expectations.
In the shadow of New York City, there were about a dozen NBA scouts to watch Murray play Wednesday. When you consider his twin brother Keegan got off to a great start as a rookie with the burgeoning Sacramento Kings, it’s even more fascinating what Kris can bring to the table at the next level.
The junior forward, who made his NBA decision up to the last moment before deciding to return to college, showed why the Hawkeyes are so lucky to have him back.
Murray scored 14 of Iowa’s first 18 points as his teammates struggled. Thanks to Murray’s early efforts, Iowa dug out of an early 10-2 hole.
“They gave me easier shots and that kind of got me going,” Murray said. “After that I kind of found a rhythm.”
This was Kris’ first big game on a big stage (Gavitt Games) without having his brother as a teammate. And in this one, Murray showed the full arsenal of what he can do. He scored in the transition phase; he posted in semi-judicial offense; he deflated 3 hands; and he drew fouls and knocked down free throws.
Any time Iowa needed a bucket, Murray was willing and able to step up. After two consecutive 3-pointers from Seton Hall in the second half reduced Iowa’s lead to 46-41, Murray calmly followed up and scored a leaner to calm things down. When the Pirates hacked it to 50-45, Murray coolly waved a 3-pointer.
“It never rattles. He just plays,” McCaffery said. “He can get out of the jump, he can do 3s. He rebounds the ball; 29 and 11, a pretty good night against a very physical and athletic team.”
Interestingly, 29 points and 11 rebounds was the same line Murray had against Indiana last season in a must-win game when Keegan was in trouble. That was a glimpse of what Kris, a sophomore off the bank, could do in an expanded role once his time came.
His time has come and he looks perfectly finished and perfectly comfortable.
“I love the pressure that people have put on me this year,” he told Fox’s John Fanta after the game. “Coach McCaffery trusts me. And I trust whatever he says. I think you saw that tonight. I’m my own person now. People will know my name.”
This team’s swag comes from Tony Perkins.
This was even reflected in negative results. Late in the first half, Perkins was scored after a hard-charging bucket with contact for a technical foul that gave Seton Hall two free throws to cut the Hawkeyes’ half-time lead to 34-22. What happened?
“One of the fans called me a word I don’t like being called,” Perkins said. “So I just screamed, ‘And one!’ twice and got the technique.”
Perkins is a hardened junior whose time has come with the retirement of six-year-old point guard Jordan Bohannon. Perkins has had at least five assists in all three Hawkeye games since becoming the team’s point guard, but what’s even more impressive is that he’s developed a talent for getting tough buckets. He had 13 points in the second half. A 3-point play with 6:44 remaining extended Iowa’s lead to 65-54 and seemed to put the game on hold. Perkins finished the tournament with 18 points, five assists and three steals in 34 minutes.
“Tony, I mean, he’s a great player. Lots of confidence,” said Murray. “A guy you can always count on.”
Cautious optimism about Iowa’s defense continues.
In a night where offense didn’t work right off the bat, Iowa’s defense was — especially in the first half. You can’t always say that about McCaffery-coached teams. But three games later, that group continues to say they want to change their defensive reputation. And it has shown at times that it can play with a tenacity on the defensive end of the floor. Iowa moved up nine spots in KenPom’s adjusted defense efficiency rating (from 69 to 60) after holding Seton Hall at 35.8% shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. (By the way, Iowa’s always-great adjusted offense has moved from 3 to 2.)
“We’ve always been categorized as a bad defensive team, but this year we’re coming out with the fire that we want to be one of the best defensive teams,” Perkins said.
Still, Iowa needed a wake-up call to get going. Leading 10-2, Seton Hall had scored six out of seven offensive rebounds early in the game. However, after the first media timeout, Iowa turned things around. Seton Hall scored three points over a period of more than 10 minutes. In the first half alone, the Hawkeyes forced 11 turnovers and kept the Pirates at 20% shooting (6-on-30).
“We all agreed that we were playing soft. They…jumped us quite a bit. They threw the first shot,” said Filip Rebraca, an Iowa senior who played a hard-hitting player with 10 points and 11 rebounds Hit the post and blocked four shots. “We acknowledged that and just told ourselves what we need to do to rectify it. We had to get them out of the jar.
Seton Hall had an early 7-0 lead on the glass. Iowa finished with 38 rebounds to Seton Hall’s 40. Rebraca has a big part in that. He credits working with strength coach Bill Maxwell off-season to get him bigger and in better shape. Rebraca played 35 minutes; Backup centers Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey did not play. The North Dakota transfer certainly upped their game over a year ago and must continue to stay out of dire trouble. He averages 11.0 points and 8.7 rebounds in three contests.
More:Iowa men’s basketball lands in class of 2023 with priority forward Ladji Dembele
McCaffery basically ran a seven-man rotation. Will it stick?
Outside of three minutes for newcomer Dasonte Bowen and 29 seconds from newcomer Josh Dix, Fran McCaffery was left with seven veteran players: Connor McCaffery (sixth year), Rebraca (fifth), Patrick McCaffery (fourth), Murray (third), Perkins (third) . ), Ahron Ulis (third) and Sandfort (second). For a coach historically destined to play with 9-10 (or more) players due to Iowa’s fast-paced style, keeping it to a core of seven was remarkable.
Of particular interest was the head leaning on backups Ulis and Connor McCaffery via starters Sandfort and Patrick McCaffery on the stretch.
Perkins suggested that once Iowa had a consistent eight to ten point lead, Seton Hall would attack even more furiously and Iowa needed more ball handlers.
“It’s just more of what we needed at the end of the game,” Perkins said.
Ulis (27th minute) improved with eight points and two assists while having a top-team plus 16 with Rebraca. Connor McCaffery only attempted one shot, but it was a big one. He buried a 3-pointer to give Iowa a 70-59 lead with 5:44 to go. Seton Hall never got closer than nine points after that.
“We just have a couple of guys who know their roles and what it takes to win,” Murray said. “I think we’re an experienced team that excelled on the road against a really good physical team. Just never wavered.”
Fran McCaffery said he will play more against his newcomers in the coming weeks but noted “they learned a lot watching tonight”. Iowa will need more bench power when it comes to injuries and/or nasty troubles. But that night, seven was enough.
More:Iowa men’s basketball faces its first major test at Seton Hall. Here’s what to look out for.
That’s how you do it on the go.
Good defense, great offense, star power (in Murray), and excellent free throws on the stretch are surefire ways to win tough Big Ten conference road games this season. And Iowa followed that recipe to the last detail in Newark.
Iowa’s free throw, which shot down the stretch, helped prevent that result. The Hawkeyes shot 19 of 21 free throws in the second half (90.5%) and 28 to 33 (84.8%) for the game.
Of the seven regulars Fran McCaffery played against on Wednesday, they have shot 83% from the line overall this season (49 to 59).
“We have to keep it simple: take your free throws and win the game,” said Murray, who was 6-for-6 from the Stripe. “It was that simple tonight.”
It’s also important to limit sales when you’re on the go. The Hawkeyes did this against Shaheen Holloway’s pirates. They committed just eight turnovers against an attacking defense, and one of those turnovers was an intentional shot-clock violation in the final seconds of the game.
“When you’re playing against a team that’s really after you, like they do with defensive pressure,” said Fran McCaffery, “and then they come after you offensively dribbling… you have to be able to handle that, without turning it over.”
All in all a satisfactory 3-0 start to the season.
The Hawkeyes host Omaha at 7 p.m. Monday before traveling to Niceville, Fla. to play the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will face Clemson before a likely clash with TCU No. 18. This is followed by the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Georgia Tech, then a December 6 meeting against No. 8 Duke at the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, then home games against heated rivals Iowa State (8/12) and Wisconsin (Dec. 11).
This was a nice test pass for Iowa as it likely recorded a Quad 1 win on the NCAA NET (top 75 road win) for the entire season. But there are many more tests to come. Soon.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered esports for The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen for 28 years. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.