Iowa basketball rookies know their role is to wait in the wings on veteran team: A closer look
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are five freshmen on the Iowa men’s basketball team this season, playing five different positions.
But they have one thing in common, reporters discovered during a Wednesday interview session: They’ve all felt the sharp edges of Luka Garza’s elbows.
“Just the physicality he brings every single possession, how he runs the court every possession, was kind of my, ‘Wow, you’re in the big-time now’ moment,” said forward Keegan Murray, who found himself matched up with the Hawkeyes all-American center shortly after getting to campus this summer.
Iowa is ranked sixth in the nation and considered to be a Final Four contender, thanks to Garza and six other veteran players with starting experience. There may not be much call for coach Fran McCaffery to turn to his freshmen this winter, and they are all aware that their essential marching order is just to stay ready. A COVID-19 diagnosis could alter plans at any time.
A closer look at McCaffery’s five rookies:
TONY PERKINS: Exceptional athlete could carve out an early role due to his defensive prowess
Tony Perkins, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Indianapolis, Indiana, may already be the best athlete on the team. Perkins said he had a 38-inch vertical leap in high school and is known for his highlight-reel dunks.
But if he sees playing time early one, it will likely be based on what he can provide on defense. Perkins is always on the prowl for a perimeter steal that will lead to a breakaway. He averaged 1.8 steals as a high school senior at Indiana power Lawrence North. Blocked shots are another staple of his.
So are rebounds, new teammate Ahron Ulis reported. Perkins is constantly on the glass at both ends of the court in practice. He averaged 5.6 of them as a high school senior.
In practices, Perkins is learning by guarding veteran wing players Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick. On Saturday, Iowa’s freshmen started together in a scrimmage against the established players. Perkins pulled the rookies together the night before and said, “Let’s show them that we’re ready and not back down.”
He said that’s the kind of player he wants to be at Iowa.
“I love to keep my team together and hype my team up when they’re down,” Perkins said. “I love to lead.”
AHRON ULIS: A pure point guard who carries a lot of confidence
Ulis is a 6-3 point guard from Chicago who has been hoping to play at Iowa ever since his older brother, Tyler, brought him over on his recruiting visit. Ahron, who is six years younger, met Fran McCaffery on that trip and said the two remained in close contact, even after Tyler decided to play at Kentucky instead.
The Ulis brothers are both pure point guards, and that may make it difficult for Ahron to get on the court this year. Jordan Bohannon, Connor McCaffery and Joe Toussaint are all ahead of him for playing time at the 1.
But that won’t affect his belief in himself, Ulis said. It’s the biggest lesson he learned from his older brother.
“Confidence is the biggest thing that you need to come in with,” Ulis declared.
He’s been gaining confidence ever since he was a tentative freshman playing up on the varsity team at Marian Catholic High School. There, Ulis started for three years and scored more than 1,500 points to trail only his brother in school history.
Ulis said he was excited to hear McCaffery’s first message to the freshmen before practices started.
“He always taught us, come in and compete. That’s what we learned from the first day,” Ulis said.
There’s also this, which Hawkeye fans will be glad to hear: “I take defense very seriously.”
McCaffery finally got his Ulis. This will be an interesting career to follow after Bohannon moves on.
KEEGAN MURRAY: Already impressing with his rebounding, he wants to match his dad's intensity
Keegan Murray has the reputation of being a standout shooter after averaging 20.5 points last season at DME Sports Academy in Florida. But McCaffery said last week something else has caught his eye regarding the twin brother of Kris Murray.
“Keegan is a phenomenal rebounder. Phenomenal. Every day. His length and his tenacity to go to the glass is what separates him,” McCaffery said.
That may give Keegan a head-start when it comes to playing time, although things are a little crowded on the wing for Iowa with Wieskamp, Fredrick and Patrick McCaffery already seeking minutes.
Keegan, who grew up a Hawkeye fan in Cedar Rapids, already knows that running onto the court with his brother at Carver-Hawkeye Arena will be something he remembers for the rest of his life.
His role model is his father, former Hawkeye star Kenyon Murray (1993-96).
“I watched a lot of film with him when he was at Iowa and I just want to bring that intensity like he did,” Keegan said.
The Murrays are identical twins, although Keegan is right-handed and Kris is left-handed. McCaffery said he can tell them apart because they wear different numbers. But Keegan said there was one funny moment during a practice recently when assistant coach Kirk Speraw struggled to identify which Murray was participating in a drill.
Speraw made up a new name: “Kreegan.”
Maybe that will stick. The Murray twins certainly will.
KRIS MURRAY: A power forward who prides himself on his defense
Kris Murray is more at home at the power forward spot, which is how he found himself tangling with Garza in his first scrimmage as a college player. He’s 6-8, 215, just like his brother.
Kris is more of a driver on offense, but prides himself on his defense. He said the brothers had always spoken of playing at the same college, but that it wasn’t a necessity.
“We were never necessarily a packaged deal just because we’re two different players. We play different positions,” Kris said. “We were comfortable going to different schools. But when Iowa offered us the opportunity to come here with each other, I knew it was too good to pass up.”
Both Murrays say they’re different players than their father, who is 6-5.
“We can both shoot the ball a little better than him,” Kris said with a laugh, noting dad once shot 19.4% from 3-point range in a season at Iowa.
“I kind of give him crap on that.”
JOSH OGUNDELE: Still working his way into shape, but humor is intact
Josh Ogundele is a 6-10, 285-pound center from England who is a little behind his freshmen teammates after his Iowa arrival was delayed by Visa concerns during the pandemic. Ogundele then suffered an undisclosed illness when he reached his new home in August.
Ogundele played two seasons at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, which is where McCaffery saw him. He is the second big man from England that McCaffery has brought to Iowa City, after Gabe Olaseni played here from 2012-15.
And, yes, Ogundele said Olaseni did reach out to him after he expressed some interest in being a Hawkeye.
“I just wanted to know how it really was rather than listen to stereotypes of other people,” Ogundele said of those conversations.
Ogundele was able to dispel two things he’d heard: That Iowa was nothing but cornfields, and that McCaffery couldn’t control his temper.
Ogundele saw there was more here than corn when he flew in for his official visit. He said he expected the plane to land in the middle of a farm, but was happy to see the Cedar Rapids airport instead.
As for McCaffery: “People were talking about coach McCaffery like he’s crazy. And I found that he loves his players, so he does what he does for his players.”
Ogundele should be able to spend the season getting in shape and adapting to college basketball, with Garza and Jack Nunge able to hold down the front court. He said he intends to be ready in case of a COVID-19 outbreak, but otherwise is happy to learn his role on this team.
And Ogundele is apparently always happy. Nunge said this summer the new post player is the most popular Hawkeye with teammates because of his friendly demeanor.
Ogundele was happy to confirm that.
“I’m probably the funniest on the team,” he said.
“I’m just a very outgoing person. I like making new friends and talking to people.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.