No. 3 Iowa hands Fran McCaffery 200th win as Hawkeye coach, with Luka Garza leading way again

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fran McCaffery’s 200th victory as Iowa’s men’s basketball coach was his most relaxing yet.

McCaffery has a veteran team, ranked third in the nation, with more talent and experience than his previous 10 versions. And on Sunday, those Hawkeyes went to work on a winless opponent from Northern Illinois, carving out a 106-53 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

All 16 Hawkeyes played, two of them McCaffery’s sons, Connor and Patrick, who combined for 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

More:Connor McCaffery gets inspirational ink on his arm to honor brother's cancer fight

“There’s a lot of character in that locker room right now, and that’s the standard that the guys that came before them set,” said Fran McCaffery, the second-winningest coach in program history.

“It just makes you reflect a little bit on the great ones that we’ve had and the guys that fought for you and took great pride in wearing that jersey. This is a proud and storied basketball program.”

This year’s team sits at 6-0, led by an all-time great Hawkeye in center Luka Garza. The all-American needed only 20 minutes to score 23 points against the Huskies (0-5). Joe Wieskamp added 20 points.

Northern Illinois managed so little pressure on the Hawkeyes that they weren’t whistled for a foul until nine minutes had elapsed. The scoreboard operator tried to show some “Iowa nice,” giving the Huskies one additional point when the final buzzer sounded. The mistake was corrected, though.

Iowa forward Keegan Murray (15) blocks a shot by Northern Illinois guard Anthony Crump (50) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa doubled up an opponent and tied the 18th-largest victory margin in program history. The Hawkeyes have scored 93 points or more in each of their first six times. That had never happened before.

Keegan Murray is one polished true freshman, earning his minutes

We may never know whether Fran McCaffery really intended to give extended minutes to a true freshman this season, or if Keegan Murray simply forced him to that conclusion. Either way, the 6-foot-8 forward out of Cedar Rapids has been one of the surprise success stories of the early season for Iowa.

Murray scored 10 points, with five rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists and two steals in 15 minutes Sunday. He is averaging 6.5 points and 4.7 rebounds, ranking second on the team with 10 blocked shots, in the opening games of what is shaping up to be a fantastic Hawkeye career. He is the only true freshman in McCaffery’s regular nine-man rotation. And for good reason.

“I’ve just been doing hard work in practice,” Murray said. “Just being active on both ends of the court, doing the little things. Because we have a lot of great players on our team, a lot of guys that score very well. That’s just something I’m not right now. But if I can do the little things on the court, then Fran will build more trust in me.”

Murray, who grew up in Cedar Rapids and is the son of former Hawkeye star Kenyon Murray, may have been underselling his own offensive game. He buried two early 3-pointers Sunday because he knew the Huskies’ defense would be sagging in on Garza. He also converted a beautiful baseline drive that began with a behind-the-back dribble.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts after an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Illinois, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 106-54. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

“That’s just quarantine work with my dad,” Keegan Murray explained. “We worked on various moves.”

So stay tuned for those, Hawkeye fans. The schedule gets much tougher for Iowa from here, but it’s clear that Murray will keep getting his opportunities.

McCaffery continues to be bemused that reporters keep asking him about Murray’s rise on his roster.

“He’s done it every game so far this year,” McCaffery said.

Then the coach took a shot at people who assign grades to young basketball players. Murray, a 6-foot-8 forward, was considered the 327th best prospect in the country and played a year of prep school in Florida to get ready for his Hawkeye career.

“It’s a prime example of recruiting is not an exact science,” McCaffery said. “Some guys get on lists, and some guys produce. And that kid produces every time you put him on the floor. I don’t care who he plays against.”

Murray may next be playing against the No. 1 team in the nation. He looks to be the complete package already, and someone Iowa fans will embrace for years to come.

Some great experience for Ahron Ulis, Hawkeye point guard of the future

Late in the first half Sunday, McCaffery put Ahron Ulis into the lineup alongside four veteran starters — Garza, Wieskamp, Connor McCaffery and Jordan Bohannon. Ulis is the true freshman getting the next-most playing time behind Keegan Murray. And McCaffery was clearly trying to let him get a feel for what it will be like when he’s the man in charge, not just a first-year player getting garbage-time minutes.

The first thing Ulis did was commit a turnover, throwing a pass to the corner where Wieskamp was once set up, but had decided to cut off a screen for a better look at the basket. Rookie mistake. Twenty seconds later, Ulis approached Wieskamp while Garza was shooting a free throw to inquire about what he had done wrong.

“He was just saying that sometimes you’ve got to read the screen, and he may lift or stay corner,” Ulis said. “Coming into the game, I thought that he would just stay corner.”

Lesson learned. And Ulis has been getting a great crash-course in college basketball, thanks to an experienced roster that is eager to help him. He said he’s trying to take advantage of that.

Ulis had four points, two assists and two turnovers Sunday. He has 19 points and seven assists in 48 minutes on the season, playing in every game except Tuesday against North Carolina. What may be most impressive? He has 13 points on free throws, with only one miss. A point guard that can get to the line, and convert there at a high rate, is always an asset.

“In a different year, he could be starting,” Fran McCaffery said of Ulis, who is behind Bohannon,  Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery among this year’s point-guard options.

“He’s that good. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s versatile. He defends. He thinks the game. He understands the game. He doesn’t rattle. And he can score. … In time, he’s going to be a terrific player in this league.”

Iowa center Luka Garza drives past Northern Illinois guard Darius Beane, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 106-54. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Garza continues to be college basketball's biggest mismatch

Finally, a note about Garza, who is averaging 29.2 points and 9 rebounds per game.

The week began with Iowa's all-American center scoring 16 points on 20 shot attempts against a large and physical quartet of North Carolina post players. The Hawkeyes won 93-80, and Garza contributed 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. But it was the perimeter players that carried the offensive load for Iowa in that one.

No matter. Garza responded by scoring 57 points in his next 37 minutes of game action, in wins over Iowa State and Northern Illinois.

Earlier:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

He can't be stopped when facing often even two defenders, let alone one. Garza made 21 of 24 shots in the two games, including eight 3-pointers. Hawkeye fans probably already knew this, but they are witnessing sheer brilliance.

Iowa is next scheduled to face No. 1 Gonzaga at 11 a.m. Saturday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the most highly anticipated non-conference matchup in recent Hawkeye history.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.