Leistikow's 4 Iowa basketball thoughts: Fran McCaffery's starting five is sizzling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Through one week of this young Iowa men’s basketball season, there are two primary takeaways.

Keegan Murray looks like a star.

And the starting five looks really, really good.

That’s saying something, considering the Hawkeyes are rolling out four new starters from a year ago and the fifth (Jordan Bohannon) is playing a new position.

Fran McCaffery’s starting five clicked again Friday night in an 89-57 blowout of visiting Kansas City before an announced crowd of 11,133 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Hawkeyes blitzed the slow-paced Roos with a 10-2 start in the first 2½ minutes, with Bohannon racking up back-to-back 3-pointers to force an early timeout.

In Tuesday’s season opener against Longwood, Iowa’s game-opening flurry was even more intense — a 23-3 lead in just six minutes.

Isn't that exactly what you want from a starting lineup? No messing around, just pedal-to-the-metal basketball.

“We have a chemistry that I feel like we haven’t had in a while,” Murray said of the starting five. “We’re putting that on display on the court. I feel like we’re connected defensively. We’re turning up the pressure to start the game, getting out on runs.”

Fran McCaffery’s starting lineup was a major point of offseason discussion. What combination could he find that clicked? We figured it might take a while with so many interesting pieces.

Well, it seems the discussion is over. He has his best five players, and they’re playing well as a unit: Joe Toussaint at point guard, Bohannon at shooting guard (after 4½ years running the point), 6-foot-9 Patrick McCaffery at small forward, 6-9 Murray at power forward and 6-9 transfer Filip Rebraca at center.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon has connected on 9 of 13 3-pointers to start the 2021-22 season.

McCaffery let his top five ride for the first 7:19 of the game. He let them go for the first 7:42 of the second half. By that point, Iowa’s lead had swelled to 57-33.

“Our defense is very good. Our offense kind of flows,” Rebraca said. “Anyone can score. We have shooters with J-Bo, Keegan, Patrick. Even me and Joe T can hit shots. We’re also very long, athletic and fast and we like to get down the court. I just love playing in this offense.”

The two-game numbers for each of the five is impressive to say the least:

  • In 40:22 of playing time, Murray has scored 49 points with 11 rebounds, six blocked shots and a plus-58 rating.
  • In 38:57, Rebraca has assembled 11 points, 18 rebounds and a plus-63 rating.
  • In a team-high 44:37, Patrick McCaffery has scored 21 points with six rebounds and a plus-57 rating.
  • In 36:32, Toussaint has point-guard-quality numbers with 13 points, 10 assists (vs. two turnovers), six steals and a plus-53 rating.
  • And in 41:14 of court time, Bohannon has 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting and a team-high plus-71 rating.

Two games in, their chemistry looks great. We'll see them here again in Tuesday's 8 p.m. home game vs. North Carolina-Central. 

The Bohannon experiment as the “2” guard is going very well.

For those that missed the previous 15 stories about Bohannon’s return for a sixth season, he was sold by a pitch to become Fran McCaffery’s shooting guard (following the CJ Fredrick transfer to Kentucky) and to lead a new collection of players after the loss of NBA Draft picks Joe Wieskamp and Luka Garza.

So far, so (very) good.

Bohannon has canned nine of 13 3-point attempts to start the season, a blazing 69.2% clip. After three 3s on Friday, he is just one short of tying the Big Ten Conference career record of 374 held by Ohio State’s Jon Diebler.

Especially encouraging about Bohannon’s role as the “2” on Friday was how he moved without the ball. After Kansas City cut Iowa’s lead to 27-23, Bohannon posted up in the lane and smartly drew a foul. He’s automatic from the line, so both free throws were swished. Later, he waved his hand toward his new point guard, and Toussaint hit him on a backdoor cut for a layup — his first 2-pointer of the season — and a 35-23 lead.

“He is so smart in knowing how to move without the ball. He’s always a threat, so (defenders) are always … coming up on him,” Fran McCaffery said. “He finds people and has done a good job with the floaters and the pull-up in practice. He has really worked on that. He is in a really good place.”

Bohannon, Iowa’s all-time assists leader, has been solid. He has two assists and no turnovers through two games. There's a good chance he'll be in the headlines again Tuesday. With two 3-pointers, he’ll secure the top spot in Big Ten history. Not a bad offseason recruiting acquisition by the head coach.

Keegan Murray swats a first-half shot of Kansas City on Friday.

Keegan Murray got into some foul trouble, perhaps a good learning experience.

There are going to be many games this year in which Murray picks up an early foul, maybe even two. In this one, Murray collected a touch foul just 46 seconds into the game. He stayed in the game and probably backed off in small ways defensively, trying to avoid picking up a second. Unfortunately, he got that second with 4:39 left in the first half on a call that Fran McCaffery disputed.

With Murray on the bench, it was good to see the Hawkeyes close the first half on a 10-0 run.

In the second half, Murray was unleashed. He scored 17 points in the first nine minutes of the second half. He was dunking, he swished a 3 with the shot clock expiring. After his 3-point play with 11:04 remaining pushed Iowa’s lead to 60-33, he was done for the night.

Murray’s final line after a 2-for-7 shooting start: a career-high 25 points with four rebounds and three steals. For the young season, he is averaging 24.5 points and shooting 68% from the floor (17-for-25) and 100% from the foul line (11-for-11).

Considering Iowa doesn’t have a true center that plays significant minutes, Murray may be asked to defend some of the Big Ten’s best big men at times. And there are a lot of them: Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Illinois' Kofi Cockburn, to name a few. 

“It’s going to happen throughout the year — ticky-tack fouls. You have to adjust,” Murray said of the foul trouble. “It’s a learning experience for me. Just play without fouling. If I can be in the game, that’ll help our team.”

Everyone can agree with that.

Who else stood out Friday?

Rebraca deserves another hat tip. He scored nine points and grabbed 13 rebounds while defending the Roos' best player, 6-8 post Josiah Allick. Rebraca, a North Dakota transfer, and Allick tangled last year and split two Summit League games. Rebraca got the best of Allick (four points, 1-for-4 shooting) this time.

“That was our game plan, to limit his touches," Rebraca said. "I know I'm undersized. I know I’m not the most athletic. But (the rebounding) kind of comes naturally, just knowing where the ball is going to come off."

It was good to see Josh Ogundele get his first minutes of the regular season. He missed the opener with a back issue but threw down a dunk and grabbed three rebounds. Sophomore Kris Murray also had a good second half and finished with six points and five rebounds; he and freshman Payton Sandfort (six points, plus-14 rating) have been Iowa's most productive bench players through two games.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.