Leistikow's 4 Iowa basketball thoughts: Keegan Murray continues to outdo himself

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — A year ago, Luka Garza started his national player of the year march with huge statistical lines in Iowa’s first three games.

Recall: Garza accumulated 102 points in three nonconference wins — the most for any Division I player in the first three games since a guy named Steph Curry in 2008.

Now, three games into Iowa’s 2021-22 basketball season, it’s clearly the Keegan Murray show in Iowa City.

Murray, the unassuming sophomore, quietly goes about his game. And in Iowa’s trickier-than-expected 86-69 win against North Carolina-Central on Tuesday, Murray set a career high in scoring for the third straight game and grabbed more rebounds than any Hawkeye in the last 15 seasons.

Murray finished with 27 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots. Yet despite playing a career-high 37 minutes, the cool sophomore barely seemed to break a sweat — even though he was hustling constantly and dominant on both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-9 forward even brought the ball up the floor to break NC-Central's press at times.

“I just felt like I needed to do my part,” Murray said, “for us to win the game.”

Murray’s game was so consistent that he had a double-double in both halves — 14 points and 10 rebounds in the first; 13 points and 11 boards in the second. The last Hawkeye to have more rebounds in a game was Greg Brunner, with 23 against Minnesota on Jan. 18, 2006.

A week ago, Big Ten Network’s Stephen Bardo suggested that Murray could be the league’s player of the year. That might have seemed outlandish to those who looked at Murray’s freshman averages of 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds. That forecast seems less crazy after Murray’s first three games stirred memories of Garza’s three-game dominance a year ago.

Keegan Murray is shooting 59% from the floor and 95% from the line while averaging 25.3 points per game in this young season.

Murray’s season stat line: 76 points (25.3 per game) on 26-of-44 shooting, 32 rebounds and 10 blocked shots in 77 minutes. Maybe those folks saying he would be a first-round NBA Draft pick weren’t too crazy, either.

“The thing about it is he doesn’t really hunt shots. I thought he took one bad shot today,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Your leading scorer has the green light to take more than one bad shot, basically.

“He gets them a little bit here and there, and all of a sudden he’s got 27. It’s not like we run a ton of stuff for him. He just kind of gets it, and the guys are unselfish. They find him.”

One more fun stat nugget from the Iowa hoops Twitter account: Murray on Tuesday became the first Hawkeye since Bruce "Sky" King in 1977 to record 25-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in a game. Special, unique stuff ... just three games into the season.

Has McCaffery found defensive answers in Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins?

He sure did Tuesday, and the sophomores who share an apartment delivered their finest nights as Hawkeyes.

Perkins came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points. After 26 career games with one 3-pointer on five tries, Perkins was 2-for-2 from 3. He had three steals.

“It all came from defense,” Perkins said. “Just the energy I brought on defense led us to get fast break points, allowed me to get open shots.”

Ulis pumped in a career-best 12 points and added four assists. He made the first 3-pointer of his Iowa career. Prior to Tuesday, he had 38 career points.

Ulis went coast-to-coast to score at the halftime buzzer, giving Iowa a 49-44 lead. That seemed to instill confidence from McCaffery when he subbed out starters Joe Toussaint, Jordan Bohannon and Patrick McCaffery for Ulis, Perkins and Connor McCaffery with 13 minutes, 5 seconds left and Iowa’s lead trimmed to 57-54.

The five on the floor — those three plus Murray and Filip Rebraca — stayed on the court until the final minute. A 57-57 score turned into 68-58 and kept growing from there.

“We just needed a lineup that would give us intensity on the defensive end,” Murray said. “I think that lineup meshed well. We had athletic guys on the court and pesky defense.”

Toussaint (two points) and Bohannon (1-for-10 shooting) are good players. But they didn’t have it Tuesday. It was nice to see Ulis and Perkins show up big when the Hawkeyes needed them. Perkins had a team-best plus-27 rating; Ulis was plus-25. 

“This game would certainly give them a lot of confidence moving forward,” Fran McCaffery said.

The five of Tony Perkins, Ahron Ulis, Connor McCaffery, Keegan Murray and Filip Rebraca gave the Hawkeyes the defense they needed down the stretch.

Bohannon was frustrated on what was anticipated to be a record night.

When Bohannon canned a second-chance 3-pointer on Iowa’s first possession of the game, it looked like history was inevitable. That 3 tied him with Ohio State’s Jon Diebler for the Big Ten Conference’s career mark for made 3s, with 374.

But Bohannon — a career 40.5% shooter from 3-point range — inexplicably missed his next seven 3-point tries. One of the misses went in and out. He had three clean looks early in the second half and couldn’t get one to drop, with a large family contingent in attendance. He was shaking his head at times.

After Perkins came in for him, Bohannon didn’t play in the final 13:07. He’ll most likely set the mark in Thursday’s 6 p.m. game vs. Alabama State.

“In the second half, he missed a couple that I think everybody was shocked that they didn't go in,” McCaffery said. “Especially on the offensive-rebound kick-outs. We really look for him.”

Next time.

Iowa needed great free-throw shooting to help survive this scare.

Iowa’s inability to guard the dribble-drive and handle ball screens resurfaced as big problems against the aggressive Eagles. They consistently drove to the hoop with ease and recorded 30 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes in keeping the game tight, 49-44 at halftime.

Part of the problem was a lack of big men in the middle. Rebraca played only 3:47 in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Backup forward Kris Murray did not play with a non-COVID illness. (He should be back Thursday, per the head coach.) Josh Ogundele got a chance to patrol the paint, but he picked up two fouls in 51 seconds. At one point, 6-foot-5 Connor McCaffery was manning the “5” for Iowa.

“I just think it was knowing the personnel. We kind of got lackadaisical on the ball screens,” Murray said. “They run good stuff, their coach (LeVelle Moton) is a great coach. They got the ball downhill.”

One thing that helped Iowa stay in front until the defense got figured out: free-throw shooting.

Iowa connected on its first 13 free-throw attempts and finished the game 35-for-41 (85.4%) from the stripe, compared to NC Central’s 8-for-12.

Murray hit 9-of-10 from the line, missing his final attempt to end a string of 21 consecutive makes dating to last season. Patrick McCaffery was 6-for-6; Bohannon was 4-for-4; Ulis was 7-for-8.

For the season, the Hawkeyes are blistering the nets on free throws to the tune of 83.5% (71-of-83). That was helpful on a night when the Eagles committed 30 fouls.

“Those guys have confidence. We’re a team that moves it, drives it,” Fran McCaffery said. “So we’re going to get to the free throw line. Especially if it's a team like this, that physical.”

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.