Leistikow's 5 thoughts after Iowa beats Utah State: Murray twins need to play together more often

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Even before they were born, Keegan and Kris Murray have been a tandem. The identical-twin brothers have been side by side throughout life. And, as you might imagine, they played a ton of basketball together on their way to earning scholarships at the University of Iowa.

Yet since joining the Hawkeyes, they haven’t been on the court too often together in games.

But if Saturday night was any indication, that’s probably going to change.

The Murray brothers were dynamic, especially together, in Iowa’s 94-75 rout of Utah State before 3,250 boisterous fans at the Sanford Pentagon on Saturday night.

Keegan hit 13 of 17 shots on his way to a career-high 35 points in 29 minutes. Kris hit 6 of 8 shots, including three 3-pointers, while tying his career best of 17 points in just 19 minutes.

Keegan Murray, right, drives to the hoop around a screen from his twin brother Kris (24) on his way to a 35-point night in Iowa's 94-75 win against Utah State.

That’s a collective 52 points from the twins, which is quite a statistic considering Iowa as a team scored just 53 in its previous game against Iowa State.

What was most notable Saturday was how good things looked when coach Fran McCaffery dispatched the Murrays at the same time.

One star Murray has been a handful for opposing teams; Keegan has been on top of every scouting report. The potential first-round NBA Draft pick again leads NCAA Division I men in scoring, at 23.5 points per game.

Two star Murrays, with consistency, offer an exciting upside for a Hawkeye team that is obviously still trying to find its best self early in the post-Luka Garza/Joe Wieskamp era.

“It could be huge. Because when we play together, we don’t miss a beat,” Kris Murray said. “It’s really fun to play with him. Mainly because a lot of the teams just focus on him and leave me alone.”

Kris was laughing at the end of that last quote, because he knows he got some open looks from 3-point range as Utah State crowded around his brother.

Because they play a similar forward role, McCaffery hasn’t played them together too often this year. On Saturday, they got three separate stints on the floor together, usually with Kris in for Filip Rebraca (seven points, four rebounds).

After Kris entered for the first time with 9:09 remaining in the first half, Iowa was trailing, 27-23. In the next 3:28, he and Keegan were on the court together … and Iowa stormed to a 37-31 lead, a 14-4 run.

For the game, Murray and Murray played together for a total of 10:49 of game clock — and Iowa scored 34 points to Utah State’s 13 in that time.

“I have a ton of confidence in my game and my role on the team,” said Kris, who is now shooting 50% from 3-point range (16-for-32) this season and third on the team with 11.1 points per game despite averaging just 18.5 minutes. “I’m well-established. I know exactly what I need to do every game.”

That isn’t always going to be scoring. Kris, a left-hander, impacts the game in a number of ways. He’s a threat to create a shot off the dribble; he is an effective rebounder and defender; and he has just five turnovers all season.

We know what Keegan can do; he was magnificent Saturday. The nine-day span between games were a big boost for the right ankle he sprained in Iowa’s Nov. 29 win at Virginia. Iowa had lost three straight games since; Murray didn’t play at Purdue, started slowly against Illinois and was held to nine points on 4-for-17 shooting against Iowa State.

“I’m as close to 100% as I can be right now, and I feel like myself again,” Keegan said. “Those nine days really helped me.”

What made Keegan Murray so unstoppable?

The gold jerseys maybe? Kidding, of course, but Murray is averaging 32 points per game this season in gold. (His previous career high of 29 against Western Michigan also came with Iowa in the popular golds.)

Murray was able to score in transition on dunks, in the lane off spin moves and from behind the 3-point line (2-for-5). He also canned 7 of 8 free throws and drew 10 Utah State fouls.

“That’s an incredible stat,” McCaffery said.

Credit Murray’s improved ankle and cerebral game as big factors in his big night.

"They’re a pack-line (defensive) team, so they try to keep everyone in the paint as much as they can,” Murray said. “For me, it was just moving around (and) getting down the court as fast I can so they can’t set their defense. That’s where I got a lot of easy baskets."

Utah State coach Ryan Odom also credited Iowa shooting guard Jordan Bohannon, who had 11 points in 21 minutes. The Aggies were afraid of what Bohannon, the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, could do behind the arc. He said the Aggies got tired chasing Bohannon around all night.

On top of that, Murray was just too good.

“Because they move you around so much, he’s able to get angles in there. We weren’t attentive enough to that,” Odom said. “Our backside help wasn’t there. You put a shooter like Bohannon on the other side, it tests you. Are you really willing to come in here and help on that?”

There was a notable improvement in rebounding.

When you think about it, good defensive rebounding equals good defense because it limits second-chance offense. So, if the Hawkeyes can become a decent defensive rebounding team, that is huge on multiple levels. That also gets them into transition, which is their offensive bread and butter.

All that was the case Saturday, and it was much-needed considering how badly they had been beaten on the boards during their three-game losing streak.

In the previous two losses, Iowa had allowed 40 offensive rebounds to Illinois and Iowa State. On Saturday, it allowed only two … and the second was inconsequential with 1:24 to go. For the game, Iowa outrebounded Utah State, 35-23. The margin was 31-16 before garbage time. Keegan Murray had seven rebounds; Patrick McCaffery had six, all on the defensive end.

“It was definitely a point of emphasis for the last week or so,” said Patrick, who also had 12 points, three assists and two steals. “More importantly, it came down to pursuing the ball. We had a lot of guys trying to block out, almost too much (previously).”

Credit good hustle plays from backcourt guys Ahron Ulis (four rebounds), Tony Perkins (three) and Payton Sandfort (three). This was a good step in the right rebounding direction.

Fran McCaffery doesn’t like players who flop. He made that clear Saturday.

McCaffery picked up a technical foul just 2:28 into the game. He was relentless on the officials after Joe Toussaint was called for a charging call 15 seconds earlier, when Rylan Jones went to the floor. McCaffery was similarly agitated last week at Iowa State on an early call whistled against Bohannon.

“I was not trying to get at T. But I did want everybody to know that the flopping has got to stop,” McCaffery said. “We can’t have the flopping impact the game in a way that it determines the winner. You want to take a charge? That’s fine. When it’s happening an inordinate amount of times, I’m going to take issue with it.”

McCaffery made his point. Utah State was called twice for flopping as the game went on. The second flop brought a technical-foul free throw, which Bohannon made. And Kris Murray followed with a bucket to push Iowa’s lead to 75-58. The "T" served its purpose.

Two final points about this high-energy game.

No. 1, let’s do this every other year at minimum. The crowd at the Pentagon is terrific, and the hospitality is excellent. It’s a great chance to let a huge Hawkeye contingent in northwest Iowa (and South Dakota) see their team without driving six hours. Even with just 3,250 in the stands, this was the loudest home feel Iowa players have experienced all year.

No. 2, this particular win could be very fruitful come March. Utah State came into the game No. 35 in the NCAA NET rankings; Iowa was No. 32. Even though this was a pro-Hawkeye crowd, this counts as a neutral-site game. If Utah State were to stay in the NET's top 50, this would count as a valuable “Quad 1” win — and adding as many of those as possible is important when building an NCAA Tournament case.

“Tonight, we played really well against a really, really good team,” Fran McCaffery said. “It took the kind of effort we gave tonight to beat that team.”

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.