Leistikow: Kris Murray's star power is emerging, and he's exactly what Iowa basketball needs

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — When Kris Murray was called into action just 3½ minutes into Thursday’s Big Ten Conference game against Indiana because Filip Rebraca picked up two quick fouls, he had no idea that two hours later he would be the beaming center of a joyous team-wide celebration.

If fact, even after the game ended, Murray didn’t seem to grasp how incredible his performance was. The humble sophomore better known as the twin brother of Hawkeye star Keegan Murray had just delivered his own career night: 29 points, 11 rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals to lead Iowa to a must-have 83-74 win against the visiting Hoosiers.

Patrick McCaffery was the first Hawkeye to greet Kris Murray as he exited the floor as the night’s most dominant player. Yes, he was more dominant than Indiana star Trayce Jackson-Davis, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds but was held to eight shot attempts in 37 minutes. Yes, even more dominant than his brother, the nation’s leader scorer who was in foul trouble most of the night and held to 12 points.

More:Kris Murray's career night lifts Iowa basketball past Indiana in crucial Big Ten showdown

After McCaffery’s playful shove, it was excited teammates Josh Ogundele and Austin Ash who joined the fun. Joe Toussaint was next, and pretty soon the whole roster was there to celebrate what Kris Murray did before 11,246 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“That’s just a great feeling. I didn’t really know how many points I had,” Murray said. “I guess it was a pretty good game.”

(Should’ve added hilarious to humble.)

The left-hander carried this Iowa team to its biggest victory of the season to date. Yes, the biggest victory of its season. The Hawkeyes desperately needed to beat the formidable Hoosiers. A loss, and they would’ve dropped to 1-4 in Big Ten play with two home losses already on the books and tougher home games ahead.

But with the win, Iowa not only improved to 12-4 overall and 2-3 in the league, it arrived at the reality that Kris Murray’s star is just beginning to shine.

And, as he explained afterward, it’s always been burning inside him.

“In high school, yeah, I was better at scoring than (Keegan) was,” Kris Murray said. “But he’s taken that next step and is leading the country in scoring, which is incredible. That’s in me, and it’s always been in me.”

Someone inside the program told me back at the team’s media day that Kris’ development was about 8-12 months behind Keegan’s. Simply because Keegan played a lot of key games last year as a true freshman, and Kris did not.

Last year, Fran McCaffery needed a role-playing forward off the bench to accompany the star power of Luka Garza and Joe Wieskamp. Keegan Murray was exactly what that team needed on the way to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This year, Keegan has become the Garza-type star (at 23.9 points per game) and Kris has become the Hawkeyes’ energizing sixth man.

Looking back at Keegan’s freshman year, he averaged 17.9 minutes per game.

This year, Kris is averaging 17.8 minutes a game … and is not only right on schedule with what Keegan did a year ago, he’s surpassing it.

Keegan averaged 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds last season; Kris is pumping in 10.7 points and grabbing 5.0 rebounds this year.

What’s more impressive about those averages: It took time for Kris to find his groove. Fran McCaffery shared that Kris was often down on himself after mistakes. As a result, his playing time has fluctuated. After Kris was one of Iowa’s most impressive players in last week’s 87-78 loss at Wisconsin, McCaffery told him, “You’ve just got to play like that. Just let it happen for you. Don’t put pressure on yourself, be relaxed out there.”

“He gets it,” McCaffery said. “And I think you’re seeing what he’s capable of.”


Keegan Murray missed the final 9:32 of Thursday's first half after picking up his second foul. With not much help from anyone else, Kris’ 17 points and seven rebounds in the first half kept Iowa within striking distance at halftime, “only” down 48-41.

In the second half, Kris made three gigantic plays to help Iowa gain separation against Indiana (12-4, 3-3):

  • From the right wing, the left-hander took a pass from Connor McCaffery and stepped into a 3-pointer. Swish, giving Iowa a 64-60 lead with 8:37 left.
  • He turned an interception on Iowa’s full-court press into a fast-break dunk for a 76-66 lead with 4:01 to go, and the best Carver crowd of the season was roaring.
  • And finally, with Iowa trying to put the game away and the shot clock winding down, Kris had the ball near midcourt. He dribbled and spun into the lane, deftly banking home a shot in traffic to put Iowa ahead, 80-70, with 2:44 to go.

“They kind of let me have my left side,” Murray said, “and that’s something I’m going to take all the time.”

It isn't fair, but it’s going to happen: Kris will be compared to his identical-twin brother, who happens to be a projected NBA lottery pick. There were 15 NBA scouts in attendance Thursday. They were probably stowing away some notes on Kris, too. He looked as dominant as some of Keegan's best games Thursday.

Kris Murray, right, was the center of attention after Iowa's 83-74 win against Indiana. Murray had 29 points and 11 rebounds off the bench, which had Filip Rebraca (left) and Jordan Bohannon (3) among those celebrating with him.

Kris admitted it's taken him a while to figure out his role on this team and get used to playing intense Division I games. Now?

“My confidence is at an all-time high,” he said.

So now that he’s figured out his role … what is his role exactly?

“It’s just being that guy off the bench that can be aggressive, get rebounds, play multiple positions,” he said, “(and) just look for other people and create opportunities.”

It’s a great development that McCaffery can essentially have one game-changing Murray on the floor at all times. With Keegan in foul trouble and playing just 22:13, Kris played a team-high and career-high 29:16.

His 29 points also smashed his previous career high of 17.

One last thing: This performance cannot be considered a one-off by McCaffery, just because Rebraca and Keegan Murray were in foul trouble (both had their fourth with 10:49 to go). This must be seen as a statement by Kris Murray that he is one of Iowa’s two or three best players. Kris doesn’t have to be inserted immediately into the starting lineup; but he has earned a consistently prominent role going forward.

He scores, he rebounds — my goodness does Iowa need guys that can rebound — and he brings a level of swagger and confidence that can elevate this team. If two Murrays are thriving, Iowa can go from contending for the mid-pack of the Big Ten to something much more.

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.