Leistikow: Surging Hawkeyes showing signs of something special

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — As he conducted interviews about 30 minutes before his late father’s No. 23 jersey was honored, Roy Devyn Marble beamed in his return to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Marble arrived at the dawn of the Fran McCaffery era, when the Iowa men’s basketball program was at rock bottom following three failed years of Todd Lickliter.

By the time he left, Marble was a first-team all-Big Ten Conference guard and helped Iowa get back to the NCAA Tournament — albeit in a "First Four" loss to Tennessee in 2014. Assistant coach Sherman Dillard called Marble "the spark that ignited the (Iowa program's) resurgence."

That 2014 Iowa team had eventual program stars like Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok, but they were role players then.

“Everybody grew up at different times,” Marble said. “So, we’re still waiting on that (Hawkeye) team to almost grow together, where everybody’s at their peak playing at the same time. … That’s when they can do something special, I think.”

Maybe that something special is unfolding before our eyes.

Marble was on McCaffery’s first through fourth Hawkeye teams. Now, we’re seeing McCaffery’s 12th Hawkeye team ascend at the right time, on the doorstep of March Madness.

That was on full display Tuesday night as Iowa dismantled Michigan State, 86-60, before 14,634 jazzed-up fans — including reigning national player of the year Luka Garza, whose No. 55 was retired to the rafters at halftime.

“That felt like an ambush,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “The place was hopping.”

Yet if you’ve been paying attention, this isn’t new. A reporter asked McCaffery afterward what he’s liked in the Hawkeyes’ last two games — of course, a reference to Saturday’s impressive 75-62 win at then-No. 18 Ohio State.

McCaffery was a tad miffed, noting that Iowa has been playing well throughout February. The Hawkeyes have won five of six games with a resounding 19.4-point average margin of victory. That’s difficult to do in a rugged, balanced league like the Big Ten.

“Keep our foot on the pedal,” star sophomore Keegan Murray said. “We don’t want to be a team that lets up.”

Now 19-8 overall and 9-7 in Big Ten play, Iowa might be the hottest team in the conference.

Sure, it starts with Murray, who Izzo said is “as good as any player I’ve seen in this league in a while. You start talking about (Big Ten) player of the year and coach of the year, they might reside in Iowa City.”

Murray owned the game from the start, scoring 14 points in less than 8 minutes to help Iowa build a 22-13 lead. The leading power-conference scorer in the country at 23.5 points per game, Murray finished with a game-high 28 on 10-of-15 shooting. He's the unquestioned, established star.

What has been most impressive about this Iowa team's development is how roles have been defined around Murray … and embraced.

Let’s go down the line.

Starting center Filip Rebraca has become the scrapping rebounder. A 24-year-old grad transfer who was a 16-point scorer at North Dakota was content Tuesday to go 0-for-2 from the floor but pull down seven rebounds, as Iowa improved to 16-0 when outrebounding its opponent.

Small forward Patrick McCaffery continues to flash as the team’s No. 2 scorer at times and stresses defenses with his aggression.

It’s no coincidence that Iowa is 5-1 since moving Jordan Bohannon back to point guard. The sixth-year senior is much more confident in his shot and has been masterful at maximizing Murray touches. After a 1-for-9 team start to the second half Tuesday, Bohannon canned back-to-back bombs to push Iowa’s lead to 61-44, a wonderful moment in his next-to-last home game.

Tony Perkins has become a starter who plays limited minutes but has been a willing defender who can push the pace and make free throws (90%).

Joe Toussaint hasn’t sulked after being sent to the bench and, in fact, has teamed up with fellow point guard Ahron Ulis to help zoom the basketball up the court on every possession. And when they’re on the court together, Iowa gets better on defense.

Connor McCaffery canned both his 3-point attempts Tuesday and continues to do anything he’s asked at almost any position — from point guard to power forward.

Freshman Payton Sandfort is ready and willing. He might play one minute (as he did at Ohio State) or 13 (as he did Tuesday and contributed five points and five rebounds).

"They’re pushing the ball with those multiple guards,” Izzo said. “They just bring in guard after guard. Those guys are playing 10 or 15 minutes. I’ve got to find out how (McCaffery) keeps 'em happy. Those sub guards might be the MVP of the team, because they do their job and they do it very well.”

Fran McCaffery was told of Izzo’s compliments afterward. He grinned.

“I hope they’re happy,” McCaffery said to laughs. “You’d have to ask them. I think everybody that contributes to a team that’s having success should be happy. All those guys are doing amazing things. They’re buying in. Most importantly, they support the guys that are on the floor if they’re out of the game. … That’s great to see as a coach.”

Joe Toussaint is one of many "sub guards" that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said might be the MVP of Iowa's recent rise. Toussaint had four points and four assists in 18 minutes Tuesday.

And then there’s Kris Murray.

He barely played in the first half after getting two quick fouls.

In the second half?

“He blows the game open,” McCaffery said.

The twin brother of Keegan canned three second-half 3-pointers in a span of 2:12 as Izzo stood on the sideline and watched, hands in pockets. There weren’t any buttons the legendary coach could push against the Hawkeyes (12-of-28 from 3) on this night.

And it's time to quiet the “Kris should be starting” takes. His role as Iowa’s sharpshooting, rebounding, defending sixth man gives the Hawkeyes scoring weapons in waves. And Kris enjoys the low-pressure role — similar to what his brother did last year while yielding to Garza and Joe Wieskamp. Most nights, he still gets starter-level minutes.

“I like it, just because it helps us keep the same intensity as the first group,” Kris Murray said. “And there’s no let-up at all from the first group to the second group.”

And that’s the beauty of what this Iowa team has become. Early-season cupcake opponents gave a lot of these guys time to find their confidence and, eventually, where they best can contribute to this team.

No wonder Izzo lauded Fran McCaffery as a potential coach of the year.

There’s more work ahead. The Hawkeyes have to take care of last-place Nebraska on Friday in Lincoln, then come back to Iowa City — probably in Keegan Murray’s final home game — and take care of Northwestern. Win those two Quad 3 games, and the final-week matchups at Michigan and Illinois should become NCAA Tournament gravy.

Get these Hawkeyes to the Big Dance the way they’re playing now, and they could do a lot of damage. Like they did in leading a traditional conference power by as many as 32 points in Tuesday's beatdown.

“We knew if there’s a wounded animal, keep the wounded animal down," Keegan Murray said. "That’s what we did in the second half."

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.