Leistikow's 5 thoughts on Iowa basketball's March Madness matchup vs. Richmond
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Fran McCaffery wanted to make sure his Iowa basketball team soaked in every moment of Sunday’s historic Big Ten Conference championship win against Purdue. Everyone did.
“It’s a very special moment. You’re on that stage and confetti’s coming down and all the families are on the floor,” the 12th-year Hawkeyes coach said. “That’s what it’s all about. You want those guys to really enjoy that. I wanted that for the rest of the day.”
Then Monday, it was time to turn the page and focus on what was next. Of course, that’s cliché, and you hear it a lot of times in sports. The “24-hour rule,” coaches love to talk about. But with such a tight turnaround between beating the Boilermakers in Indianapolis and flying to Buffalo 48 hours later to prepare for Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament opponent in Richmond, it was a necessary process.
“That’s the special thing about this team, that we can have fun, then we’re right back to business, just like usual,” sophomore forward Kris Murray said Wednesday inside the KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … especially with this team together.”
Here is a little more of what we heard ahead of the Midwest Region matchup between fifth-seeded Iowa (26-9) and 12th-seeded Richmond (23-12), a game that will tip off at approximately 2:10 p.m. CT and be televised on truTV. (Go ahead and find that channel now, if you need to.)
No. 1: Iowa basketball’s unity has the team confident.
Jordan Bohannon took a little needling from national media. The first question lobbed at Iowa all-American Keegan Murray on Wednesday was, “What have you learned from the oldest guy in college basketball history?”
Of course, Bohannon did begin his Iowa career during the Obama administration. And he owns the NCAA Division I record for games played (178). That experience for Bohannon, who is three months shy of his 25th birthday, has given him an appreciation and understanding of what it takes to advance in March. And he thinks this team has the right stuff.
“You can be the most skilled, most talented team,” Bohannon said. “But the best teams in March Madness that are able to make deep runs are the most together teams, and I think we’re right there.”
Kris Murray likes how the bracket was laid out for the Hawkeyes. They’re a 10½-point favorite against Richmond and despite being one seed line behind Providence are a heavy favorite among this pod of four teams. Iowa’s overall KenPom.com rating of 13 far outranks Providence (48), South Dakota State (69) and Richmond (83). Whoever emerges among this quartet advances to the Sweet 16 in Chicago next Friday.
“We’ve got a draw we like; teams that we want to face,” Murray said. “We’re excited for every opportunity that we get.”
No. 2: The Hawkeyes are healthy.
What a difference a year makes. A lot of the health maladies facing last year’s second-seeded Iowa team weren’t publicized until the season was over. But nearly every regular for the 2020-21 Hawkeyes was battling something significant when they went down meekly in the round of 32 to No. 7 seed Oregon.
Joe Wieskamp was dealing with a serious sprained ankle. Connor McCaffery (hips), Joe Toussaint (foot) and Ahron Ulis (hand) had offseason surgeries. Jordan Bohannon (shooting shoulder) and Luka Garza were dealing with wear-and-tear issues, too. CJ Fredrick (foot) was injured or limited for much of the back half the season. Jack Nunge (ACL) was already lost for the year.
So, if playing four games in four days is the worst thing facing this Iowa team, that’s not bad.
“The fortunate thing for us is we have a deep club,” Fran McCaffery said. “So I’m not worried about that too much. … The most important thing is fresh legs and locking into the scouting report.”
The only regular that has been slowed of late is Patrick McCaffery, who suffered a late-season hip injury and missed some time with an illness. But he was impressive in the Big Ten semifinals against Indiana (16 points).
“We’re all healthy,” Kris Murray said. “We’re ready for (Thursday's game).”
No. 3: A familiar face greeted the Hawkeyes in Darius Stokes.
The former Linn-Mar High School player and son of Hawkeye legend Greg Stokes is Richmond’s first-year video coordinator. Stokes couldn’t believe it when the draw pitted the Spiders against his former team. He was a walk-on for much of his Hawkeye playing career from 2010 to 2014, with McCaffery putting him on scholarship in his final season. He made sure to catch the Iowa team as it arrived, and he spent a lot of time at KeyBank Center reacquainting with some familiar faces like assistant coaches Sherman Dillard and Kirk Speraw and the McCaffery family.
“You couldn’t script anything better than this. It was really like a dream come true,” Stokes said. “Obviously, I have a lot of love for those guys, having played there and knowing Fran. I’ve pretty much watched all their games this year.”
Fran McCaffery said of Stokes: “One of my favorites that I’ve ever coached.”
Stokes’ dream is to become a head coach someday. His role this week is to chop up clips for scouting reports on the Hawkeyes, a team he knows very well. He thinks Keegan Murray is the best player in the country.
“I grew up a huge Hawkeye fan,” Stokes said. “I’m always going to have love for them, except for Thursday.”
No. 4: Richmond basketball’s ball-control style worries the Hawkeyes.
Fran McCaffery outlined that the Spiders run an offense of back cuts that is reminiscent of Princeton teams from the past that have famously spoiled many NCAA Tournament giants. One Iowa assistant coach told me that Richmond’s low turnover rate is a huge concern.
Richmond has accumulated 75 more assists than its opponents and 112 fewer turnovers. Its turnover rate of 14.4% of possessions is the ninth-lowest in Division I. Iowa is excellent in this category, too, ranking third in the country at 12.9%.
“A little like Northwestern, where it’s five guys out on the perimeter,” Kris Murray said of a team Iowa beat, 112-76, in the first game of its Big Ten Tournament run. “They’re a really good cutting team. They play well off each other.”
No. 5: How about an Iowa basketball vs. Richmond NCAA Tournament prediction?
Listening to the Spiders players talk Wednesday, this is not a team that is going to be afraid of the moment. They’ve been building on it for years, with all the core players returning off a 2020 team that was 24-7 and had its season canceled (like everyone else) by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hawkeyes will have to be locked in and undeterred, remembering that they fell behind Rutgers, 15-5, and won; fell behind Indiana, 15-3, and won.
In the end, Keegan Murray dominates too much inside and Kris Murray will strike frequently from the outside.
Prediction: Iowa 78, Richmond 69.
(And I'll say South Dakota State over Providence, too.)
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.