Leistikow: 7 final thoughts on a 26-win Iowa basketball season that ended too soon

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In his final interview of the 2021-22 Iowa men's basketball season, Fran McCaffery was asked about the personal sting of Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond. In 26 years as a head coach, including the past 12 at Iowa, McCaffery has yet to lead a team to the Sweet 16.

The past two years in particular felt like golden opportunities — a No. 2 seed last year and a No. 5 seed this March with a favorable draw. McCaffery’s answer, though, was directed toward those on his roster who were hurting, not himself.

“It’s not about me. It’s not about what I want. I want what they want. I want them to experience it,” said McCaffery, who will turn 63 in May. “That’s where I’m coming from. I’m just disappointed for them. Because they came a long way. Twenty-six wins, that’s hard to do in this league.”

MORE: Leistikow: The qualities that shaped Fran McCaffery's best year at Iowa

And when looking back on this season and this program, that’s where my thoughts start, too — with the players that were crushed by the 67-63 defeat inside the KeyBank Center.

Here are seven final thoughts on Iowa’s 26-10 season.

1. A tearful answer by Jordan Bohannon brings home the hurt.

More words have been written about Bohannon perhaps than any player in Hawkeye history. His story at Iowa spanned six years and an NCAA Division I-record 179 games. Bohannon exploded onto the scene as a true freshman and nearly led a super-young Iowa team to the NCAA Tournament. He made national headlines for an intentionally missed free throw as a sophomore, one that cemented the legacy of the late Chris Street. His junior year, in particular, was filled with heroics across the Big Ten that nearly sent Iowa to the Sweet 16. Then came more injuries (surgeries on each hip), an extra year of eligibility then the decision to unexpectedly return for a sixth year after CJ Fredrick transferred to Kentucky.

So when Bohannon was asked if he had a final message for Hawkeye fans, in the last question of the players’ postgame press conference Thursday, Bohannon couldn’t help but weep as the emotions blasted him.

“Just thanks for giving me a chance. It’s been some of the best years of my life,” Bohannon said. “ … There’s not a lot of people in the country that believed in me out of high school. I faced a lot of adversity coming back.

“And I can honestly say this year, I put my heart and soul into this team and I just – hopefully I left this jersey in a better place from where I found it. That’s all I wanted to do when I came here. I didn’t care about my individual statistics.

“I just wanted to make coach proud. I just wanted to make this family proud and this whole entire state. I just want to thank every single Hawkeye fan. Hopefully I inspired them to do something great with their lives. I can’t put into words what it’s meant to be here wearing this jersey.”

Bohannon’s final career numbers at Iowa:

  • 2,033 points (third in Iowa history)
  • 455 3-pointers (fourth in Division I history)
  • 704 assists (school record)
  • 88.7% free throw accuracy (school record)

As Bohannon spoke, McCaffery’s left hand reached out to offer a hug — out of sympathy and out of thanks.

More:Why did Iowa basketball get upset by Richmond in the NCAA Tournament? Let's take a look.

Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon had a tearful exit Thursday while Richmond guard Jacob Gilyard had a winning performance.

2. Putting Keegan Murray’s sensational season in perspective.

Murray’s single-season scoring record at Iowa ended with 822 points, seventh-most in Big Ten history. The consensus first-team all-American finished with Richmond game with 21 points and nine rebounds, a stat line that was certainly no slouch. But the sophomore may have been too unselfish at times when his teammates were struggling. He talked after the game that he was intentionally getting his teammates open looks, given the amount of attention Richmond put on him.

But after Murray’s dunk with 7:55 left in the first half gave Iowa a 19-18 lead, the next 21 shot attempts by Iowa were made by someone besides Murray. From my courtside seat, for what it’s worth, my read on the eyes of Iowa players was that they were looking around at each other for answers rather than staying confident in their offense. That observation included Murray, who only tried three 3-point shots — all misses. Thinking back to his 8-for-10 game from 3 against Indiana in the Big Ten semifinals, it felt like he was choosing to pass too often.

“I feel like I didn’t have to score the ball as much this game,” Murray said.

We saw late in the game, when Murray became more assertive, that the Hawkeyes gave themselves a chance. His 3-point play cut Richmond’s lead to 57-56 with 2:02 left, but Iowa lacked the defensive stops needed to win the game.

But Murray was certainly deserving of all the accolades he received. Likely to become an NBA Draft lottery pick, Murray also finished his sophomore season with a school-record 307 field goals (breaking John Johnson’s 1970 record of 289); shot a school-record 554 field-goal attempts (breaking Fred Brown’s 535 in 1971); shattered Luka Garza’s previous season mark of 747 in points; and grabbed 307 rebounds (ninth most in Iowa history).

Nathan Cayo was credited for playing solid defense on Iowa's Keegan Murray (15) in Thursday's first-round game.

3. The deflating other side of an all-American presence.

For the third straight year, Iowa finished with a consensus first-team all-American — Garza in 2020 and 2021, and now Murray in 2022 — after not having any since 1952. Yet despite that star power, Iowa finished with only one NCAA Tournament win in those three years.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be blamed for taking away Iowa’s 2020 shot. That team likely would have been a No. 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament but never got the chance to make a run together.

A win over 15th-seeded Grand Canyon followed in 2021 before the second-round loss to seventh-seeded Oregon. And now a loss to the Midwest Region No. 12 seed Spiders in a one-and-done 2022 dance.

More:Leistikow: Iowa basketball's loss to Richmond marks a forgettable end to a memorable season

4. Richmond got better guard play when it counted.

The old NCAA Tournament adage is that teams with elite guards offer the best chance for a deep run. That certainly was visible in this one, as Richmond’s Jacob Gilyard scored a game-high 24 points to go with six rebounds and six assists on 8-for-15 shooting without leaving the court. That stat line outplayed Iowa’s entire backcourt Thursday.

The group of Bohannon, Tony Perkins, Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery combined to go 5-for-18 from the floor and score 14 points. In fact, Iowa didn’t have any points from a guard until Perkins’ bucket with 1:41 left in the first half.

This game was likely lost with Iowa’s 1-for-13 shooting from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes. The Hawkeyes blew a chance to have an eight- or 10-point lead by not converting on their 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. It’s crazy that Iowa’s usually efficient offense had just seven second-chance points in the game despite 14 offensive rebounds.

5. Will Kris Murray be back next season?

We know Bohannon is out of eligibility and it would be a major upset if Keegan Murray returned. But what about Kris Murray? Like his identical-twin brother, Kris is expected to test the NBA Draft process — where players can work out and meet with teams and still opt to return to college.

We know Keegan is a projected high first-round pick. The NBA often acquires players on projections, and it’s fair to say that the one-year jump that was seen from Keegan can be expected from Kris, as well. If one of 32 NBA teams decides to buy low on Kris — say, with the promise of an early-second-round pick — he could be enticed to leave. We may not know for months what his final decision will be.

I’ll predict Kris Murray comes back with the idea that he can be the focal point of the of the 2022-23 Hawkeyes. Considering he was held to just 31 points in Iowa’s final five games on 9-for-26 shooting, perhaps he has unfinished business at the college level.

More:Keegan Murray continues Iowa basketball's string of first-team AP all-Americans

6. What about Connor McCaffery ... and a possible 2022-23 lineup?

Connor did go through senior-day ceremonies but said he hadn’t made a final determination about whether he would return for a sixth season that is available to him due to last year’s free eligibility afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic

“Obviously, I’d love to have him back. He has the opportunity. He’s a winner,” his father told reporters after the game Thursday. “There’s so much love and respect for him in that locker room. So, we’ll see.”

The attraction of playing with younger brother Patrick one more time could be enticing. However, he had a mountain-top moment with a Big Ten tournament championship while crying on his father’s shoulder. An elite student, Connor may also be ready to move on to the next phase in his life.

One man's guess of a 2022-23 starting five: Toussaint, Perkins, Patrick McCaffery, Kris Murray and either Filip Rebraca (who could return, but would be 25 next season) or a big man from the NCAA transfer portal. Swingman Payton Sandfort has a lot of long-term upside, and incoming freshman point guard Dasante Bowen offers intrigue.

7. A glass-half-full point on this 26-win season.

The first-round NCAA exit will be part of the narrative of this team, which won more games than any in Iowa history except the 30-5 group of 1986-87. But a season with so many exciting times, including a four-day run to the program’s first Big Ten championship in 16 years, was still a success.

And while the disappointment for the team and its fans is real, it's important to reflect on the fact that in each of the past four seasons, Fran McCaffery has put Iowa in position to make a run. The 2019 team got to overtime against Tennessee in the round of 32. The 2020 team had the COVID cancellation. And then in 2021 and 2022, they had shots.

You can’t make a Sweet 16 (or Final Four) without first being in the NCAA Tournament. And the Iowa program has been in consistent position for four straight years to make some noise. That’s something to be appreciated. Keep doing that, and one of these years, the Sweet 16 itch will be scratched — even if the wait for the next opportunity feels daunting after Thursday's surprising result.

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.