Fran McCaffery draws on a deep pool of forwards off his bench for No. 4 Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray have become such regular contributors off of Iowa’s bench that the freshmen have started thinking of themselves as a single entity.
After games, which have been typically victories for the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes, McCaffery and Murray combine their numbers in the box score to assess how “they” did.
“Because we play a similar amount of minutes, we pool our stats,” McCaffery said Wednesday of a pair of rookie seasons that would look impressive even if they stood alone.
Throw in sophomore Jack Nunge as a third option in Iowa’s attack of reserves, and you have one of the most important ingredients in Iowa’s 12-2 start. Coach Fran McCaffery can essentially make a hockey-style line change early in games and get a completely different look to his team.
He hasn't had such a luxury in his first 10 seasons at the helm of the Hawkeyes, and McCaffery has turned to the trio often when trying to stir up a run.
“Usually … players of that caliber are starting,” Fran McCaffery said as his team aims for a sixth consecutive victory at 8 p.m. Thursday, hosting Indiana (8-6, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) on FS1. “Their skill sets are versatile. They can all guard more than one position. All three of them can make a 3. All three of them can put it on the deck. And what's been interesting is they seem to all play well together, when they're out there together.”
Iowa sits 6-1 in the Big Ten, a half-game behind leader Michigan, because of the star power in its starting lineup. That’s where all-American Luka Garza, small forward Joe Wieskamp and point guard Jordan Bohannon reside.
But, taking a cue from Patrick McCaffery, look what happens when you “pool” the production of the three forwards who average 15-17 minutes per game apiece: 25 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots in Sunday’s victory at Northwestern. That’s a Garza-esque stat line itself.
“We definitely take pride in what we can do coming off the bench,” Patrick McCaffery said. “I think we make a really big impact on the defensive end. I think with our length and our ability to block shots, rebound and contest shots, it’s something that really sticks out about our second unit.”
That’s what happened in Iowa’s Jan. 7 win at Maryland. Fran McCaffery went searching for an early spark and found it in his middle son, plus Murray and Nunge, who combined for 27 points and 14 rebounds to kickstart an 89-67 rout.
For the season, the trio is putting up 19.9 points and 13.3 rebounds per game, with 34 blocked shots and 25 steals. Nunge ranks fifth on the team in scoring at 7.2 points per game, followed by Murray (6.6) and McCaffery (6.1).
But each brings a little different flavor. Nunge, the tallest at 6-foot-11, has 27 offensive rebounds to rank second on the team, despite missing two games to attend his father’s funeral. He is often the first reserve called into action because of his experience (this is his fourth year on campus) and ability to play in place of, or alongside, Garza.
“(I’m) just trying to get a feel for how the game is going, how energetic the guys are on the court and how hard everybody is playing,” Nunge said of his early minutes on the bench. “And you come in and try to match that energy and try to even bring it to a new level, try to motivate the guys on the court.”
Nunge had 10 rebounds in one win over Minnesota and three blocked shots in another at Rutgers.
“(I’m) just trying to come in and effect the game positively. Really, that’s something I know I can bring to the team every day,” he said.
Same with Murray, a 6-8 true freshman who appears to be a budding star and is already a fan favorite. His time in the starting lineup will come, but for now, he’s just a constant annoyance to every opposing team. Just when Iowa rests a Garza or a Wieskamp, in comes Murray to scramble after every loose ball.
Murray leads the Hawkeyes with 17 steals and is second with 17 blocked shots, often catching opponents by surprise with his length, quickness or just sheer instincts. He is the only bench in the nation to tally at least 90 points, 60 rebounds, 15 blocks and 15 steals this season. Remarkable.
Patrick McCaffery is a 6-9 redshirt freshman whose playing time is increasing along with his confidence. He first needed to show that he could defend well enough at the Big Ten level, particularly off the ball. Only then could he start showcasing his offensive threat in Iowa’s transition offense.
McCaffery has gotten to the free-throw line 32 times because of the pressure he can put on backpedaling defenders. That is third-most on the team.
“I try to get to the rim and try to go downhill. I like to kind of get my driving game first before I start shooting jumpers,” said McCaffery, who made two 3-pointers in the win at Maryland. “You can draw a lot of fouls if you do that. It’s been a byproduct of how I play.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.