Keegan Murray, Patrick McCaffery will define next year's Iowa basketball season … and beyond

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Keegan Murray’s freshman season on the Iowa men’s basketball team began with his coaches telling him that a commitment to rebounding was the best path to getting any playing time.

It ended with the most decorated Hawkeye of them all, Luka Garza, pulling him aside to tell him: “I couldn’t take us there. But you can. You’ve got to be a leader next year.”

Those words hit Murray hard, he told the Register this week. The most highly anticipated Iowa season in a generation ended with shocking suddenness Monday after a 95-80 loss to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Garza, a two-time all-American and the all-time leading scorer in Hawkeye men’s basketball history, is off to the NBA Draft. The team is also losing Jordan Bohannon, the owner of the most assists and 3-point baskets at Iowa. Junior Joe Wieskamp hasn’t made an official announcement, but is an NBA prospect likely to take that step.

By Tuesday evening, Murray was back in the gym, this time with his father Kenyon and twin brother Kris, putting up shots and lifting weights. The Cedar Rapids native will be doing that all summer, he said, using work as a way to forget about a lost opportunity for his Hawkeyes.

“We’re going to have a lot to prove,” Murray said of next year’s Hawkeye squad, which figures to be short on experience. “I’m very hungry.”

More:Fran McCaffery draws on a deep pool of forwards off his bench for No. 4 Hawkeyes

Iowa freshman Keegan Murray drives for a reverse layup against Nebraska. The Cedar Rapids native was one of the Big Ten Conference's top rookies this winter, but is already preparing himself for a leadership role on next year's squad.

Murray was the breakout star for this year’s Hawkeyes, coming off the bench to earn Big Ten Conference all-freshman honors after averaging 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds. A 6-foot-8 forward whose wing span stretches to 7 feet, Murray also blocked 39 shots with 26 steals.

Iowa, a top-10 team in the rankings most of the year, finished 22-9. A Sweet 16 berth eluded the Hawkeyes for the 21st year in a row, covering the entire lifetimes of Murray and redshirt freshman Patrick McCaffery, both of whom arrived in the world in 2000.

For McCaffery, Monday’s result was especially acute. His father, Fran, has been Iowa’s head coach for 11 years. He has never gotten a team to the second week of March Madness.

“That probably was the thing I struggled with the most,” Patrick McCaffery said. “I wanted it really bad for Luka and JBo, but my dad never having been there as a head coach, I really wanted to do that for him. I have four more years of eligibility, so hopefully I can get him back there.”

The 2021-22 Hawkeyes will look drastically different than recent versions. Perhaps even than any version.

And that will start with Murray and McCaffery, two rangy forwards who provided the Hawkeyes with a change of pace this winter with their ability to run the court, disrupt passing lanes, alter shots and throw down effortless dunks. They are young. They are skinny.

They are the future.

Iowa forward Keegan Murray  blocks the shot of Wisconsin forward Micah Potter in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Friday night.

Keegan Murray embraced rebounding and will now embrace leadership role

The Murray twins were part of a five-player freshman class that Iowa didn’t really seem to need this season. Fran McCaffery had seven players with starting experience to form a solid nucleus, plus middle son Patrick available after a redshirt season.

Keegan Murray was aware of all this but wasn’t quite ready to accept a pat on the head and a spot on the bench during his initial college season. Murray’s hallmark at Cedar Rapids Prairie and a season at the DME Sports Academy in Florida was his jumpshot.

The Hawkeyes had that covered, though, with Garza, Bohannon, Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick in the starting lineup. So Murray asked each of the coaches what he could do to help the team. Their answer: Rebound.

Murray is a competitor who chases any goal put in front of him. He had never focused specifically on rebounding before because an athletic 6-8 high school player is naturally going to accumulate plenty of them without really trying.

Murray spent the summer striving to be Iowa’s leading rebounder in each practice. He didn’t quite get there, but he was usually second only to Garza. And that was enough to get Fran McCaffery to extend his rotation to nine players.

When the calendar turned to 2021, Murray proved he was more than just a rotation piece. He tore through Rutgers on Jan. 2, putting up 14 points with nine rebounds, three blocked shots, three steals and the game-winning free throws. He followed that with 12 points, five rebounds and another two blocked shots in a win at Maryland.

“I had been building up toward that,” Murray said, “but I think those two games just really proved that I’m here. I can play in this league.”

Iowa never called a single play intended to get Murray a shot. He never posted up. He got his points through sheer hustle or by being ready to launch whenever Garza passed out of a double-team. He used to view himself as a wing; now Murray realizes he is at his best as a “stretch 4.”

As fate would have it, that’s exactly what Iowa will need next year, when Jack Nunge returns from knee surgery to replace Garza at center. Murray has already thought this through. He wants to develop a more consistent jumpshot this summer (he made 29.6% of his 3-pointers last season). And he wants to bulk up from his current 210 pounds to 220-225. To do that, he has a meal plan for the first time in his life. Plus a series of appointments with strength coach Bill Maxwell.

Murray believes added strength will help him create his own shots.

“We have a lot of big shoes to fill next year, and I just want to do my part,” he said.

Patrick McCaffery drives to the basket during Iowa's NCAA Tournament game against Oregon on March 22, 2021, in Indianapolis. At 6-foot-9, McCaffery is looking to become better-conditioned this offseason so he can play 30 minutes a game next winter on a young, athletic Hawkeye team.

Patrick McCaffery heeded advice from Peter Jok early, Luka Garza late

Patrick McCaffery’s best game came in the loss to Oregon. He had 10 points in 20 minutes, showing he could run the court as well as any Duck. He blocked one shot and altered two others.

McCaffery realized two things: He can excel at the major-college level by putting his 6-9 frame in motion and keeping it there; but he needs to be in better condition if he wants to do that 30 minutes per game.

“The pandemic took a toll on all of us. I got heavier, so that was a new barrier,” said McCaffery, who played at 180 pounds while at Iowa City West but exceeded 200 this winter. “Especially with how I run, how I jump, I need to be in really good shape in order to sustain that for a longer period of time like I’m going to have to next season.

“I’m never going to be a heavy, bruiser type of guy. But I want to get strong enough where I’m not getting pushed off my spots as much.”

Earlier:Iowa recruit Patrick McCaffery hones his elite offensive skills as he prepares to join his dad

McCaffery averaged 5.2 points and 2.7 rebounds in limited action. Early in the season, when he wasn’t playing as much, he leaned on former Hawkeye star Peter Jok, who also experienced frustration as a freshman who had difficulty cracking the lineup. Jok told McCaffery not to get down on himself, that his time would come and he needed to be prepared.

McCaffery was showing the full range of his abilities as March arrived. He is a pesky defender at the head of Iowa’s 1-2-2 press. He is an excellent passer, with 28 assists against 13 turnovers. He gets downcourt faster than anyone, as Oregon found out twice while celebrating baskets a fraction of a second too long.

What McCaffery does not do is post up, much like Murray. And this is where the Hawkeyes will likely veer in a new direction next season, after years of outstanding low-block players such as Adam Woodbury, Tyler Cook and Garza.

Nunge is a small forward in a center’s body. Fredrick is a 3-point marksman who will settle in on the fast break and await a pass. Joe Toussaint is the speediest point guard in recent Iowa memory. Tony Perkins, another of this year’s freshman class, showed late in the season that he is a good athlete who thrives in open space. Connor McCaffery, Patrick’s older brother, is an adept passer who can spot mismatches and deliver the ball when and where it needs to be. Payton Sandfort of Waukee is a three-star recruit at forward who arrives with a reputation as an outstanding shooter.

Patrick McCaffery sorts through this roster and envisions a team that pushes the tempo, forces mistakes and lives with some of its own.

“We can still accomplish similar things (as this season’s third-place Big Ten team). We’re going to have more athletes. We’re going to fly up and down the court. We’re going to play really hard,” McCaffery said. “We’re going to be young, but we’ll still have a team that people can rally around.”

While Murray was in the gym Tuesday evening, McCaffery and his roommate Toussaint were getting a motivational visit from Garza. The message was the same one Garza delivered to Murray: “You have what it takes to get Iowa back to where it needs to go, which is the Sweet 16, and hopefully further than that.”

“I think that’s something that we’re going to listen to,” McCaffery said.

Murray, 48 hours after his rookie year ended, was already thinking about his role as a leader on his sophomore team.

“It will be really interesting to see how we intertwine this offseason. We’re going to work this entire offseason to get better for next year,” Murray said.

“I just think the sky’s the limit for our team. I think we’ll be a problem in the Big Ten.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.