Iowa men's basketball is 6-0. Can the Hawkeyes sustain success against tougher opponents?
IOWA CITY — Iowa forward Keegan Murray and Portland State’s James Jean-Marie postured for the opening tipoff on Friday. Murray won the jump ball, but the Hawkeyes missed their first scoring opportunity.
Vikings guard Michael Carter III turned over the ball on a bad pass and Murray dribbled down court before opening the night’s scoring with a dunk. It was the Keegan Murray show — as it has been all of this young season — for the remainder of the first half. The sophomore scored 21 of Iowa’s 31 points.
Murray played all 20 minutes in the first half, and then sat for most of the second. Iowa had enough of a cushion for its up-and-coming star to rest and a bench full of players coach Fran McCaffrey wanted to pick up some playing time.
Iowa men’s basketball finished its six-game homestand with its sixth win of the season against Portland State on Friday.
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The Hawkeyes’ 85-51 victory over Portland State was Iowa’s lowest-scoring game all season. Dropping 85 points is certainly not disappointing, but Iowa did score 100-plus points in the two preceding games.
Iowa’s performance on Friday also left a lot to be desired. In the first half, when Murray recorded another 20-plus point night, he was making up for missed opportunities. Take out his nine field goals and one 3-pointer and the rest of the team went 3-of-21 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
With Murray’s time limited in the second half, the Hawkeyes' shooting was marginally better, and several players seemed to find their footing.
“I felt like we took at least four bad shots (in the first half),” McCaffery said postgame. “So, when you turn the ball over nine times and you take four bad shots, that’s 13 opportunities they have to run it back at you. Puts a lot of pressure on your transition defense.”
Even with a markedly improved second half, Iowa finished the game shooting only 48.5% from the field and 31.6% from 3-point range. Take out Murray’s contributions — because it’ll be dangerous for Iowa to rely on one player moving forward — and the Hawkeyes shot 44% from the field.
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While Murray is having a breakout season, his teammates know there are a number of players ready to step up in different situations.
“We have a lot of really talented players,” Patrick McCaffery said postgame. “Keegan’s obviously unbelievable ... and he’s a guy that we’re gonna go to a lot.
“But we (have) a lot of guys who can do other things, too. We’re not just set on Keegan. I think it’s good to get us confidence that we can do those different things.”
One player who Patrick McCaffery highlighted was Kris Murray, Keegan’s twin brother. After going 2-of-6 and scoring five points in the first half, Kris Murray picked up where his brother left off. He shot 100% from the field in the second half, sinking all three field goals and one 3-pointer for eight additional points. Kris Murray was third on the team with six rebounds and added two assists, one steal and one block.
Six lopsided matchups and an exhibition game is quite the extended warmup for harder competition. Still, Iowa’s ease into the new season was by design, according to both Fran and Patrick McCaffery. Patrick said that he and his teammates were adjusting to their new roles and that these first six games were “perfect for that.” His coach agreed.
“(We have) a lot of guys in new roles,” Fran McCaffery said. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to grow, to develop confidence, to be able to play through their mistakes. …Look at different combinations, how guys play different positions and, knowing that from this point forward, it is going to be really difficult.”
McCaffery is confident Iowa has enough talented pieces on the roster to compete with tougher opponents, but the Hawkeyes haven’t been tested yet. That will change over the next three games.
Iowa plays Virginia (6 p.m. Monday), Purdue (Dec. 3) and Illinois (Dec. 6) next, with the latter two opponents ranked No. 3 and No. 14, respectively. That is when the season will really begin for the Hawkeyes and basketball fans will start to find out what kind of team Iowa has in 2021-22.
Alyssa Hertel is a college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at email@example.com or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.