Iowa basketball freshman Payton Sandfort's confidence, playing time are rising

IOWA CITY — Iowa men's basketball struggled offensively in January, but the tide has turned in a positive direction this month.

Sunday afternoon's 98-75 win over Nebraska was Iowa's second straight game with 90+ points. It also marked back-to-back games with a lead of at least 35 points. 

As expected, star sophomore Keegan Murray led the way with 37 points, but behind him were several key contributors. One of them, true freshman Payton Sandfort, is somewhat unexcepted given his low workload in January. But over the last few games, he has emerged as a dependable bench option. 

Sandfort chipped in 12 points Sunday, the most since he scored 13 points against Western Illinois on Dec. 29. He also grabbed a career-high eight rebounds. The former Waukee High School star shot 5-of-8 from the field and 2-of-4 from three-point range.

He logged 17 minutes, his highest total of the season. He has reached double digits in minutes in each of the last four games. In those games he has shot 60% (12-of-20) from the field and 54% from three-point land (7-of-13).

Iowa has a need for dependable shooting in the backcourt, and Sandfort is delivering. As a result, his playing time and confidence are growing.

"Obviously (my confidence) has grown over the last couple of weeks," Sandfort said. "I went through a really rough stretch there but really proud of myself. I stayed in the gym even when I wasn't getting the minutes that I wanted. I stuck with it and it felt really good over the last couple of games to do what I know I can do." 

Sandfort scored 10 points and 13 points in the final non-conference games of the season but didn't see nearly as much playing time once Big Ten play begin in early January. He averaged less than five minutes a game from Jan. 3-27 while making only two shots during that time. He acknowledged after Sunday's game that he understands the difficulty of earning minutes in the Big Ten as a freshman. Especially on this Iowa team that plays 10 players in almost every game, coach Fran McCaffery reluctantly had to limit his minutes.  

"I'm trying to play 10 guys and he got the short end of it a couple of times," McCaffery said. "Every time I've put him in he's produced. I don't really remember putting him in where he struggled or I thought he played like a freshman right there." 

Sandfort said he played on Iowa's scout team to get some more on-court work. He matched up against Murray, and those battles have helped his development. Murray knows the feeling of being a freshman matched up against proven veterans in practice and made it a priority to take it to Sandfort at every opportunity. 

"I'm just trying to make him better," Murray said. "Last year the upperclassmen wouldn't take it easy on me, either, so for him it's just having him grow and learn. He's up next on our team and I just want him to learn what hard work is and what that means for our program. He's been doing that in the right direction." 

Iowa guard Payton Sandfort, second from left, celebrates with teammates during Sunday's game against Nebraska at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Sandfort comes from a basketball family. His father and grandfather are former players and his younger brother Pryce is a rising Division I recruit at Waukee Northwest High School. His pedigree is a reason why McCaffery labeled him as a "no-mistake guy" after the game on Sunday and why he hasn't seen many "freshman moments."

An example of his basketball foundation came in the form of his eight rebounds Sunday. He credits his grandfather's help, especially during 2020, with practicing rebounding off of the rim for hours at a time. 

What's helped Sandfort is the trust Iowa's coaching staff has placed in him whenever he's on the floor. It's starting to pay dividends down the stretch of the regular season. Sandfort said after the game that he feels like his rough patch is behind him. That's good news for an Iowa team that will need consistent shooting to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. 

"The main reason I picked here is the green light I've seen Fran give his players and growing up watching the program," Sandfort said. "I can't thank Fran enough, he's really let me come in and play my game. Even today, not just shooting but I was able to get rebounds and push it in transition with my dribble, which I did a lot in high school. He's really let me do what I've been doing my whole life and keep going from there." 

Iowa guard Payton Sandfort (20) makes a 3-point basket as Nebraska forward Derrick Walker, left, defends during Sunday's game in Iowa City.

High praise for Keegan Murray

For the fourth time this season, Keegan Murray scored 30-plus points in a game. Sunday's 37-point outing is his second straight 30-point game after 30 points against Maryland on Thursday.

Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg gave Murray high praise following Sunday's game.

"He's the most versatile player in our league," Hoiberg said. "You talk about three-level scorers, he's the true definition of that. He's a guy that can get it in the post, beat us down the floor consistently tonight and got deep post-up position. He got us on the perimeter, just a tough cover. The efficiency he's playing with is phenomenal right now." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.