Iowa men's basketball overcomes slow start to rout North Carolina A&T
Iowa men's basketball had two clear goals ahead of Friday night's home game against North Carolina A&T: the first obviously was to win the game, the second was continuing to fine-tune the team with a road game at Seton Hall looming next week.
The majority of the first half provided the test that Iowa anticipated and potentially exposed areas of improvement moving forward. But a 10-minute flurry by the Hawkeyes split between the first and second halves blew the game open and sent Iowa into next week with a 2-0 start.
Iowa defeated North Carolina A&T by a decisive 112-71 margin. Once again the Hawkeyes starting lineup dominated, with four players scoring in double figures. Junior Kris Murray looked like a dominant No. 1 option, scoring 22 points and pulling in eight rebounds. He was followed in points by Patrick McCaffery (21), Payton Sandfort (17) and Filip Rebraca (12).
All five starters posted a +35 plus/minus ranking or better on Friday night, in addition to 78 points combined and only two turnovers. Patrick McCaffery noted that it's still a working progress but feels confident in the trajectory of the unit.
"The lineup with Tony (Perkins) at the point is relatively new and moving Payton (Sandfort) to the first group," Patrick McCaffery said. "We're still figuring each other out and that's why these early games before the Seton Hall game (next Wednesday) are so important to get those reps because it's always different in the game."
A closer look at the game-deciding sequence
The first half began as expected, the Hawkeyes jumping out to an early 17-5 and with only a few minutes off the clock. However, the Aggies fought back and for the first time in the early season, the Hawkeyes showed a few deficiencies. The Hawkeye offense slowed down considerably as the first half progressed, allowing the Aggies to come as close as five points. Afterward, Fran McCaffery said it was a mix of shots not falling and poor rebounding. Iowa was -5 in rebounding margin in the first half.
"We didn't do a real good job on a glass in that one stretch, actually the whole beginning of the game," Fran McCaffery said. "They out-rebounded us in the first half. Give them credit, they came to play, they were physical. We had one stretch where I thought (we had) pretty decent shots and five, six possessions in a row we didn't score and they hit some shots. They were running their stuff."
At the 4:31 mark in the first half and Iowa leading 35-30, a timeout on the floor allowed the Hawkeyes to reset. And from there, they seized control. The team finished the first half on a furious 17-2 run to take a commanding 52-32 lead into halftime. The dominance continued into the second half as Iowa raced out to a 16-2 start to expand the lead to 68-34. In total, a 33-4 run between two halves served as a reminder of what Iowa could be this season with strong execution on both sides of the floor.
Iowa made the necessary second-half adjustments, outrebounding the Aggies by a +7 margin and forcing nine turnovers on defense.
"I think it started with defensive rebounding," Murray said. "We were kind of leaking out (in transition) a little and only sending a few guys to the glass and they were getting easy tip-pins at the rim, that's how they were mostly scoring. We put an emphasis on that and that's where we turned it up on the defensive end, we got easy looks in transition and that's where we gained our momentum and ended the game."
A tale of two halves for Iowa's bench
One statistic that jumped off the box score is Iowa's 34 second-half bench points compared to zero in the first half. McCaffery went with veterans Connor McCaffery and Ahron Ulis and true freshman Dasonte Bowen in the first half but quickly pulled them in favor of the starters after a clunky few minutes (0 points on combined 0-3 shooting).
However, McCaffery stated postgame that he told the second unit at halftime that he would go to them again and it worked out well as seven players combined for the 34-point output.
"In fairness to those guys, I didn't get (them) much playing time in the first half," Fran McCaffery said. "We had a difficult stretch offensively and I put the starters back in and they played most of the first half. I told them at halftime 'You guys are going to get out there again and I'm going leave you out there.' And they were really good doing the things that they need to do to gain experience and be ready to play against a team like Seton Hall. We moved it. We executed our offense. We handled ball screen, rebounded better and we still ran (in transition)."
It's worth noting that two players who Iowa will rely on heavily off the bench are true freshmen Bowen and Josh Dix. However, youth can be tempered with experienced players in Connor McCaffery and Ulis, both of whom were close to cracking the starting rotation, Fran McCaffery said. And the four of them on the court together can create an interesting dynamic for this year's team.
"Those guys are constantly talking to the young kids," Fran McCaffery said. "They're good players but it's the stability you get when that lineup is out there. And you basically have four guards, so you can't really press us we can run our stuff. We can move and share the ball just like the other group. As a coach, that's something that's really special to have."
Hawkeyes seem ready for bigger challenge in Seton Hall
One of the early, interesting storylines surrounding Iowa's team is the difficult non-conference schedule. The first leg of that is next week when Iowa travels to Seton Hall for the 2022 Gavitt Games. The Pirates hail from the Big East, a major basketball conference, and have posted six 20-win seasons in the last seven years. This year they have a new coach: Shaheen Holloway, who famously led 15-seed St. Peters to the Elite Eight in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
It will be a significant uptick in competition and Iowa's first road game of the year. There likely won't be any sweeping declarations but Fran McCaffery and fans will begin learning much more about this year's team beginning next week. And following Friday's game, players did not shy away from the challenge ahead.
"We're excited for it," Murray said. "I feel like we made a lot of strides in our first two games and our exhibition so I think we're ready for more competition and a really good team ... I think I'm a guy that enjoys competition. There's a lot that you can get out of these type of games but I'm ready for a step up in competition and having to adapt to teams and how they play."