Leistikow: As Kris Murray's return nears, positive Iowa basketball stories abound

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − When a star player gets injured for a significant period of time, a team’s performance can teeter one way or another. It can wither without him … or rally together and get stronger.

The latter has occurred for Fran McCaffery’s Iowa men's basketball team. As the Hawkeyes patiently wait for Murray’s return from a left-foot injury, the door has been opened for other players to step up and shine.

“I think everybody's done what they're supposed to do, quite frankly," McCaffery said Tuesday.

Iowa has gone 2-1 since Murray was shut down following the Hawkeyes’ 74-62 loss to Duke inside Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6, with an impressive rivalry rout of Iowa State and breezy win against Southeast Missouri State sandwiched around an overtime loss to 18th-ranked Wisconsin.

Iowa (8-3 overall, with all three losses to teams currently in the national top 20 with a combined 28-5 record) will be without Murray again in Wednesday’s 2:30 p.m. non-conference finale vs. Eastern Illinois (3-9) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The game was originally scheduled for 7 p.m. but was moved up due to the impending winter storm. The Iowa women's home game against Dartmouth also was moved up by two hours, to noon. Both games will be streamed on BTN-Plus (subscription required). Fans with a ticket to the women's game can attend the men's game and vice versa.

Back to the Murray conversation ...

When Murray (averaging 19.4 points and 10.1 rebounds) toughed out the injury suffered early in the Duke loss, other players were unable to step up around him as Iowa scored a season-low 62 points. But in the three games since, three players in particular have ramped up their games.

Filip Rebraca has been on a tear since Kris Murray was sidelined, averaging team-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks. He even made both 3-point attempts (pictured) vs. Iowa State on Dec. 8.

Filip Rebraca: a man on a mission

His three-game line: 62 points, 25-for-31 shooting (80.6%), 28 rebounds and 14 assists. And one Big Ten Conference player of the week honor, which came Monday.

Those per-game averages – 20.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 blocks – are all team-highs in that stretch. The fifth-year center's previous Iowa averages in 44 games – 6.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists.

“Against the competition we've played, yeah, I would say this is one of the best three-game stretches I’ve had," said Rebraca, who transferred from North Dakota before the 2021-22 season. "I know I had a pretty good stretch at North Dakota, my junior year, but I feel like this has been against higher competition. I feel like I've been very efficient. I've been scoring a lot. I've also been getting my teammates open. … Having six assists in one game (against Southeast Missouri State), I was really happy about that."

That was the area of Rebraca's game that stood out to McCaffery as essential to Iowa staying afloat without Murray. When Rebraca draws double teams, he's been able to find others. That's led to more one-on-one opportunities for himself, and he's made opponents pay. He made 12 of 13 shots vs. Southeast Missouri State.

"“His passing has been spectacular," McCaffery said. "He was always a great rebounder, a great defender, he could always score.”

Patrick McCaffery: aggressive as ever

His three-game line: 57 points, 9-for-18 shooting from 3-point range (50%) and 16 rebounds.

The redshirt junior forward has been playing some of the best basketball of his life over the last three games, with high-volume shooting at a 52.6% clip (20-for-38). His career-high 24 points against Wisconsin featured a clutch 3-pointer to force overtime and an ability to take over in tense moments. He might’ve scored 30 against the Badgers if his potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer had gone in instead of in-and-out.

Previously, McCaffery had scored a total of 21 points in games against TCU, Georgia Tech and Duke.

“Patrick's really been more aggressive offensively," his coach and father said.

Connor McCaffery: playing his best ball

His three-game line: 40 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists, 15-of-15 free throws.

Considering McCaffery’s career scoring average in 136 games entering this season was 4.0, his uptick in production has been a significant development for this team. He can play any position on the floor, giving his father ultimate lineup flexibility. And that free-throw shooting (he’s made 19 in a row, dating to the Georgia Tech game) is super encouraging, considering the Hawkeyes expect to play in a lot of close Big Ten games when league action resumes Dec. 29 at Nebraska.

Connor McCaffery's shot has looked better than ever this season.

“I would say I’ve been more aggressive than I have been in the past," Connor said Tuesday. "I’m also just more confident in general. Just my shot feels really good. Kind of getting in spots where I can be successful; I've been posting up a little bit more and just looking for more chances on the offensive end to impact the game.”

In addition, Iowa got a much-needed big game from sophomore Payton Sandfort against Southeast Missouri State (24 points, 9-for-13 shooting, seven rebounds).

The latest on Murray and what's next

Murray was out of his walking boot and working out on the floor prior to the Southeast Missouri State game. Fran McCaffery called him "day to day" but added, "Little by little he's doing more and more. So it's going well. Don't think he'll play (Wednesday). Hopefully he'll play in the one after that. But we’ll make that assessment as we get closer."

Across the board, there should be encouragement that when Murray comes back, this Iowa team will have become stronger as a result of his absence.

"When he's not on the floor, we have to play team basketball, and I think that's what's going to help us out in the future," Rebraca said. "You’re going to see games where they’re really going to focus on Kris."

After Wednesday, Iowa has back-to-back road games (Dec. 29 at Nebraska, then Penn State on Jan. 1). Those are games Iowa could win without Murray, but its chances would be even better with him. Especially if the McCaffery brothers and Rebraca can harness what they've done in the last three games to take pressure off Murray. The Hawkeyes looked like too much of a one-man team against Duke.

Given what we've seen lately, this team could be really exciting when he comes back.

“Hopefully we can continue to carry this kind of this wave, this swagger that we've been playing with," Connor McCaffery said. "Hopefully we can just keep this going and then add Kris back in, and we'll be in a really good spot. That’s definitely something that would maybe be one of the positives from … him being out."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.