Iowa basketball's Kris Murray set to return from foot injury at Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Fran McCaffery revealed some much-needed good news for the Iowa men’s basketball team when he said that star forward Kris Murray is set to return from a left-foot injury that has kept him sidelined for three weeks.

Also, Connor McCaffery will return from a left-hand injury that had him out for a jarring home loss to Eastern Illinois on Dec. 21.

“They both feel really good,” Iowa’s head coach said Wednesday. “They both have practiced the last two days. They were diligent with their treatment and rehab. They’re both anxious to get back.”

McCaffery kept his answers mostly brief leading up to Thursday’s resumption of Big Ten Conference play at Nebraska (6 p.m., Big Ten Network). There's not much to say right now; this is a team that was humbled after the Eastern Illinois debacle. After that loss as a 31½-point home favorite, senior center Filip Rebraca said he thought the Hawkeyes didn't respect their opponents and took them too lightly. The team also learned that it can’t stray from its offense when it gets behind.

Looking back:Iowa basketball suffers stunning home loss to woeful Eastern Illinois: 'We took them lightly'

“Obviously we have to be better at both ends,” McCaffery said. “I think we tended to quick-shoot it a little bit when we got behind, which you can’t do. You’ve got to execute how you normally do. We settled for 3s, and obviously missed a bunch (going 7-for-33).”

The return of Murray is enormous. The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the best players in the Big Ten and averages a double-double (19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds). He got injured early in the Dec. 6 game against Duke, a 74-62 loss at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Hawkeyes went 2-2 in Murray’s absence, including an impressive home win against Iowa State and a home loss in overtime to Wisconsin.

Kris Murray hasn't had a fully healthy game since Nov. 29 against Georgia Tech, in which he scored 31 points with 20 rebounds.

The emergence of Rebraca became one of Iowa's positives in that stretch. He averaged team-bests of 21.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks during the four-game Murray absence. It’ll be interesting to see how much focus Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg puts on slowing Rebraca, or if he’ll try to put the clamps on Murray. Hoiberg famously double- and triple-teamed Luka Garza − daring other Hawkeyes to beat Nebraska − on Jan. 7, 2020. The Hawkeyes suffered a stunning 76-70 loss that night at Pinnacle Bank Arena; Nebraska was not a good team that year and went on to lose its next 17 games.

This Nebraska team (7-6 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) has been better than its record suggests. The Cornhuskers took top-ranked Purdue to overtime. They went on the road and beat Creighton, a preseason top-10 team. Nebraska has faced the strongest schedule of any Big Ten team to date. Its ability to defend has impressed Fran McCaffery the most. Nebraska had a woeful defense a year ago under Hoiberg, but it’s held nine of 13 opponents to 1.0 point-per-possession or less.

“Their defense is really good. They compete,” McCaffery said. “Obviously, a completely different team from last year in terms of personnel. But I think everybody recognizes how good they are. We saw the Purdue game, and that game could have gone either way.”

More:Eastern Illinois stuns Iowa as 32-point underdogs in one of the biggest upsets in men's college basketball history

After what happened last week, this is a game Iowa can’t afford to take lightly. And it’s one Iowa (8-4, 0-1 Big Ten) needs to win. The Hawkeyes dropped 30-plus spots in the NCAA NET rankings after the loss to Eastern Illinois and sat No. 58 as of Wednesday; Nebraska is at No. 76. KenPom.com tabs Iowa as a 2-point favorite.

That’s what life in the Big Ten will be like, Connor McCaffery was saying recently. The Hawkeyes' final 19 regular-season games are against Big Ten competition, so get used to it.

“It’s just deep. Illinois beats Texas. Then Penn State goes on the road and beats Illinois,” the sixth-year senior said. “There’s just a lot of different teams that are really good and can beat anybody on any given night. Nebraska’s playing really well, and that was a team you didn’t think would be that good this year. Northwestern just beat DePaul by 40.

“You’re going to have to play well. There’s literally no gimmes.”

With another road trip on deck after this Jan. 1 at Penn State, this is a week for the Hawkeyes to reestablish themselves as a Big Ten contender. Getting Murray back helps change the narrative in a positive way. Now the Hawkeyes need to go out and play well in front of a sold-out arena in Lincoln.

“I think we’re right in the mix of (the Big Ten). I think if we play well, we can beat anybody,” Connor McCaffery said before the Eastern Illinois loss. “… Especially once we get Kris back, we’ll be real confident with where we are at."