Iowa men's basketball's early drought leads to lopsided loss at Nebraska

Travis Hines
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. − It doesn’t get much more concerning than losing at home as a 31.5-point favorite, but the Iowa men’s basketball team tested the limits Thursday night. 

The Hawkeyes got off to a horrid offensive start and never recovered in a resounding 66-50 loss to Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

It makes for a tenuous moment for Iowa (8-5, 0-2 Big Ten) before the calendar even flips to the new year, pairing a blowout loss to the preseason pick to finish last in the league with last week’s 92-83 loss to an Eastern Illinois team that previously had just one win against a Division I opponent. 

The Hawkeyes still have wins against Seton Hall, Clemson and Iowa State on their resume and a whole lot of season in front of them, but warning lights have to be illuminating after the last two performances. 

Iowa has lost three of its last four, making Sunday's game at Penn State look like a potential inflection point for the Hawkeyes despite being so early in the season.

"I would hope so," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "I would have hoped it would have happened after the last game."

Kris Murray, who was averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, returned after missing four games due to a left foot injury. He finished with 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting in 35 minutes of action. 

Filip Rebraca had 16 points for the Hawkeyes. 

Iowa's Connor McCaffery reacts to a foul call against him in the first half during Thursday's loss at Nebraska. The Hawkeyes play at Penn State on Sunday.

Offense goes MIA to start 

In terms of worst-case scenarios, it would be hard to match Iowa's loss last week as more than a 30-point home favorite, but what its offense went through in the first 15 minutes Thursday was pretty unfathomable. 

The Hawkeyes missed 25 of their first 28 shots from the floor, at one time missing a mind-bending and rim-rattling 16 in a row while going scoreless for nine minutes. They were shooting 10.7 percent from the floor and trailing 29-8 before Murray’s triple with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the half finally ended the 20-0 Huskers run. 

"It’s definitely tough," said Connor McCaffery, who played 25 minutes after missing last week's game with a hand injury. "You look up and you're stuck at eight (points) for a while. The thing that’s disappointing is we should have gotten more back in that stretch. We didn’t attack the offensive glass. Sometimes you’re going to miss shots.

"We definitely missed an abnormal amount of shots in that stretch, but that’s no excuse to not score for as long as we did."

While Nebraska’s defense certainly deserves praise for getting the Hawkeyes into such a funk, much of the blame has to be placed on Iowa missing high-percentage shots. The Hawkeyes, for the most part, got good looks at the basket during their 9-minute scoring drought. They just missed them. 

"We’d move it, move it, move it, somebody would shoot an open three," Fran McCaffery said. "Somebody would shoot an open jumper. Somebody would shoot a floater in the lane. We got 73 shots up. That’s a lot of shots to get 50 points. 

"When you’re down 12, 15 and you’re getting some open looks, you’ve got to make them."

Every team will go through cold stretches, but something so stark from an offense that has been so good was jaw-dropping. Iowa came into the night as the country’s 10th-best offense, per KenPom.com. This wasn’t a bad offense finding its bottom, but rather a strong offense simply vanishing. 

It’s inexplicable to see the scoreboard stay frozen for so long for a team so accomplished offensively.

"That just kills you," Connor McCaffery said.

Iowa did recover by making five of its final eight shots of the half – as well as by getting to the free-throw line – to close the gap to a manageable 12 points at the break. It’s hard to imagine Iowa ever approaching that level of offensive struggle again this season, even if the second half was only marginally better.

The Hawkeyes finished 19-of-73 (26%) from the field. They slipped from 10th nationally in offensive efficiency to 23rd after the game, underscoring just how out of character and ineffectual the night was.

"It felt like we were stuck," Murray said. "We had to get something going, a spark, and we never had that until late (in the first half). 

"We got open looks, shots we usually make and a lot of back irons and sometimes it just falls that way."

Kris Murray returns after four-game absence 

It looked as though Murray would wallow in Iowa’s offensive issues during the first half when the junior airballed an open look from 3-point range, but he eventually was the catalyst for the mini-spurt to end the first half. 

He scored 10 points over the final five-and-a-half minutes to finish his first half in three weeks with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including a 3-of-6 mark from distance. 

That, though, proved to be a high-water mark both for Murray and the Hawkeyes. 

Murray was just 2-of-7 from the floor in the second half and didn’t score after halftime until the game was already decided with just under 6 minutes to play. 

"Defintely just trying to find my rhythm," Murray said. "I kind of got it at the end of the first half, went on a little bit of a run, but just trying to slow the game down a little bit more.

"It’s going to be tough coming off three weeks missed. For me, it’s just finding that rhythm again, finding my shot because I obviously was a little bit fatigued not playing at all and going up and down for 36 minutes."

He finished 6-of-15 from the field, including 3-of-8 from 3, to go along with eight rebounds.

"Considering how much time he was out, I thought he did some really good things," Fran McCaffery said. "Seventeen and eight is a pretty good line. We wanted him to be aggressive. He got 15 shots up. He could have shot more as far as I was concerned."

The 6-foot-8 Murray didn’t seem to be hampered by the foot injury that kept him sidelined, but he definitely appeared to be under the same offensive spell as his teammates, with shots simply not falling. 

"It’s 100 percent, otherwise I wouldn’t be playing," Murray said of his foot.

Defense just as problematic 

While Iowa’s offensive problems will garner much of the discussion after its loss to the Huskers, the defense isn’t without a heap of responsibility as well. 

Nebraska, despite coach Fred Hoiberg’s reputation for offense-first teams, came into the night ranked 139th nationally in offensive efficiency. 

In the first half against the Hawkeyes, the Huskers shot 50 percent from the field and made 6-of-9 from 3-point range. Nebraska finished shooting 40.7 percent from the floor for the game. 

Iowa’s offense typically carries the load, but its defense needs to give the Hawkeyes a chance when shots aren’t falling. 

Both failed against the Huskers, and the results were ugly. 

"I think we’ve got to do a better job of managing those situations where everybody’s frustrated because there’s four, five, six, seven possessions in a row and you feel like it’s not that bad but we can’t get anything to drop," Fran McCaffery said. "Then they hit a couple threes and you look up and you’re down 12, 13, 15.

"At the end of the day, you have to play the game with a greater sense of urgency defensively, especially when the ball’s not dropping."

Concern rising

Iowa is getting acquainted with adversity early in the season.

Losing to Eastern Illinois could be explained as an embarrassing-but-vaguely-understandable result, with Murray and Connor McCaffery on the bench and Christmas break beckoning. But backing it up by getting trounced by Nebraska raises the stakes.

The level of concern for where the season heads from here has increased significantly. At least from the outside.

"You lose two in a row, nobody is going to be in a good mood," Connor McCaffery said, "but you’re right back at it. You can’t let it linger. I feel like guys will probably be down on the bus, on the plane, but we’ll be right back at it (Friday).  

"Even in the locker room, I think spirits were as good as they can be. You’ve got to fight back and be ready to go against Penn State. There’s no time to feel bad."

The Nittany Lions (10-3, 1-1) have won four straight and own a victory over Illinois. For the Hawkeyes, avoiding an 0-3 start in a strong Big Ten is paramount, especially with No. 18 Indiana at home and at Rutgers the two games following the trip to State College.

"Just stay confident in ourselves because we know what type of team we are," Murray said.  "We’ll be ready to go in practice."

Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at thines@amestrib.com or  (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.