It looks like Payton Sandfort's slump is over. That adds another dimension to Iowa basketball
As the clock hit zeros on Sunday afternoon and Iowa men's basketball secured a 76-65 win over Rutgers, the Hawkeyes surrounded one player in particular: forward Payton Sandfort.
The sophomore's 22 points (14 of which came in the second half) propelled Iowa to a second consecutive win. Afterward, Sandfort expressed his excitement that the team got the win, but Sunday's performance signified something more for Iowa's team and himself. It appears that he and the team are turning the corner, and that's big for the rest of the season.
Sandfort entered the season as a popular pick for a breakout season, however, it hasn't fully materialized to this point. Prior to last week, he missed all 19 of his shot attempts in Iowa's first three Big Ten games, all of which were losses. But after two solid performances in a row, last Thursday against Indiana and Sunday against Rutgers, he believes his cold spell is behind him; and he's ready to help lead a Hawkeye turnaround in Big Ten play.
"It was a tough start to the year for me," Sandfort said. "But I'm proud of myself for keeping with it and I feel like I'm a better player now because I learned a lot about myself. Now just got to keep it rolling."
The Waukee native started the first seven games of the season, but after a cold start, he moved to Iowa's second unit to try and spark his offense. There were a few bright moments, including a career-high 24 points against Southeast Missouri in December, but the consistency wasn't quite there. Admittingly, he'd never been on a cold streak like that. He credited a wide-ranging effort by the entire program to help him stay engaged.
"I think this is one of the best things that's ever happened to me," Sandfort said. "The support staff around the program really helped me a lot. I was with sports psychologists, coaches, a lot of different stuff. But to get through that and now I'm on the other side of it, I think it's going to make me better in the long run."
Sandfort's seen his role increase recently. Junior starting forward Patrick McCaffery's leave of absence has opened up more minutes in the front court. After 17 minutes combined in prior games against Nebraska and Penn State, Sandfort has played 20-plus minutes in each of Iowa's last two games.
In addition to on-court minutes, Sandfort's used these last two games to step into a bigger leadership role. He earned praise for being vocal during the Hawkeyes' 21-point comeback over Indiana, which could be remembered as a notable moment if Iowa continues to improve.
That leadership continued Saturday when Sandfort scored 11 straight points for Iowa to fend off a furious Rutgers run that saw a 17-point lead dwindle down to just 5. Coach Fran McCaffery noted that in order to keep a player's momentum rolling in a stretch like that, it takes a concerted effort by his teammates, including consistently screening to get him open and delivering on-time passes. Iowa's players bought in and it's netted a positive result.
"He never stopped believing in himself and we never stopped believing in him," center Filip Rebraca said. "The basketball gods work in mysterious ways sometimes, but that's why you put in the work and it's finally paying off. It's good to see and we're going to need him to keep getting buckets going forward."
Sandfort's renewed confidence and improved play add another dimension to Iowa's team. He's the perimeter shooter that the Hawkeyes need, but can also score in other ways and impacts plays with his energy. Iowa is entering a three-game homestand against Michigan, Maryland and Northwestern and Sadnfort will be relied on heavily for good minutes if Iowa's to break into the top ranks of the Big Ten. Sandfort feels like he and the team are collectively in a better space now and hopes it will continue showing on the court.
"We got our swagger back as players," Sandfort said. "I think we had a few players going through some slumps, but everyone's out of it and everyone's playing harder and more together. We just have to keep it going."