Knowing he had a veteran roster with position versatility, Fran McCaffery said before his 13th season at Iowa that he had put together “the most difficult schedule that I’ve ever put in front of our team.” So obviously I feel like they can handle it. I’m excited for the challenge.”
The first big test on the 2022-23 calendar occurred Wednesday night against Seton Hall, a feisty program that regularly reaches the NCAA Tournament and expects to do so again.
The Hawkeyes passed with flying colors, staving off every Seton Hall charge and pulling away to prevail, 83-67, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. This was a quality road win against a team that was rated No. 35 in the KenPom metrics, one that improved Iowa to 3-0 on the young season.
“Seton Hall is probably going to be an NCAA Tournament team this year,” said Iowa’s Kris Murray, who scored 29 points with 11 rebounds in a fantastic performance. “So going on the road and beating them is huge for us, and we knew what we were capable of doing.”
Here are five thoughts from the Hawkeyes’ victory.
A slew of NBA scouts watched Murray live up to expectations.
In the shadow of New York City, there were roughly a dozen NBA scouts to watch Murray at Wednesday’s game. Considering his twin brother, Keegan, is off to a great start as a rookie with the surging Sacramento Kings, there’s even more intrigue about what Kris can bring to the table at the next level.
The junior forward who took his NBA decision to the last moments before deciding to return to college showed why the Hawkeyes are so very lucky to have him back.
Murray scored 14 of Iowa’s first 18 points when his teammates were struggling. Thanks to Murray’s early efforts, Iowa dug out of an early 10-2 hole.
“They were giving me easier shots, and that kind of got me going,” Murray said. “I kind of found a rhythm after that.”
This was Kris’ first big game on a big (Gavitt Games) stage without having his brother as a teammate. And in this one, Murray showed the full arsenal of what he can do. He scored in transition; he posted up in the half-court offense; he drained 3-pointers; and he drew fouls and knocked down free throws.
Every time Iowa needed a bucket, Murray was willing and able to step up. After back-to-back 3-pointers from Seton Hall in the second half shaved Iowa’s lead to 46-41, Murray calmly posted up and scored a leaner to calm things down. When the Pirates cut it to 50-45, Murray coolly swished a 3-pointer.
“He never rattles. He just plays,” McCaffery said. “He can go off the bounce, he can make 3s. He rebounds the ball; 29 and 11, pretty good night against a very physical and athletic team.”
Interestingly, 29 points and 11 rebounds were the same line Murray had against Indiana last season in a must-win game when Keegan was in foul trouble. That was a glimpse of what Kris, who came off the bench as a sophomore, could do in an expanded role once his time arrived.
His time has arrived, and he looks completely ready and totally comfortable.
“I love the pressure people have been putting on me this year,” he told Fox’s John Fanta after the game. “Coach McCaffery trusts me. And I trust him, whatever he says. I think you kind of saw that tonight. I’m my own person now. People are going to know my name.”
This team’s swag comes from Tony Perkins.
That was evident even in negative outcomes. Late in the first half after a hard-charging bucket with contact, Perkins was assessed a technical foul that gave Seton Hall two free throws to cut the Hawkeyes’ halftime lead to 34-22. What happened?
“One of the fans called me a word that I don’t like to be called,” Perkins said. “So I just yelled, ‘And one!’ twice and got the tech.”
Perkins is a hard-nosed junior whose time has arrived with the exit of six-year point guard Jordan Bohannon. Perkins has had at least five assists in all three Hawkeye games since he was installed as the team’s point guard, but more impressively he has developed a knack for getting tough buckets. He had 13 points in the second half. A 3-point play with 6:44 remaining extended Iowa’s lead to 65-54 and seemed to put the game on ice. Perkins finished with 18 points, five assists and three steals in 34 minutes.
“Tony, I mean, he’s a great player. Great confidence,” Murray said. “A guy you can always count on.”
Cautious optimism continues about Iowa’s defense.
On a night when the offense wasn’t clicking from the get-go, Iowa’s defense was − especially in the first half. You can’t always say that about McCaffery-coached teams. But three games in, this group continues to say it wants to change its defensive reputation. And he has shown in stretches that he can play with tenacity on the defensive end of the floor. Iowa moved up nine spots in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating (from 69 to 60) after holding Seton Hall to 35.8% shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. (By the way, Iowa’s always-great adjusted offense moved from 3 to 2.)
“We have always been ranked as a not-good defensive team, but this year we’re coming out with that fire that we want to be one of the best defensive teams,” Perkins said.
Still, Iowa needed a wake-up call to get going. In taking a 10-2 lead, Seton Hall grabbed six of a possible seven offensive rebounds to start the game. After the first media timeout, though, Iowa turned things around. Seton Hall scored three points over a stretch of more than 10 minutes. In the first half alone, the Hawkeyes forced 11 turnovers and held the Pirates to 20% shooting (6-for-30).
“We all agreed that we were playing soft. They … pretty much jumped us. They threw the first punch,” said Iowa senior Filip Rebraca, who played a tough-as-nails game in the post with 10 points, 11 rebounds. and four blocked shots. “We acknowledged that, and we just told ourselves what we needed to do to correct it. We needed to get them off the glass. And once that was said, everyone boxed out and it allowed us to get rebounds.”
Seton Hall had an early 7-0 edge on the glass. Iowa finished with 38 rebounds to Seton Hall’s 40. Rebraca was an integral part of that. He credits offseason work with strength coach Bill Maxwell for getting his body feeling stronger and better. Rebraca played 35 minutes; backup centers Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey played none. The North Dakota transfer has certainly upped his game over a year ago and will need to continue to stay out of foul trouble. He’s averaging 11.0 points and 8.7 rebounds through three contests.
More:Iowa men’s basketball lands priority forward Ladji Dembele in 2023 class
McCaffery basically rode a seven-man rotation. Will it stick?
Outside of three minutes for freshman Dasonte Bowen and 29 seconds from freshman Josh Dix, Fran McCaffery stuck with seven veteran players: Connor McCaffery (sixth year), Rebraca (fifth), Patrick McCaffery (fourth), Murray (third), Perkins (third ), Ahron Ulis (third) and Sandfort (second). For a coach that historically is determined to play 9-10 (or more) guys because of Iowa’s fast-paced style, keeping it to a core seven was remarkable.
Especially interesting was that the head leaned on backups Ulis and Connor McCaffery down the stretch over starters Sandfort and Patrick McCaffery.
Perkins suggested that once Iowa got a consistent eight- to 10-point lead, Seton Hall was attacking even more furiously and Iowa needed more ball-handlers.
“It’s just more of what we needed at the end of the game,” Perkins said.
Ulis (27 minutes) stepped up with eight points and two assists while tying Rebraca for a team-best plus-16 rating. Connor McCaffery attempted only one shot, but it was a big one. He buried a 3-pointer to give Iowa a 70-59 lead with 5:44 to go. Seton Hall never got closer than nine points after that.
“We’ve just got a bunch of guys who know their roles and what it takes to win,” Murray said. “I think we’re a veteran team that (excelled) in a road environment against a really good physical team. Just never wavered.”
Fran McCaffery said he will play his freshmen more in the coming weeks but noted that “they learned a lot watching tonight.” Iowa will need more bench production when injuries and/or foul trouble comes. But on this night, seven was enough.
More:Iowa men’s basketball has its first big test coming up at Seton Hall. Here’s what to watch for.
This is how you do it on the road.
Good defense, great offense, star power (in Murray) and excellent free-throw shooting down the stretch are sure-fire ways to win tough Big Ten Conference road games this season. And Iowa followed that recipe to a T in Newark.
Iowa’s free-throw shooting down the stretch helped put this outcome away. The Hawkeyes canned 19 of 21 free throws in the second half (90.5%) and 28-for-33 (84.8%) for the game.
Of the seven core guys that Fran McCaffery played Wednesday, they’re hitting a collective 83% from the line this season (49-for-59).
“We’ve just got to keep it simple: Make your free throws and win the game,” said Murray, who was 6-for-6 from the stripe. “It was as simple as that tonight.”
Also important on the road is limiting turnovers. The Hawkeyes did that against Shaheen Holloway’s Pirates. They only committed eight turnovers against an attacking defense, and one of them was an intentional shot-clock violation in the game’s final seconds.
“When you play a team that really comes after you like they do with defensive pressure physicality,” Fran McCaffery said, “and then they come after you offensively on the dribble … you have to be able to handle that without turning it over.”
All in all, a satisfying 3-0 start to the season.
The Hawkeyes next host Omaha at 7 pm Monday before traveling to Niceville, Florida, to play in the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will face Clemson before probably matching up with No. 18 TCU. That’ll be followed by the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Georgia Tech, then a Dec. 6 meeting vs. No. 8 Duke in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, then home games against heated rivals Iowa State (Dec. 8) and Wisconsin (Dec. 11).
This was one nice passed test for Iowa, as it logged what is likely to stand as a Quad 1 win in the NCAA NET (top-75 road win) for the entire season. But many more tests are coming. Soon.
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.