The preseason hype surrounding Iowa basketball was largely focused on the talent the Hawkeyes were bringing back from previous seasons, and with good reason. It isn’t often a college basketball team can claim to have seven starters returning from the prior year, and almost as rare that one of those starters is a senior with as many impressive accomplishments under his belt as Luka Garza. Iowa’s rotation was expected to be composed of its seven experienced starters and former Top 100 recruit Patrick McCaffery, with the Hawkeyes’ highest rated 2020 recruit Ahron Ulis having an outside shot to earn real minutes this year.
Virtually no fans expected to Keegan Murray play as many important minutes as he has so far in 2020, and they certainly couldn’t have anticipated that the freshman would be this impactful through Iowa’s first six games. Murray was the nation’s 327th ranked recruit in the 2020 class, putting him one ranking below his twin brother Kris and making him one of the lowest ranked scholarship players currently on Iowa’s roster. Despite being the sons of former Hawkeye standout Kenyon Murray, Keegan and his brother were so lowly recruited coming out of Cedar Rapids Prairie that they instead opted for a year of prep school basketball at Florida’s DME Sports Academy, which eventually led to an Iowa offer. Their only other Division I scholarship offers were from Western Illinois, the team Iowa obliterated 99-58 in their third game this season. Both brothers projected as nice legacy additions, but not the type of players who would make an early impact on the Hawkeyes, particularly given the team’s depth of returning talent.
While Kris hasn’t seen much action as freshman, Keegan has exploded onto the scene as a versatile, high-energy player off the bench who is likely to earn meaningful minutes for a national title contender throughout the season. Murray is not the shooter that several of his teammates are and remains an unfinished product on offense, but he doesn’t need to be with all of the scoring talent around him. Instead, Murray has quickly shown that his hustle, length, rebounding acumen, and defensive intensity fill a unique and important role on this particular Hawkeye squad which should help earn him consistent playing time going forward.
Murray’s rebounding is what first allowed him to stand out in practice, and the skill has been readily apparent through his first six games. The talented freshman has pulled down 23 rebounds including seven offensive boards, none bigger than his put-back for a critical and-one in the second half of Iowa’s win against North Carolina. Not only does Murray box out well, but he is relentless in attacking the glass, often flying past and out-jumping opponents on his way from the perimeter to lock down the rebound. Murray isn’t likely to see many plays run for him on offense, but his ability to create second-chance opportunities while denying them to his opponents has already proven an invaluable asset to the team. Dennis Rodman famously said that he viewed every rebound opportunity as a personal challenge, and based on the way Murray attacks the glass, it seems he sees the game in a similar light.
Yet as impressive as Murray’s rebounding is, it isn’t the only thing that has allowed him to thrive as a freshman on a loaded team of full of talented veterans; after all, the Hawkeyes have several other players who also excel in that area. Murray has also shined this season due to his defense, an area where the Hawkeyes currently rank 77th in the country according to KemPom’s adjusted defense ratings. Murray’s long arms, ability to read opposing offenses, and willingness to go vertical to patrol the passing lanes has allowed him to generate several deflections or outright steals already this season. Murray has shown an aptitude for help defense, is a capable shot blocker (ten rejections through six games, including three against Northern Illinois), and has emerged alongside Patrick McCaffery as a legitimate weapon in Iowa’s ¾ court press. He doesn’t have the lightest of feet, but he still moves well for his size and can credibly guard multiple positions. His length and quick reaction time also make him a massive asset in Iowa’s zone defense, something the Hawkeyes might rely on more than usual over the course of the season if they continue to struggle against opposing pick-and-roll attacks.
Murray’s game yesterday against Northern Illinois provided a perfect blueprint for his potential role and impact on the 2020-21 Hawkeyes. At halftime the freshman had already accounted for eight points on 3-3 shooting, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and a steal before ultimately finishing with double-figure scoring for the second time in his Hawkeye career. Murray wasn’t being asked to be the focal point for on either offense or defense, but it was impossible not to notice him on virtually every possession as he consistently found ways to put a positive impact on the game. Whether it was swatting away opposing shots, crashing the boards, or showing his range from deep, Murray looked like one of the most versatile players on a team that is loaded to the brim with them.
Murray’s versatility is precisely what will allow him to continue making an impact for the Hawkeyes throughout the season. The freshman’s court time might decline against higher competition (he only played six minutes against North Carolina compared to Patrick McCaffery’s eleven), but he can be deployed to help up Iowa’s defensive pressure as a part of their press, relieve Garza or Nunge if one of them gets in foul trouble, and even play some small-ball center if the situation calls for it. He is an effective enough shooter to avoid becoming a liability when called upon to provide a spark on defense or on the glass, and his shooting numbers may very well continue to climb as he grows more comfortable in the offense. Murray will surely make some freshman mistakes when forced to go against elite Big Ten competition every game, but his high motor will allow him to compensate and will ensure that he remains a plus player for the Hawkeyes in limited action.
Keegan Murray entered the 2020-21 season as an afterthought but has quickly emerged as one of the most interesting pieces in the Hawkeyes’ toolbox. The freshman shows all the signs of a player who could develop into a future star for Iowa and may well have enough tools to be an important contributor for them this season as well. When Iowa squares off against #1 Gonzaga on Saturday, don’t be surprised if an unheralded freshman from Cedar Rapids, Iowa looks like he belongs on the court with some of the best players in college basketball.