The Iowa basketball regular season is now more than 40% complete with the Hawkeyes entering the meat of the Big Ten schedule sitting at 9-2 overall with losses on a neutral site to #1 Gonzaga and on the road to now top-25 Minnesota in overtime. Iowa has signature wins in the bag at home against then #16 North Carolina, #19 Northwestern and most recently on the road at #14 Rutgers. In short, the season has gone roughly according to plan with Iowa entering the middle of the season inside the top-10 nationally and still tops in the country in offensive efficiency.
A big part of that has been the emergence of freshman Keegan Murray. We came into the year knowing Luka Garza was the best player in the country and every team the Hawkeyes have face has tried something different to slow down the dominant big man. None have succeeded for long. But what makes a good team great is the ability to get baskets when their stars are struggling.
Enter: Keegan Murray. The Cedar Rapids Prairie product has burst onto the scene this season and stolen the hearts of Hawkeye fans who once questioned scholarship offers for a pair of legacy twins who had no offers coming out of their senior seasons.
Heading into last week, Ke. Murray, as his jersey reads, was averaging just under 13 minutes per game. What he did with those minutes was provide instant spark. His game has been likened to that of former Hawkeye, now graduate assistant Nicholas Baer. He’s a hustle player who trackes down loose balls, provides length on defense and can knock down an open three.
But Murray is the most recent update to the Baer software. He’s got a similar build, but with more explosion. He’s quicker and has more bounce making him an even bigger offensive threat and providing more lateral quickness on the defensive end.
That showed through last week as he logged 21 and 22 minutes in wins over #19 Northwestern and #14 Rutgers respectively. In the expanded minutes, Murray showed us all just what he is capable of. He scored 9 and 14 points in the two wins while adding 3 blocks, 5 steals and 11 rebounds, shooting 50% from beyond the arc. That level of production from the 6th or 7th player in the rotation is the difference between a really good team and a great team.
Ready for a cool stat?— Iowa Basketball (@IowaHoops) December 30, 2020
Keegan Murray is the ONLY bench player in the country to record at least 50 points, 30 rebounds, 10 blocks, and 10 steals this season.
Oh, and he's only a freshman. @keegan3murray | #Hawkeyes pic.twitter.com/l0ab38EYqq
But in Iowa’s win over Rutgers, it wasn’t just Murray who stepped up to the challenge, hitting 5 free throws, including a pair in clutch time. He was joined by fellow freshman Ahron Ulis, who matched his season high in minutes played in the big time road win.
With starter Connor McCaffery sidelined due to an ankle injury 3 minutes into the game and primary backup PG Joe Toussaint hobbled by both an ankle injury and a poked eye, Ulis was thrust into the spotlight in the first half against the Scarlet Knights.
About halfway through the first half on Saturday, Rutgers started on a 7-0 run that took the game from a 2-point Iowa lead to a 5-point Scarlet Knight lead. With poor shooting, loose whistles and a lack of hustle from the Hawkeyes, the game looked destined for another road loss. But Ulis entered the game and provided instant offense for the Hawkeyes, penetrating into the lane and creating opportunities for himself and others.
Down five with just under 8 minutes to go in the half, Iowa went on their own 13-3 run to take a 5-point lead of their own over the ensuing 4 minutes. Ulis was a key part of the comeback, which helped Iowa finish the half in a 35-35 tie.
He finished the day with just two points on 1 of 2 shooting, but he added 3 rebounds and most notably, 4 assists in a season-high 14 minutes. With a lack of depth at point guard due to injury, it was just what the doctor ordered.
If Iowa is going to have the type of season Hawkeye fans are dreaming of, Fran McCaffery will need to call on both Ahron Ulis and Keegan Murray to do exactly what they did last week: step into key roles in critical minutes. Both have proven they can do just that.