The Iowa men’s basketball program has played more than half of its regular season schedule for the 2021-22 season, but somehow it still feels too early to tell what the future has in store for this team. On one hand, the Hawkeyes are 13-4 and boast one of the top offenses in college basketball, buoyed by the sensational two-way play of the nation’s leading scorer Keegan Murray. On the other hand, Iowa is only 3-3 in Big Ten play and currently sits at 7th in the conference standings, raising serious questions about whether Iowa can actually compete against other strong teams from major conferences.
Iowa’s win against Indiana on Thursday night was a nice feather in the cap for the more optimistic strain of Hawkeye fans. Despite struggling to get stops in the first half and getting only 22 minutes from Keegan Murray thanks to nagging foul troubles, the Hawkeyes wore down the Hoosiers in the second half by excelling in two areas where they normally struggle: defense and rebounding. Iowa’s aggressive defense forced 23 Indiana turnovers and outrebounded the Hoosiers, a team that has been excellent on the glass all season, 31-27 with a +3 offensive rebounding margin.
It’s no surprise that one of Iowa’s best defensive and rebounding performances of the season came in the most impressive game of Kris Murray’s college career. Kris has been largely overshadowed by his brother’s elite play this season, but made it clear on Thursday that he possesses enough talent to emerge as a star player in his own right. Murray was highly efficient on offense (12-18 shooting) and proved capable of creating his own shot en route to dropping a career high 29 points on the Big Ten’s top scoring defense. Murray was also dominant on the glass, pulling in 11 rebounds and six offensive boards. His defensive box score looks solid as well (three blocks and three steals), but Murray’s real impact on the game went beyond the stat sheet, as he effortlessly switched between guarding bigs and perimeter players and used his length to disrupt Indiana’s offense throughout the entire second half.
While Kris Murray isn’t likely to score 30 points a game for the rest of the season, his performance against the Hoosiers could open several doors for the Hawkeyes as they look to claw their way back into contention in the conference race. Kris has established himself as one of Iowa’s most effective rebounders this season on a team that ranks second to last in rebounding and dead last in defensive rebounding during conference play. Kris trails only his brother in offensive rebounds with 2.1 per game and boasts the highest offensive rebounding percentage on the team with 13.3%. Murray has particularly stood out as a rebounder against Big Ten competition and has a team-leading total rebounding percentage with 13.1% against conference foes. What size Murray surrenders is made up for by his rebounding acumen and willingness to attack the offensive glass, traits which really shine when he is matched up against opposing small forwards as opposed to playing small-ball center against players several inches taller than him. Kris’s offense gave Iowa a serious boost against Indiana, but his rebounding may very well be the factor that earns him more minutes in the games to come.
Still, Murray’s growth as a scorer this season could provide the Hawkeyes with some much-needed offensive firepower. Kris has seen his offensive scoring skyrocket this season from .6 points a game in 2020-21 to 10.7 per game in 2021-22. His outside shot has emerged as one of the most consistent on the team, as he is making 43.5% of his threes on over three attempts per game. While not as efficient as his brother at scoring in the paint or in the midrange, Kris also joins Keegan as one of only two Hawkeyes to shoot 50% or greater from the field on 5+ attempts per game—a solid marker of consistency for a second-year player.
When Kris and Keegan share the court together, opposing defenses are forced to deal with two multi-level scorers who possess excellent athleticism and a dangerous combination of size and skill that make them matchup nightmares—to say nothing of their ability to defend large portions of the court between just the two of them. When their minutes are staggered, Kris gives Iowa a decent approximation of his brother’s production, filling his role as an offensive creator, glass cleaner, and versatile defensive chess piece in Iowa’s full and half-court defense. Kris is certainly his own player and is far from a carbon copy of his brother (physical appearance aside). Still, his ability to score, rebound, and defend like Keegan in a game when his brother was limited by foul trouble should give hope to Fran McCaffery and his staff about what might be possible for this team if Kris can learn to bottle his play on Thursday night and reach similar levels throughout the season.
Kris Murray’s ascendance could not come at a better time for the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s next five games are a critical stretch for the team and could provide them with an opportunity to make major progress in their quest for an NCAA Tournament bid and a return to the top half of the Big Ten standings. Each of Iowa’s next four games (@Rutgers, Penn State, Purdue, @ Penn State) is winnable, and the Hawkeyes should be favored to go 3-1 during this stretch with an outside shot to go 4-0 given how closely they played Purdue on the road in December. However, it is also conceivable that Iowa could finish 2-3 during this stretch, as teams that underestimate Rutgers or Penn State on their home courts do so at their own peril. A 3-1 or 4-0 record would set Iowa up nicely ahead of a difficult stretch of conference games in February and March, a period where Fran McCaffery’s teams have historically underwhelmed. A 2-2 or 1-3 finish would put a damper on Iowa’s postseason aspirations and would force Iowa to pull some upsets against high-level competition during a particularly tough portion of their schedule.
It is easy to overreact to a single performance and assume that what happened in one game will happen in future ones as well. But Kris Murray’s breakout against Indiana, which built off the steady improvement he has shown throughout the season, felt more like a sign of things to come than a one-off event. Kris isn’t likely to eclipse his brother any time soon, but if Iowa can find ways to increase his role in the offense and channel the skills that allowed him to shine on both sides of the ball on Thursday night, the Hawkeyes could be ready to level up at the precise moment their schedule demands.