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The Case for Keegan Murray as National Player of the Year

Keegan Murray has been absolutely dominant this season

Syndication: HawkCentral
Keegan Murray is flying up national rankings of all variety.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

What a difference a week makes. Following Iowa’s 84-79 home loss to the Michigan Wolverines last Thursday, tension was building amongst the Hawkeye fanbase. Iowa had yet to record a quad one win on the year and faced a pair of ranked opponents, including one on the road, in the next five days. A three-game skid seemed plausible with a pair of challenging road games on deck to close out the regular season and fans were ready to seriously call into question this team’s ability to even make the NCAA Tournament.

That narrative has been flipped on its head over the last week as the Hawkeyes not only went into Columbus and came away with a double-digit win over a ranked opponent, but returned home to absolutely throttle Michigan State in front of Luka Garza. Now Iowa sits at 19-8 with a pair of very winnable games against Nebraska and Northwestern on deck and that NCAA Tournament bid now appears all but locked up with the only question being how high can the Hawkeyes climb on the seed lines and where exactly they’ll land in the final Big Ten standings.

A big part of that has been Keegan Murray taking his tremendous game to another level. Murray has been outstanding all season long, going from breakout candidate to NBA lottery lock. But over the last six games, where the Hawkeyes have gone 5-1, Murray has elevated his game to a new level. During that stretch, Murray is averaging 27.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game.

The dominance isn’t a major surprise to Hawkeye fans. When we asked a week ago if Murray should be the Big Ten Player of the Year, a full 82% of you said yes.

As noted in the solicitation for that poll, that is at odds with Big Ten fans at large (who had Jaden Ivey as the clear leader in the clubhouse with Murray fourth in voting), as well as the narrative that had been building nationally. With Iowa not viewed as a top team in the country, Murray had been praised but not considered a viable candidate for National Player of the Year or Big Ten Player of the Year with most in the media pushing players like Jaden Ivey, Kofi Cockburn, EJ Liddell or Johnny Davis.

A week later that is starting to shift. On the back of Murray’s tremendous performances, Iowa has climbed from 8th in the conference standings to 6th and within striking distance of not only the 5th spot, but that all-coveted double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. They need some help, but in stacking wins against Ohio State and Michigan State Iowa did much to help themselves.

People are taking note, including one Dick Vitale.

Whether or not Murray ultimately wins Big Ten POY or gets serious consideration for National Player of the Year, his performance this season has warranted a place in the discussion. Perhaps more than a place.

Through all but the final handful of regular season games across the country, Murray is in elite company in virtually every statistical category. He is fourth nationally in scoring at 23.5 points per game - a number that continues to grow down the stretch. Murray is the only power five conference player in the top-5 in scoring nationally and one of only four in the top-10, joined by Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn and Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis from the Big Ten and Washington’s Terrell Brown, Jr. Of those in the top-10, only Cockburn (29.9) and Wyoming’s Graham Ike (30.7) are averaging fewer minutes per game than Murray’s 30.8 minutes per game.

But Murray is so much more than scoring. He’s averaging 8.1 rebounds per game on the year, good enough for 6th in the Big Ten, and 2.0 blocks per game - 4th in the conference. He’s the only player in the country to average 23+ points and 8+ rebounds per game and he’s doing all that while shooting 56.4% from the field. Nobody has done that in college basketball in 20 years.

He’s the most efficient player in the country with an efficiency rating of 38.7. That’s second only to Zion Williamson’s 40.84 rating in 2018-2019 over the last 13 years. Murray leads the country in a total of six statistical categories, more than anyone not named Oscar Tshiebwe (who has the benefit of rebounds being counted for six different categories and still only comes out with two more categories). He’s the only player in the Big Ten to lead the nation in any category.

Notably, Murray leads the country in both offensive win share and total win share per 40 minutes (so while Tshiebwe leads in win share, he has the benefit of playing ~1 more minute per game and accounts for less win share on even footing). He also tops the nation in offensive and total plus/minus, meaning simply that Iowa is impacted more by his presence on the floor than any other team in the country is impacted by any single player on their roster.

Or more succinctly, he’s the most important player in college basketball.

It’s for those reasons that Murray is tops nationally in Bart Torvik’s Player of the Year T-Rankings. The advanced analytics have him further ahead of Kentucky’s Tshiebwe than the difference between Tshiebwe and fourth ranked EJ Liddell (Kofi Cockburn comes in third).

KenPom has Murray fifth in Player of the Year rankings, behind the likes Tshiebwe, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, and Liddell. This despite Murray leading the nation in KenPom’s MVP metric with 16 games (as compared to 11 for Tshiebwe, 7 for Timme, 9 for Holmgren and 13 for Liddell).

All this to say, Keegan Murray is firmly in the discussion for National Player of the Year based on stats, metrics and advanced analytics. Iowa’s recent success is beginning to finally get him the media respect in that discussion he has deserved all year. And the conversation around Big Ten Player of the Year should pretty clearly start with Murray.

He’s one of the best in the nation, and one of the best to ever wear a Hawkeye jersey. Iowa fans will embrace the remaining games they get to enjoy him in the black and gold this season.