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Hawkeyes’ February run launched them into elite company

Tony Perkins has been a revelation

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Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Iowa Hawkeyes find themselves in a position only they predicted: Top 5 in the the Big Ten with a league-best offensive efficiency and top half defense, per KenPom ($). Perhaps the most important number in February was zero: no mind-boggling losses which hang over the team like a grey cloud. There’s still time for that, of course, with two teams Iowa beat three times by 18 points/game facing off tomorrow for a Thursday date with the Hawkeyes but until then, let’s take a look at how they’ve changed since February 1.

But first, let’s remember what precarious position Iowa was in as the calendar turned to February: they were 4-6 in conference play coming off a double overtime road loss to Penn State with a Thursday trip to Ohio State on the docket. Airplane trouble and weather delayed that game and allowed Iowa to reset for a home game against Minnesota. Billy Taylor guided the team in Fran’s COVID-19 absence and that was that. I’m glad we live in the timeline where Iowa doesn’t carry three straight losses into a game against the feisty Golden Gophers.

Tony Perkins insertion into the starting lineup allowed for a better guard rotation

I wrote at the time it was a change nobody asked for (Jordan Bohannon to the bench and Kris Murray into the starting lineup were the two more popular changes) but boy was I wrong? As the season moved forward and the lineup continued to have success, it increasingly made sense. Fran McCaffery figured that Jordan Bohannon was going to command roughly 30-35 minutes a game - he averaged 28 down the stretch with blowouts - and the diminutive lineup with Bohannon and Joe Toussaint put Iowa at a disadvantage.

The math said a couple things: 1) there’s only 45-50 minutes for the other guards and 2) they way rotates starters after the first commercial break of each half guaranteed about 10-12 minutes of game time was locked into the Bohannon/Toussaint backcourt.

In actuality, it was even rougher than that. The pair played 200 minutes together through 10 conference games and outscored opponents by 12 points (3.82/100 possessions), per Pivot Analysis. At the time, it was more gut move - get guys in positions they’re comfortable playing offensively and defensively - since Bohannon/Perkins was -5 in 25 minutes (-10.45/100 possessions) but it’s flipped on its head with the lineup change: +43 in 168 minutes (+15.42/100 possessions).

It’s also reduced the time Bohannon and Toussaint share the floor (5.2 minutes/game) and seen their efficiency skyrocket to +42.12/100 possessions.

While Bohannon has returned to a more ball-dominant role, the way he’s used still includes plenty of off-ball action. He’s surrounded by capable ball handlers who can take a defensive rebound and GO while his defense and activity as a screener has been as good as it’s ever been. Some of this is being surrounded by plus defenders who provide cover but his effort on that end of the court has been the best and most sustained of his career.

But it doesn’t work without Perkins emergence

In the first half of the Big Ten season, Perkins averaged just 5.9 points in 15.1 minutes. Fine numbers for a bench option Iowa doesn’t need to rely on night in, night out. While minutes & points increase have been roughly in line (19.6 and 8.0) he’s absolutely flashed in the last four games (14 PPG), three of which were double-digit outputs. While his three-point shot had been dormant for much of the conference season, he’s made 5/7 in those games and could be the next three-level scorer Iowa builds around.

On a roster where Fran has preached its depth, having five guys who could get 20 points on any given night is a benefit few teams have. (yes, I’m including Payton Sandfort in this count) He is also clean with the ball, with a turnover rate of 12.6%. It rates in the top 300 nationally, per KenPom, but is just 6th on the team.

Defensively, he’s been excellent all season, with a tidy steal/game. Against Northwestern he had five and two at Michigan. His short area speed enables Iowa’s propensity for double-teaming post players by guarding two weakside offensive players at once.

He also provides a different edge in Iowa’s rebounding, capturing a career-high 12 against Illinois, and is a guy who can find offense through that avenue in such a casually athletic way.

Kris continues to flourish in a bench role

As alluded to the above, he’s been so good the bench role that fans have called for him to be in the starting lineup. Yet he’s happy in his bench role, describing it like this after Iowa’s win against Michigan State: “I like it, just because it helps us keep the same intensity as the first group. And there’s no let-up at all from the first group to the second group.”

With Filip Rebraca starting alongside Keegan, it allows Fran to stagger Murrays (not that Keegan comes off much) to ensure one is almost always on the court. According to Pivot Analysis, only 35 minutes in conference play have existed outside of garbage time with neither twin on the floor, with the Hawks as the beneficiary:

  • Keegan only: +5.6 points/100 possessions in conference play
  • Kris only: -4.3 points/100
  • Together: +25.7 points/100

You see those numbers, and you wonder how a Big Ten coach can seriously say: “I like the Murray brothers, but it’s hard to play them together.” They have the second best net margin of the 21 Hawkeye pairs who have played 400+ possessions together. (Bohannon & Kris is #1)

You also see them and wonder why Fran doesn’t try to maximize their time on the court together through starting them both. First, I think it comes down to the roles Kris described above. With him off the bench, the pedal can always be to the metal.

The other area is: Kris has struggled even more with foul trouble than Keegan. He fouls at a rate more than double that of Keegan (5.6/40 minutes vs. 2.4) and the bench role does not require him to be as perfect defensively.

Altogether, it’s resulted in a team who’s the second best according to Bart Torvik since February 1st in all the country. As they’ve shown for the last month, the Hawkeyes have the potential to do something they haven’t done in awhile, whether it’s win the conference tournament or get to the second weekend of March Madness.