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Why Iowa Basketball’s All-Big Ten Streak Proves the Program is Thriving

Fran McCaffery has made a habit out of turning under-recruited players into collegiate stars.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth season in a row, a member of the Iowa men’s basketball team has earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Junior forward Kris Murray follows his brother Keegan (2021-22) and Luka Garza (2019-20, 2020-21) as the latest Hawkeye to earn this distinction. Kris had a huge season for Iowa, emerging as the team’s go-to offensive player while filling the void left by Keegan’s departure to the NBA.

Murray was not the only Hawkeye to earn individual post-season honors, however. Senior big man Filip Rebraca was named third-team All-Big Ten in a season that saw him become one of Iowa’s most important players. Rebraca had previously earned second-team All-Horizon League honors in 2020-21 while playing for the University of North Dakota, and re-discovered his all-league form during his second season playing in the Big Ten.

Finally, sophomore guard Payton Sandfort became the third Hawkeye under Fran McCaffery and the fourth in program history to win the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Sandfort winning this award capped a truly remarkable turnaround that saw him transform from a struggling shooter hitting only 16% of his attempts from beyond the arc during a 12-game stretch from November-early January, to one of the most prolific three-point marksmen in college basketball, capable of hitting huge shots when the lights are at their brightest.

All of these individual honors were well-earned and speak to the preparation and hard work put in by these three student athletes to master their craft. However, they also add to an impressive streak of distinguished Hawkeye basketball players in recent years and paint the picture of a thriving program. In a league featuring blue-bloods like Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan State, Iowa is the only school to have one of its players earn first-team all-conference honors in each of the the past four seasons. Iowa has had at least one player on an All-Big Ten team each of the past five years and 11 of the past 12, and has had two players make an All-Big Ten team in four of the past five seasons. The Hawkeyes have had almost three times the number of first-team All-Big Ten selections during Fran McCaffery’s thirteen years as head coach (eight) compared to the thirteen years prior to his arrival (three). Furthermore, no program has had more players earn Sixth Man of the Year honors than Iowa, a tradition which dates back to Doug Thomas winning the inaugural award in 2005-06.

As impressive as these accomplishments are in a vacuum, they are even more laudable when one considers how Fran McCaffery and his staff have achieved this run of sustained success. While McCaffery has landed the occasional Top 100 recruit at Iowa, he has never had a recruiting class finish in the top five highest ranked among Big Ten and has not even finished in the top half of the conference rankings since 2016. Former Naismith Award winner Luka Garza was seen by many analysts as a project coming out of high school, Sandfort had only one other Power Six offer as a recruit, Rebraca accepted his only D1 offer when he signed with North Dakota, and Kris and Keegan Murray were ranked 333rd and 334th best players in their graduating class, respectively—and that was AFTER a year of prep school. Instead, Iowa’s ability to produce elite college basketball players has much more to do with its capacity to develop talent than it does to recruit it.

The Hawkeyes’ three current Big Ten honorees are excellent examples of this fact. Over the past three seasons Kris Murray has grown from a little-used sub averaging only .6 points per game to a two-way, multi-level scoring wing who some analysts project as a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft. Rebraca struggled to adjust to the speed and physicality of the Big Ten during his first year with the Hawkeyes but saw huge jumps in his per-game scoring (from 5.8 to 13.9), rebounding (from 5.6 to 7.6), and assist (.7 to 2.1) numbers while also emerging as a more vocal and impactful player during his second year on campus. Finally, while Sandfort was an elite shooter from the moment he stepped on campus (minus a strange slump towards the beginning of this season), he has rounded into a much more complete player this year, more than doubling his rebound numbers (4.0 per game this season up from 1.9 last year) and showing real flashes as both a playmaker and a scorer off the dribble. The players deserve all the credit in the world for elevating their game over the course of their college careers, but the coaching staff also deserves credit for guiding them throughout their ascension.

Despite Iowa’s recent run of excellence, the Hawkeyes have yet to translate their individual accomplishments to success at the highest level. Iowa has not parlayed its developmental prowess into elite recruiting classes, the Hawkeyes have yet to make a Sweet 16, and Iowa’s one Big Ten Tournament title was immediately followed up by a deflating loss in its first NCAA Tournament game. Iowa’s ability to take underrecruited players and transform them into stars has helped elevate the program’s national profile and turned the Hawkeyes into one of the most exciting teams to watch in college basketball on a yearly basis. A strong postseason performance this year would not only earn even greater accolades for Iowa’s All-Big Ten honorees, but would also help position the program to take the next step fans have long been craving.