The No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers (11-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) men’s basketball team hosts the Iowa Hawkeyes (11-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) on Thursday night, for their only meeting of the season, and we had a few questions about the Hawks ahead of the game. Thankfully our pal Ross from Go Iowa Awesome was available to answer our Q’s.
(You can find my answers to his questions right here.)
The Hawkeyes had a little three-game losing streak at the beginning of December, but have bounced back nicely. How has the season been going overall for Iowa?
As expected, for the most part? Thus far, they’ve generally beaten the teams they were “supposed” to beat and lost to teams better than them; the three teams that have beaten Iowa (Purdue, Illinois, and Iowa State) have a combined record of 35-6 this year, which is pretty alright. Iowa played well (mostly) against Purdue and Illinois but came up short in the end; they played very badly against Iowa State and got absolutely steamrolled. They played an exceptionally soft non-conference schedule and racked up a lot of wins, but there’s only so many brownie points you get for beating Longwood and Portland State and Southeastern Louisiana, you know?
Iowa’s three best wins this year are against Virginia, Utah State, and Maryland — some solid enough teams, but no one to get your heart racing. I’m happy Iowa has avoided any terrible losses and that they’ve generally taken care of business effectively against subpar competition, but I’m still nervous about this team over two months of Big Ten competition because — last time I checked — the Big Ten hasn’t added Longwood or Western Michigan to the league.
This isn’t really a question, but Keegan Murray has been excellent this year. I was a big fan of his last season and I’m excited to see how well he’s been playing. To get to a question, uh, what is the most improved part of his game this season?
Can I go with “everything”? Murray was a fun story last year, a (very) lightly-recruited legacy recruit of a popular former player (he and his brother Kris are the sons of Kenyon Murray, who was a very solid guard for Iowa in the 90s), who turned out to be a very capable player at the Big Ten level, too. He was a tremendous sixth man who was able to do a lot of different things well, hustled constantly, and provided great energy whenever he was on the floor.
I was certainly excited to see what he could do this season with more opportunities...but in no way did I ever dream that he would become the player that we’ve seen this season. I don’t really expect him to win Big Ten Player of the Year this season, mainly because the Big Ten is absolutely stacked with phenomenal players and because Iowa probably won’t win enough games to allow him to get serious consideration for that award, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still putting up monster numbers and still on pace to have an absolutely tremendous season.
One of the things I enjoy most about his game is just how smooth it is. His game is very graceful — even when he’s stampeding down the floor on a fast break and hammering home a dunk with two hands, there’s a certain amount of grace to how he does it, you know? Murray is great in the low post, thanks to some very good footwork and strong basketball instincts. He’s great at going around or through opponents, depending on what the situation calls for. His jump shot is developing nicely and he’s a legit menace around the three-point line (36%), where’s capable of going on a tear (he was 5-of-6 from deep against Maryland on Monday night).
He can rack up points in so many ways and so quickly that it can be a little dizzying; there have been more than a few games when I look at the box score in the first half and am startled to see that he’s already racked up 14-16 points. Add in that he’s a very strong rebounder (8.2 rpg), very solid at defending without fouling (despite playing heavy minutes this season, he’s only been called for 19 fouls over 13 games), and he’s very good at using his length (Jay Bilas is probably going to love his wingspan come DRAFT SZN) to generate blocks and steals (he’s averaging right around four combined blocks/steals per game this year) and there are just so many things to like about his game.
Who else should Wisconsin be aware of when Iowa is on offense? There is no more Luka Garza or Joe Wieskamp and Murray can’t be doing everything...right?
Uh... right. Definitely right! Absolutely not The Keegan Murray Show, no siree. The most notable Pips — er, Iowa Hawkeye teammates of Keegan Murray — are probably Patrick McCaffery and your favorite Hawkeye who refuses to go away, Jordan Bohannon.
McCaffery is one of two sons of head coach Fran McCaffery on the team, along with his older brother Connor, who’s settled into a role as a useful old head off the bench and leader for Iowa’s second unit. Patrick is one of Iowa’s starting wings and is averaging 11.3 ppg and 3.3 rpg, despite only shooting 42% from the floor and 32% from 3-point range. He’s at his best when Iowa can get in transition and he can glide down the floor and finish around the room or hit a three on the break.
Bohannon is still here, still doing Bohannon things — 81 of his 108 field goal attempts this year have been threes and he’s made around 40% of them. His assist numbers have dropped precipitously (just 20 on the season, fewer than two per game) because he’s moved from playing point guard primarily to playing shooting guard exclusively. He’s been streaky at times this season, but he’s still very much capable of raining threes on an opponent when he gets hot.
Kris Murray and Tony Perkins have been key contributors for Iowa off the bench this season as well, Kris is Keegan’s twin brother and he shares a lot of his brother’s strengths — good around the rim and a better-than-expected thee-point shooter (44% this season on 36 attempts), as well as a solid rebounder, and capable of getting his long arms into passing lanes or shooting lanes to cause a little havoc. He’s just not quite as good as his brother at all of those things.
Perkins is a guard who’s averaging 8.4 ppg and pretty consistently provides a spark for Iowa off the bench. He’s a valuable part of the press that Iowa likes to employ on defense when they bring in their second unit and he’s an excellent finisher in transition. Finally, Ahron Ulis has been playing a lot of minutes for Iowa as of late; he’s nominally the back-up point guard (behind Joe Toussaint, the very speedy starter at that position), but Ulis offers a lot of length at that position and he seems to be getting increasingly comfortable guiding Iowa’s offense as well.
Iowa is still not great on defense, as is tradition, but what do they do well on that side of the ball?
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Iowa ranks No. 141 in defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and that number’s been sinking on a game-by-game basis this season, which is, uh... not great! I wouldn’t say they’re “great” or even “above average” at anything on the defensive side of the ball this season, but Iowa has at least been pretty good at not fouling and putting opponents on the free throw line and they’re also pretty good at forcing turnovers.
They’re No. 90 nationally in turnover rate, including No. 93 in steal rate and No. 66 in block rate. That’s not bad! That block rate is largely down to the Murray Twins, by the way; Keegan and Kris have 39 of Iowa’s 62 blocks this season, led by Keegan’s 27 (about two per game). Those boys have long arms and they know how to use them around the basket.
Iowa does also run a three-quarter court press at times (usually with the bench players) that’s been effective at harassing opponents into turnovers and bad decisions; it almost single-handedly got them back into the game against Purdue last month.
Who do you think wins and who scores more points Murray or Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis (aka the top two leading scorers in the whole country!!!!!)?
I really hope it’s my guy, because if Keegan doesn’t out-score Davis, I’d gave Iowa about a 0.1% chance of winning this game. Iowa has really sunk or swum this season with Murray in a lot of games, but especially against better opposition. He’s going to need to show out again in this game for Iowa to have a shot at leaving Madison with a W.
I also expect Wisconsin to throw the sink at him defensively and make someone else on Iowa beat them. My heart says Keegan has another monster game and Iowa finds a way to eke out a win over Wisconsin, but my head says my heart is stupid and thinks Wisconsin just has more ways to win this game.
For Iowa to win, they need Keegan Murray to be the hands down best player on the floor — and even that could easily not be enough if he doesn’t get much help from his supporting cast. I don’t think Wisconsin needs Johnny Davis to be the best player in the game nearly as much and they have more avenues to victory available to them.