By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two games, and an exhibition.
That’s all we have to assess, and to evaluate, the new-look Iowa men’s basketball team, which defeated Missouri-Kansas City 89-57 on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Two regular-season games against two overmatched opponents in which the outcome never was seriously in doubt, although, the Roos made a game of it for a while on Friday.
Iowa started the season by pounding Longwood 106-73 on Tuesday, and up next will be another overmatched opponent that is willing to suffer for a nice paycheck when Iowa faces North Carolina Central next Tuesday at home.
So trying to reach any conclusions, or make any bold statements or predictions about this Iowa team right now, or about any of its players, would just be a waste of your time and mine.
But what I can say at this point is that this Iowa team intrigues me, and is fun to watch.
It hardly resembles the Luka Garza-led Hawkeyes from last season other than sixth-year guard Jordan Bohannon launching shots from 3-point range.
And it might not reach the level of success that Iowa had last season, winning 22 games and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament behind the National Player of the Year in Garza.
But again, the current Iowa team is enjoyable to watch because it has so many different options, dimensions and lineups due to the makeup of the roster.
It also has an emerging star in 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Keegan Murray, who scored 25 points in Friday’s game despite picking up two early fouls, and he made it look easy, and effortless at times. The former Cedar Rapids Prairie standout also sat for a stretch late in the first half with two fouls, and for nearly the final 10 minutes of the second half after Fran McCaffery had emptied his bench.
“Early on, I was missing a couple shots and missing a couple bunnies, but I was just keeping my aggressiveness on the offensive end and making the right cuts and right reads and pushing it in transition, and if I get points, I get points, or if I find someone open, I find someone open, so whatever works,” Keegan Murray said. “And, obviously, I’ve been scoring in spurts, which has helped us make runs so far these last two games.
“And that’s been good for us.”
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Many of the players on the current roster are new to the team or relatively young, which adds to the intrigue.
It already is easy to see why Fran McCaffery added North Dakota transfer Filip Rebraca, a 6-9 power forward, just by the way Rebraca performed on Friday as he had nine rebounds and seven points by halftime.
Rebraca was very familiar with the Missouri Kansas City players after having competed against them in the Summit League while at North Dakota, where he scored in double figures in 33 of his final 34 games.
“I remember these guys from last year,” Rebraca said.
Junior point guard Joe Toussaint also played under control, but at a fast pace, while 6-9 sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery attacked the rim as he always does. The son of Fran McCaffery scored the game’s first points on a baseline drive in which he soared underneath the basket and made a one-handed shot off the glass.
But the one constant was Keegan Murray, who is the twin brother of Iowa forward Kris Murray and the son of former Iowa player Kenyon Murray.
Keegan Murray has scored 49 points in 40 minutes of playing time season, while also playing his usual rock-solid defense.
It’s too early to say the sky is the limit for Keegan Murray, but he seems destined for stardom.
“I have great confidence in myself as a player,” Keegan Murray said. “Every time I step on the court I feel like I’m the best player on the court. That’s just a mindset that I have going into games.”
Keegan Murray was the best player on the court in Friday’s game, and he certainly has made an impression on Rebraca.
“I don’t know what to say, he’s just an amazing young player,” Rebraca said. “He just understands the game so well. He makes the right decisions. He’s athletic. He’s lengthy, and he can get to his spots. He chooses wisely.
“And then defensively as well, he’s in the correct spots and he helps you out. I just have no complaints about the guy. I love him to death.”
Fran McCaffery also had high praise for Rebraca, who led Iowa with 13 rebounds.
“He’s a veteran guy who knows how to compete,” McCaffery said of the 24-year old Rebraca. “He competes. He is physical and he is versatile. He understands the game. He can dribble , pass and shoot.”
Friday’s effort was far perfect, and at times wasn’t even very good as Fran McCaffery really laid into his players during a timeout with 3:50 remaining in the first half, and with Iowa leading 27-23 after having led by double digits early in the half.
The offense bogged down when McCaffery inserted mostly reserves in the first half, and continued to struggle after most of the starters except for Keegan Murray had returned.
And that’s when Fran McCaffery unleashed during a time out, his face turning beat red as he screamed at his players.
But as often is the case, McCaffery’s red-faced tirade had a positive effect as Iowa had expanded its lead to 37-23 by halftime.
“I think they recognized that we had to be better,” Fran McCaffery said of his players.
The biggest drama in Friday’s game was when or if Bohannon would break Jon Diebler’s Big Ten record for 3-point field goals, which stood at 374 heading into the game.
Bohannon made two treys just minutes into the game as Iowa bolted to a 10-2 lead. But he only one more three before heading to the bench for good about midway through the second half.
Rebraca already had scored six points and grabbed five rebounds when he was substituted for with 12:41 left in the first half, and with Iowa leading 19-10.
Fran McCaffery already had used nine players midway through the first half, and expect that to continue throughout the season.
Many of the players said heading into the season that they had a chip on their shoulder and were determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
A year ago, Iowa was ranked fifth in the Associated Press preseason poll, while the current team was picked by Athlon Sports to finish 10th in the conference.
The naysayers have plenty of ammunition with Iowa having to replace so much offensive firepower from last season.
And there isn’t enough proof yet with two easy wins over mediocre opponents to suggest that they naysayers are wrong.
But there is enough proof to say that this team is intriguing, and that Keegan Murray is showing early signs of being special.
And while this Iowa team lacks experience in some ways, it compensates with age as Rebraca and Bohannon are both 24 years old.
The Murray brothers also spent a year in prep school, while guard Connor McCaffery, who is also Fran McCaffery’s son, is a fifth-year senior.
That should only help as this team continues to learn how to play without Luka Garza, and as the players learn how to fill their new roles, including Keegan Murray as a go-to option on offense, and with Toussaint now starting at point guard, with Bohannon now playing shooting guard and with Patrick McCaffery now starting and playing more minutes.
“It’s a brand new team in that sense, but it’s not like those guys are 17 or 18 years old,” Fran McCaffery said.