Again, a star is gone and Hawkeyes men's basketball needn't slip

Again, a star is gone and Hawkeyes men’s basketball needn’t slip

Iowa men’s basketball players Kris Murray and Patrick McCaffery (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Fact: The Iowa men’s basketball program under Fran McCaffery has continued to steadily improve.

That was evidenced Monday night in downtown Los Angeles when Sacramento Kings rookie Keegan Murray scored a game-high 16 points in his first NBA preseason game, a Kings rout of LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers.

For the first time in this century, a former Hawkeye could become a player of impact in the NBA.

“It gives us more name recognition knowing that we have a guy who was MVP in the (NBA) Summer League and he’s going to be a multiple-time All-Star and is going to have a really, really big-time NBA career, ” said Murray’s former teammate, Iowa junior forward Patrick McCaffery.

Murray is gone, but the Hawkeyes’ flame still burns. McCaffery, Tony Perkins and Kris Murray give the 2022-23 team three players capable of taking over a game for stretches, and few clubs can boast that.

It’s why the good times won’t necessarily be over because a first-team All-American has departed, just as they weren’t when National Player of the Year Luka Garza graduated the year before.

In a college basketball world gone mad with the transfer portal and the tough time Iowa has competing for players when it comes to NIL benefits, Fran McCaffery’s program is stable all the same.

At Wednesday’s Media Day, a letter from McCaffery was distributed before he took questions. It cited many of his program’s feats of the last four years. It’s not a small list.

First-team All-Americans the last three years. Twenty-two wins over ranked foes in the last four years. Twenty-plus victories and upper-division Big Ten finishes in each of the last four seasons. A spot in the last three final AP Top 25s.

A new box was checked last year with a Big Ten tournament title. Still undone is a league regular-season crown and to go beyond the first week of the NCAA tournament. But things have gone forward, not sideways.

“Well, I think that was the plan when I came here, when Mr. Barta hired me,” McCaffery said.

“I think you’ve seen a shift with how some coaches are doing it. They’re building a team one year to another. I don’t see myself as an AAU coach. I view myself as somebody who’s going to continue to build a program.”

With Garza and his whopping scoring total gone, Iowa was picked to finish ninth in the Big Ten last season. Instead, it won 26 games, won by double-digits at Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State, and clipped NCAA teams Rutgers, Indiana and Purdue in succession at the conference tourney.

This year, Keegan Murray is gone and outsiders may expect a dip. But how many Big Ten teams will match the Hawkeyes’ experience and punch?

“We have a really veteran squad this year,” Kris Murray said, “and a couple of freshmen who are playing really well. I think we’ll get a lot of contributions from everyone this year.”

Kris Murray is the focal point, though. He could have hooked onto some NBA team’s roster this year. He instead chose a junior-season platform at Iowa.

⧉ Related article: It’s Kris Murray’s time with the Hawkeyes, and he’s embracing it

When Keegan had foul trouble against Indiana last season, Kris scored 29 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. He was third on his team in 3-pointers, second in 3-point percentage and blocks, fourth in scoring and steals. That was in just 18 minutes per game off the bench.

“I get compared to Keegan a lot,” Kris said. “We’re two different players. I’m not going to average 23 points like he did. I might average 15 to 20, but I’ll have four to five assists a game.”

Kris doesn’t need to be Keegan. He needs to be maximum Kris. There are other players on this team, Perkins, Payton Sandfort, Patrick and Connor McCaffery, and more.

“We’ve got some horses here,” Patrick McCaffery said, “and we’re ready to roll.”

The season is a month away. In the meantime, you can keep tabs of a former Hawkeye from Cedar Rapids in Sacramento.

“I think a lot of people look at Keegan and say ‘Wait a minute, his high school ranking was 347 and he was the fourth pick in the draft,’” Fran McCaffery said.

“He came into a system where he was allowed to showcase his entire skill set and develop confidence in a system that was successful.”

As recruiting pitches go, that’s a pretty good one.

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