116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
LINCOLN, Neb. — So, who saw Iowa with 10 Big Ten men’s basketball wins this season, and that number secured with three games still to play?
Who saw the Hawkeyes winning 20 games for a fourth-straight year? With National Player of the Year Luka Garza gone, with current NBA forward Joe Wieskamp gone, with starting guard CJ Fredrick gone, with 7-foot Jack Nunge gone?
Iowa’s players, that’s who. Before Game 1 was played, junior point guard Joe Toussaint said the Hawkeyes would be better than people thought. On the podcast of his teammates, Connor and Patrick McCaffery, Toussaint said his team had some dogs, meaning guys who can play. Guys with bite.
After Iowa’s 88-78 win at Nebraska Friday night, Connor McCaffery had a few things to say about all that.
“We know where we were picked,” he said. “Me and J-Bo (Jordan Bohannon) talked about it was a big thing for us, a big focus for us to emphasize it to the younger guys this year.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. Most people have no idea. That’s just the way that it is.
“Ninety-five percent of people truly have no clue about anything. And you’ve just got to know that. You learn that over the years. Most people are stupid.”
No Garza, no Wieskamp, no Fredrick, no Nunge. That was four of the top six scorers and three of the top four rebounders from last season. It really wasn’t a stretch to expect some drop-off this year. So why are the Hawkeyes 10-7 and 20-8?
Returning players have grown, obviously. From Day One this season, Keegan Murray has been a house o’ fire. But fellow sophomores Kris Murray, Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins have gradually become reliable players bringing many things to the court.
Kris Murray, for the third-straight game, had a scoreless first half here. Some coaches would say he just didn’t have it this night and wouldn’t have gone back to him in the second half. Murray’s last three second-halves produced 11, 11 and 12 points.
“In the first half he was pretty much nonexistent,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “He was a dominant player in the second half, in all phases. It says a lot about our team.”
“Connor McCaffery told me I was going to make a big play in the second half and that’s what I did,” Kris Murray said. “He gave me a lot of confidence. Coach McCaffery gives me a lot of confidence, to just go out and play, not drop my head.”
Seven games ago, Iowa was in a rut. It had lost three of its last four games, including contests at Rutgers and Penn State it felt it should have won. Its shooting was woeful. To those of us on the outside, it felt like the team had peaked and was headed for a second-division finish.
As a member of the clueless 95 percent, that’s pretty much what I thought. The next game, Bohannon was moved to his old starting point guard spot, Perkins was inserted as a starting guard, and Toussaint became a substitute.
The play of all three and the play of their team have been sharper since.
“I think I’ve found my comfort zone since starting a few games,” said Perkins, who had 15 second-half points and a career-high 20 Friday.
Wisconsin’s Greg Gard seems the odds-on pick for Big Ten Coach of the Year. His Badgers took a 13-4 league record to Rutgers Saturday. They were picked 10th by the 95 percent, I mean, the league’s beat writers.
But Fran McCaffery is right there. His guys are 7-1 in February, have won their last three road games. Rebounding had a been a real problem area. Iowa has outperformed its foes on the glass in five of the last six games.
Maybe the symbol for this team is Connor McCaffery, criticized by many a social media braveheart for his shooting this season. He made all three of his 3-pointers Friday and was one of six Hawkeyes who scored at least 10 points. He has made his last six threes, in fact.
“Just feeling good,” he said. “Trying to keep the confidence going.”
This is a team that has gotten better and more confident. It’s headed to the NCAA tournament, and 95 percent of us didn’t see that coming.
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