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IOWA CITY — The nation will catch up to this Keegan Murray story soon enough.
The Iowa sophomore forward hasn’t bubbled toward the top of the college basketball news yet, because virtually no one has seen him play. The Hawkeyes have five one-sided wins in as many starts, but all were “buy games” that grabbed few, including their own fans.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena was more than half-empty again Monday, but Murray again filled the basket. In Iowa’s 109-61 win over Western Michigan, he had a career-high 29 points.
It was Murray’s fifth-straight game of at least 24. His season average is 26.2, one-tenth of a point behind Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, who has played three games.
More Murray numbers: For the third time, he had 22 points in the first half. He had Iowa’s first 17 points. On five occasions, he scored while being fouled in the act of shooting. He has 131 points in 121 minutes.
This, from someone who never scored more than 14 points in a game as a freshman.
Murray reminds Hawkeye basketball radio commentator and former Iowa/NBA player Bob Hansen of one of his former teammates. That’s a Hall of Famer named Scottie Pippen, whom Hansen played with on the Chicago Bulls’ 1992 NBA championship team, and competed against him for four seasons before that.
“The way he moves, how smooth he is,” Hansen said when asked what about Murray reminds him of Pippen. “Just his ease of movement. How easily he jumps. Powerful, yet easy. Real springy.
“Shooting and defense are where (Murray) can improve. That’s where Scottie improved.”
Hansen also likes Murray’s defense. Murray had two steals and three blocked shots Monday, and has 14 blocks this season.
Pippen, Hansen said, “was a lockdown defender. He could guard (point guard John) Stockton, (power forward Karl) Malone, anybody.”
There was a two-minute stretch early in Monday’s game in which Murray scored eight points, caused a tie-up, blocked a shot, and teamed with Jordan Bohannon to trap a WMU player and force the Broncos to call time.
When you score your team’s first 17 points, you’re not just letting the game come to you, as he and many top players like to say. You’re taking control.
“My teammates just have the ultimate confidence in me,” Murray said. “They just gave me the ball at the right spots in the right moments and I was able to produce.”
“He never forces the issue no matter what,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said, “but we need him to be the way he is now. He accepts whatever you ask from him.”
Iowa sophomore guard Tony Perkins had a career-high 15 points off the bench and had two of his team’s 15 steals. He said he battles Murray in practice.
“In practice I do my best to guard him,” Perkins said, “but he still scores.
“I go at him. I make it hard on him to score on me. He might score every once in a while. I make him better, he makes me better. It’s vice versa when I’ve got the ball and he’s on defense.”
Perkins was used almost exclusively in spots last season. With extended playing time these first five games, his aggressiveness and confidence have been obvious.
“That’s the way he plays,” McCaffery said, “and that’s when he’s most effective, playing that way. … He’s always going to play the game with an edge, with a little reckless abandon. I thought tonight he was really good at both ends.”
Even with Murray, Iowa’s starters were outscored by its second five players, 56-46, and the quintets played roughly the same number of minutes.
Freshman forward Payton Sandfort made five 3-pointers for the second-consecutive game and had 19 points. Kris Murray had 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Ahron Ulis had a career-high eight assists.
Iowa forced 24 turnovers, committed just seven. It improved its season free throw shooting to 83.9 percent by going 21-of-23 Monday.
The Hawkeyes are averaging 99.6 points, tops in the nation. They are fourth in fewest turnovers per game, with 8.2.
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