Iowa freshman Keegan Murray thrives through sheer hustle
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Coaches can’t devise a strategy to slow down Iowa freshman Keegan Murray. They simply must hope their players are willing to match his hustle.
The Hawkeye forward from Cedar Rapids has been a revelation for a veteran team with championship aspirations, and he’s certainly popping up on opposing scouting reports after setting career-highs in minutes (22), points (14) and rebounds (nine) in Saturday’s 77-75 victory at Rutgers. Murray got two first-half fouls in that one, but played nearly the entire second half after starting power forward Connor McCaffery left with an ankle injury and backup Jack Nunge made a couple of costly mistakes after intermission.
Next up for the No. 7 Hawkeyes (9-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) is a 6 p.m. Thursday game at Maryland (6-5, 1-4). McCaffery’s status is in doubt for that one, and Murray is earning more playing time at any rate.
But what exactly can Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon do to thwart Murray? Iowa’s offense runs through star center Luka Garza. Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick must be accounted for on the perimeter.
Murray is getting attention for the things he does when opponents don’t pay him enough attention.
“They’re really focusing on Luka. I think just me being active, there’s no scout on me,” Murray said Tuesday. “I think me playing my own game, hustling, getting the ball to Luka, getting the ball to our shooters, has really helped me create the opportunities for myself that you can’t really scout.
“I’ve been really trying to establish myself by making open shots, getting easy layups, easy dunks and being efficient on the court.”
Murray is averaging 6.6 points on 54% shooting, plus 4.2 rebounds per game. He is second on the team in blocked shots and steals, with 13 apiece. He has been the ultimate X-factor for the Hawkeyes, a player whose role is simply to help the stars fulfill theirs.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he will continue to lean on Murray, but that his playing time will vary according to the needs of the moment.
“The kid is a terrific player. He's versatile. He'll be out there quite a bit,” McCaffery said.
“He's proven he's ready to go and he's not going to make any mistakes.”
No Connor McCaffery would make things difficult for Luka Garza
Connor McCaffery turned his right ankle early in the game at Rutgers, but returned to the Iowa bench in the second half and was seen coaching the team during timeouts while his father and the rest of the staff briefly huddled. Fran McCaffery said his son wasn’t expected to practice Tuesday, but he was hopeful that he would be able to participate in Wednesday’s session before the team flies to Maryland.
If he can’t play, it will be Nunge and Murray again dividing up the minutes at the ‘4’ spot, giving Iowa more size but not the passing that Connor McCaffery offers. Garza certainly missed McCaffery in the Rutgers game. The Hawkeyes had difficulty getting him the basketball in spots where he could operate effectively against a smothering Scarlet Knights defense. He ultimately broke free to score 15 of his 25 points in the final 8½ minutes.
“He’s probably the best post-entry passer that I’ve ever played with, so it definitely impacts me when he’s not on the floor,” Garza said of McCaffery. “Especially against teams that pressure really hard and are really good at reaching around and tap the ball, you really need to get the ball in the right spot and our guys really adjusted toward the end of the game.
“His ability to take care of the ball and just be a leader out there is a huge thing for us. So hopefully his ankle starts to feel better, and he’ll be ready to play.”
Murray has only six assists on the season, a reflection of how infrequently he touches the ball on set plays, more than a lack of ability. When he gets the ball on offense, it’s usually because he’s chased it down or has been left open at the 3-point arc (where he’s made eight of 18).
In McCaffery’s absence, though, Murray knew he would be called on to help feed Garza. He said he spoke to the all-American about that and got this advice:
“Luka told me don’t force anything if you don’t see it, because the worst thing you can do is get a turnover. And if you’re not 100% confident getting the ball to him, then don’t throw it,” Murray said. “Move the ball around and eventually it will get to him.”
Garza is averaging 27.5 points per game. Yes, the basketball will wind up in his hands often against Maryland. But it’s a smoother process if McCaffery can play.
Is Ahron Ulis joining Hawkeye rotation? He's not sure, but says he'll be ready
Murray has been the only true freshman in Fran McCaffery’s nine-player rotation. But that may be changing. On Saturday, Ahron Ulis got his first Big Ten action and was impressive in 14 surprise minutes. The rookie point guard had four assists and no turnovers. His final assist came on an entry pass to Garza, who turned it into the first of his five late baskets.
“It's always difficult when you're a coach and you know you have a guy who is really good and wants to play and deserves to play. You try to find minutes when you can,” McCaffery said of Ulis.
“He did things in that game that you would expect him to do. We had seen it in high school, in practice. He has a great demeanor to play the game.”
Ulis said he’s been putting in the work to make sure he was ready if and when he was needed.
“It’s always a great feeling going out there getting the ‘W’”, he said. “It’s a great feeling just knowing that you contributed.”
Ulis said he was proud of the way he both changed the pace of Saturday’s game and kept it in control. The action didn’t move too fast for him. He was able to fulfill the first duty of a point guard, which is setting up teammates for open shots.
But he knows that doesn’t necessarily mean McCaffery is going to expand his rotation halfway through the season, with such lofty goals ahead.
“You never know what could happen. I could be part of the rotation,” Ulis said. “(I must) always be ready to go out there and do what I need to do to help my team come out with a ‘W.’”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.