IOWA CITY, Iowa — On Tuesday, the Iowa men's basketball team held its annual preseason media day, weeks ahead of the official start of the season.
The Hawkeyes return three starters and five of their seven top scorers from last year. After finishing last season with a 26-10 record and a Big Ten Championship trophy, Iowa hopes to return to the NCAA National Championship Tournament for the fourth straight season this upcoming March.
Returning starters Filip Rebraca, Patrick McCaffery and Tony Perkins are preparing to step up and lead the Hawkeyes after they lost first-team All-American Keegan Murray and Iowa's all-time leader in three-pointers made, Jordan Bohannon from last season's roster. The Hawkeyes will have to replace 35 points and 10 rebounds per game with their departures.
At point guard, junior Ahron Ulis is preparing to take the helm after Bohannon's graduation, and veteran guard Joe Toussaint's transfer to West Virginia. Ulis averaged three points and two assists in 14 minutes per game last season.
Pushing Ulis for minutes will be true freshman Dasonte Bowen and sixth-year senior Connor McCaffery. Connor McCaffery isn't a prototypical point guard, but with inexperience at the position, he'll likely manage ball-handling duties on occasion.
On the competition at point guard, Fran McCaffery said, "Ahron Ulis has been really good, Dasonte has been really good. I’ve put Tony there some. Then we put Payton at the 2 spot, and we can go that route if we want to. Connor can play it."
Fran McCaffery spoke about his eldest son Connor during Tuesday's open practice press conference, saying, "from strictly a basketball standpoint, he’s been way more aggressive offensively, shooting the ball really well."
Connor McCaffery's three-point percentage improved drastically last season from years past. If he can continue progressing his three-point shot from 34% last season, he'll make Iowa's offense much more dangerous.
At shooting guard, junior Tony Perkins returns after having a breakout season last year in which he averaged seven points and two assists. Despite averaging just seven points, Perkins had multiple games in which he scored 15+ points, and will be one of Iowa's top offensive weapons this season.
"He’s absolutely fearless. He was like that in high school. I mean, he had as good a high school senior year as anybody I’ve ever recruited ... But that kid is a gamer. I’ll go to war with him any day," McCaffery said of Perkins.
The small forward position is locked down by returning starter and younger McCaffery son, Patrick McCaffery, who averaged 10 points and two rebounds last season.
The versatile forward will acquire greater responsibilities offensively with Murray and Bohannon gone. A proven threat around the rim and from mid-range, Patrick McCaffery can carve out a larger offensive role for himself if he can improve his three-point percentage from 33% last season.
"I think for him, you’re going to see a guy that’s, I think, more complete offensively," said Fran McCaffery in regards to his younger son.
Sophomore forward Payton Sandfort will see minutes as a shooting guard and small forward behind Perkins and McCaffery. A proven three-point sniper in his true freshman season, Sandfort can become an integral offensive playmaker if he continues his progression from year one.
At power forward, Murray's twin brother Kris will take the reins at the position. Kris Murray will prepare to fill the scoring void left by his brother, after averaging 10 points and four rebounds last season.
"We need him to do a lot of different things for this basketball team to be successful, and he’s going to have that opportunity. He’s on a big stage. He can get it off the glass and push it himself. He can shoot 3s when he wants. He can post up when he wants. He’s going to be out there most of the time unless he’s in foul trouble," said Fran McCaffery.
It would be fair to say that Iowa's chances of returning to the NCAA tournament rely largely on Kris Murray's ability to replicate his brothers' success at Iowa. Fans saw glimpses of Kris Murray's prowess last year when Keegan got into early foul trouble in their January matchup with Indiana; Kris Murray entered the game and logged a double-double with career highs 29 points and 11 rebounds in an 83-74 victory.
It's no secret that Kris Murray shares many of the same skillsets as his brother, but he will have to pave his own way to success as the new starting power forward in order to elevate this Iowa team to the postseason.
At center, starter Filip Rebraca returns after averaging six points and six rebounds last season. Standing at just 6 feet 9 inches, Rebraca is a proven grinder, regularly bodying up with bigger and stronger centers. But with inexperienced and unproven bigs Josh Ogundele and Riley Mulvey battling for the backup center spot, Rebraca will need to improve his physicality and aggressiveness this season if the Hawkeyes are to repeat as Big Ten champions.
"I think Filip is just going to be a more confident guy and he’s going to be more aggressive offensively. I also think his minutes will be great. He played a lot of minutes last year, was a starter for us, but he’s going to be out there a lot. We need him out there," Fran McCaffery said of Rebraca's importance to the team.
Don't forget about true freshman walk-on guard, Rock Island High School graduate Amarion Nimmers. The Rock Island-native joins the Iowa roster after having an exceptional prep career for the Rocks. Nimmers is not the typical Hawkeye walk-on; Nimmers held a full-ride scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois prior to committing to the Hawkeyes. Fran McCaffery rarely secures walk-on commitments from athletes that have full-ride scholarship offers elsewhere.
The athletic guard will welcome Moline High School's Owen Freeman and Brock Harding when they join the Iowa roster next season.
Iowa will open the season with an opening home exhibition against former Hawkeye, Jeff Horner-led Truman State on Oct. 31 before officially beginning their season on Nov. 7 against Bethune Cookman at Carver-Hawkeye arena.
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