By John Bohnenkamp
Kris Murray’s eyes lit up when he was asked about what it will be like to play a road game in front of fans for the first time.
“Yeah, I can’t wait, honestly,” the Iowa sophomore forward said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Murray and the Hawkeyes are 6-0 to start the season, but the level of competition is about to increase in the next five games, starting with Monday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game at Virginia.
Iowa rolled through the opening games, averaging a 31.7-point victory margin against a schedule that KenPom.com ranks 355th so far. The Hawkeyes lead the nation in scoring at 97.2 points per game.
But the teams coming up, including the Big Ten opening-weekend matchups of Purdue on the road Friday and Illinois at home on Monday, represent a different level of competition.
The Hawkeyes get:
• At Virginia (5-2, 47 KenPom)
• At Purdue (6-0, 2 KenPom)
• Illinois (4-2, 23 KenPom)
• At Iowa State (6-0, 74 KenPom)
• Utah State (5-1, 60 KenPom) in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“That’s what you sign up for,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Sunday. “You want to play in the Big Ten, you want to play in the ACC(/Big Ten) Challenge, you want to play teams like Virginia on the road. We’ll see how we perform, we’ll see how we perform consistently, I think, over 40 minutes.”
McCaffery said Iowa’s opening schedule — home games against Longwood, Kansas City, North Carolina Central, Alabama State, Western Michigan and Portland State — did what it was supposed to do for a team that lost consensus national player of the year Luka Garza and forward Joe Wieskamp to the NBA. The Hawkeyes have plenty of experience back, but several players are either in different roles or expanded roles.
“I wanted to give them the opportunity to grow, to develop confidence, to be able to play through their mistakes,” McCaffery said after Friday’s 85-51 win over Portland State. “So every possession doesn’t have incredible things riding on it. So you turn it over, run back, guard your man, make a good play. Play through your mistakes. Look at different combinations. Have guys play different positions. Knowing that from this point forward, it’s going to be more difficult.”
“We’ve got a new team, in a bunch of new roles,” said third-year sophomore forward Patrick McCaffery, Fran’s son. “We have a lot of the same players, but we have some new ones, and it took them time to get acclimated. These first (six) games were perfect for that.”
It’s also going to be a chance for Iowa’s sophomores — Murray and his twin brother Keegan, who leads the nation in scoring at 25.2 points per game, center Josh Ogundele and guards Ahron Ulis and Tony Perkins — to play road games in a hostile environment. Keegan Murray, Ulis, and Perkins got significant playing time last season, but those games were played in empty arenas because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a challenge,” Fran McCaffery said of playing on the road. “When you have a veteran club, it’s less of a factor. This is a young group, even some of the guys who played a lot last year haven’t played in front of anybody. We essentially have about eight guys that fall into that category.”
What’s done is done for the Hawkeyes, even if it wasn’t much of a test. Those are coming.
“I think we saw what we wanted to see,” McCaffery said. “But, again, as we step up to a team of Virginia’s caliber, on the road, I think we’ll find out more.”
“I love competition,” Patrick McCaffery said. “I’m ready, and I’ve got dogs with me in the locker room who are ready.”
Photo: Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon starts a fast break in Friday’s 85-51 win over Portland State. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)