By John Bohnenkamp
Kris Murray mostly watched and learned last season.
It’s paid off this season for the Iowa sophomore forward.
Murray, caught in the Hawkeyes’ frontcourt numbers game last season, has become a key piece off the bench. He is fourth on the team in scoring at 10.2 points per game and is third in rebounding at 5.1 per game.
“He’s been pretty consistent,” coach Fran McCaffery said.
It’s all about confidence, Murray said.
“It’s progressively grown over the season, I would say,” he said. “I feel really comfortable on the court, especially with my role of coming off the bench. I feel like I can bring a pretty good spark off the bench offensively and defensively. I have a lot of confidence in my game right now.”
Murray played just 41 minutes in 13 games last season. It was a crowded frontcourt for the Hawkeyes, and he used the time to absorb what he could in his first college season.
He is averaging 17.7 minutes per game this season, and his game has grown with the playing time.
The difference, Murray said, is “A lot of confidence. Mostly knowing what I would do on the court, and the role I would play. I think that you could see I was kind of tentative early in the season. Just kind of learning. I think (the confidence) has progressively grown.”
Murray is shooting 50.2% from the field, 47.1% in 3-pointers. He also has nine blocked shots, second-most on the Hawkeyes.
“When he’s feeling good, he impacts the game with offense, with defense, with rebounding, and he’s just getting more and more comfortable with what we’re doing,” McCaffery said. “And obviously that plays into your confidence level, so he’s playing with confidence now.”
Murray has had six games scoring in double figures. He had a career-high 17 points against Alabama State early in the season, then matched that in Iowa’s 94-75 win over Utah State on December 18 on a night when he and his brother, Keegan, combined for 52 points.
Murray said a lot of how he plays depends on what kind of game his brother, who leads the nation in scoring at 23.2 points per game, is having.
“It’s mostly just knowing where and when to go on the court,” he said. “It kind of depends on the game he’s having, if he’s attacking from the perimeter or getting a lot of buckets inside. Just kind of let him do his thing, and the shots are going to come for me in the second half.”
Iowa’s women’s basketball team is stuck in a gear that coach Lisa Bluder doesn’t like.
The Hawkeyes’ offense was rolling through their first six wins of the season before the program was hit with a COVID-19 outbreak that cost them three games.
Since returning, Iowa has gone 2-3, and the Hawkeyes can’t get on the court for games.
They went 10 days without a game because of the usual finals week break. They last played December 21 against IUPUI, a stunning 74-73 loss in which they let a 15-point lead to start the fourth quarter get away.
Now, their game on Thursday at Penn State has been called off because Penn State is dealing with COVID-19 issues, which means the Hawkeyes won’t play until Sunday’s home game against Illinois.
A team that is sputtering needs a reset.
“It will be interesting how they come back from the break,” Bluder said. “I’m hoping we’ll come back ready to go, ready to start fresh. It will really depend on them how they come back.”
The Hawkeyes are 13th in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage, making 30% of their shots. But they are a 46.7% team in overall field goal percentage, ranking fourth in the Big Ten.
Caitlin Clark, a preseason All-American, is averaging 22 points per game, but is just a 25% shooter in 3-pointers. Only three Hawkeyes — Clark (22), Gabbie Marshall (14) and McKenna Warnock (13) — have double-digit threes for the season.
“We’re not shooting the three well, and I can’t explain it,” Bluder said. “They’re threes we make in practice, and it’s frustrating. I don’t want it to get to them mentally. We are a good 3-point shooting team, and we’re not showing it this year. And I have to believe we’re going to get back there. I have to.”
Bluder said the Hawkeyes have to work on getting more shots for center Monika Czinano, who ranks sixth nationally in field-goal percentage at 63.6 percent. They also have to increase the tempo offensively.
“We’re not doing that right now,” Bluder said. “We’re walking the ball up. We’re dribbling instead of passing. We have got to do better at that.”
“For us, it’s just making the choice to do better, and be better, in all phases, all areas of the game,” Clark said. “We could be so much better, we are better. We’ve showed that in practice. I just think there’s so much to learn from.
“It’s really like resetting after Christmas break, making the choice to improve. And that’s really all we can do. And I know we will.”
Photo: Iowa’s Kris Murray drives to the basket against Illinois earlier this season. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)