By John Bohnenkamp
Iowa’s Payton Sandfort is making the most of the minutes he’s getting, and it’s been all about the work he put in when he wasn’t playing.
Sandfort had 12 points and a game-high eight rebounds in Sunday’s 98-75 win over Nebraska as he continues to become a key part in the Hawkeyes’ rotation.
Sandfort is averaging 10 ½ minutes in 23 games this season, but there have been times where he’s been caught in the traffic jam of Iowa’s deep roster during Big Ten play.
Sandfort played just two minutes against Maryland, a little more than a minute against Indiana, and just three minutes against Rutgers. He didn’t play at all in Iowa’s first game against Penn State.
“He really hasn’t changed,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Remember, I said there were a couple of games where he didn’t get many minutes, but he should have. Like, he deserved those minutes. I’m trying to play 10 guys, and he got the short end of it a couple of times.”
But Sandfort never wavered in his work, and it’s paid off with increased playing time.
“It’s grown quite a bit the last couple of weeks,” Sandfort said of his confidence. “I went through a really rough stretch there, but I’m really proud of myself. Stayed in the gym, even when I wasn’t getting the minutes I was wanting, hitting the shots I normally hit. I stayed with it, stuck with it. It felt really good over the last few games to get myself going, to do what I know I can do.”
Sandfort, a freshman forward, didn’t get frustrated.
“I totally understand, it’s really tough for a freshman to get minutes in this league,” Sandfort said after Sunday’s game. I really wasn’t doing anything to earn those minutes at the time. Fran’s always been super good with me, talking me through it, remaining positive.”
Sandfort averages 5.3 points and 1.7 rebounds. But he’s scored 35 points over Iowa’s last four games, playing an average of more than 12 minutes.
“He’s a winner,” McCaffery said. “The kid knows how to win.”
Sandfort came to Iowa with the reputation as a scorer — he averaged 16.6 points as a 59-percent shooter last season at Waukee High School.
But he’s also shown the ability to defend and rebound, and at 6-foot-7, that gives him a valuable role. He had a season high in rebounding in Sunday’s game.
“It’s kind of been an underrated part of my game that nobody really notices,” Sandfort said. “But I take a lot of pride in that.”
“He does a lot of things well,” McCaffery said. “A guy makes three threes, you say, ‘Well, he’s a shooter.’ Well, yeah,, but he rebounds the ball. He moves without the ball. He passes the ball extremely well. He’s another ball-handler — he can play guard, he can play forward. He’s smart. You know, he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s a tough kid. He’s just a really good player. And he’s going to be tremendous for us for a long time.”
Rob Jeter sees the banner every day that belongs to the 2012-13 Western Illinois team that shared the Summit League title.
“Hell of a team,” said Jeter, in his second year as the Leathernecks’ coach.
It was the last time the Leathernecks had a championship. It was also the last time they finished above .500.
So, as Jeter and his team head into the final four games of the regular season, there is a milestone they can reach.
The Leathernecks (15-11 overall, 6-8 Summit League) can clinch an above-.500 season with one more victory. They have four regular-season games and the conference tournament to do that.
Jeter’s goal is to build a program that can consistently reach 20 wins and contend for conference championships. But he’s also aware that other milestones are important.
Having a winning season is key.
“I think that’s big for the community, big for the psyche of the program,” he said.
Saturday’s 70-68 home win over North Dakota was also big for the psyche of the Leathernecks, who were coming off an 84-81 double-overtime loss to North Dakota State on Thursday night.
How the Leathernecks won was just as important. Down 68-67 with 44 seconds left, they missed four free throws, but they had two key offensive rebounds and one smart defensive play to help get the win.
Trenton Massner missed two free throws with 21 seconds left, but Will Carius got the offensive rebound and was fouled. He then missed his two free throws, but Colton Sandage roared in for another rebound. The Leathernecks worked the clock down to 6.5 seconds when Sandage was fouled. He made both free throws for a 69-68 lead.
Carius then forced a turnover on the inbounds play when he knocked the ball off North Dakota’s Paul Bruns. Luka Barisic made 1-of-2 free throws, and then a desperate shot by North Dakota’s Ethan Igbanugo missed at the buzzer.
“We missed, and we got more opportunities, more opportunities, and then we missed again,” Jeter said. “The fact that we battled through, man, it’s exciting. We’re trying to find a way to get some momentum back here towards the end, get us back to how we started the league with confidence going into March.”
The game reminded Jeter of last season, when the Leathernecks defeated North Dakota 99-87 a day after they let a 16-point lead with 9 ½ minutes left get away in an 83-81 loss.
“You look at it on paper, this was a game we had to win,” Jeter said.
The Leathernecks are in sixth place in the Summit League standings, but seeding for the conference tournament isn’t on Jeter’s mind right now. They have road wins over second-place Oral Roberts and third-place North Dakota State this season. South Dakota State, their opponent on Thursday, leads the conference at 14-0. South Dakota, Saturday’s opponent, is in fifth place, two games ahead of Western Illinois.
“We have a chance to test our toughness,” Jeter said. “If we can figure out a way to get a split, we’re coming back happy. But if we win two? Now we’re like, OK, we’re getting ready for the stretch run.”
Photo: Iowa’s Payton Sandfort drives to the basket in Sunday’s game against Nebraska. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)