The most-anticipated season in Iowa basketball in decades is officially underway and the first game went... pretty much as expected. Iowa led by 15 at halftime and doubled that lead in the second half to win by 30, 97-67. Easy breezy.
Iowa's start to the game was a little sluggish, but things started clicking for them in the final 10 minutes of the first half. A 20-2 run in that time helped them blow the game open and it was never remotely close after that. Iowa's lead quickly jumped into the 20-point margin after half and from then on it was just a matter of how big the final margin would be (30 points) and if Iowa would crack 100 (not quite, though not for lack of trying).
The star of the game was -- who else? -- Luka Garza. Our favorite National Player of the Year contender started this season just the way he ended things in March -- by getting buckets with ease and racking up a no-fuss double-double in 25-ish minutes of action. It helped that Garza towered over the Liliputian defenders the Eagles put on him; he picked up a slew of easy put-backs at the rim thanks to good positioning and his pronounced size advantage. But he also displayed his soft hands and crisp footwork in the post, as well as a slick little fadeaway jumper. He didn't make any threes (though he only attempted one shot from deep) and had just one assist, but he was thoroughly dominant in his time on the floor, finishing with 26 points (on 11/14 shooting, 4/4 from the free throw line), 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Garza remains the dazzling, life-giving sun around which the rest of this talented Iowa team revolves.
More surprising was who Iowa's second- and third-leading scorers were. Raise your hands if you pegged Patrick McCaffery and Keegan Murray for that distinction before the game. Put your hands down, you damn liars. No one one saw that coming -- but they gave Iowa some phenomenal minutes off the bench. Patrick McCaffery, in particular, showed the skill set that earned him so much recruiting hype. We took his recruitment for granted because he's Fran's son, but landing him was a legitimately big deal for Iowa and he gave us a good taste why in this game. Patrick finished with 16 points (on 5/10 shooting, 5/8 from the free throw line), along with three rebounds, a block, a steal, and an assist. He was as smooth as advertised in transition and made some good moves around the basket as well. His presence at the tip of Iowa's press was also notable -- his long limbs and impressive reach gave NC Central fits (and was reminiscent of Nicholas Baer, who played that same role in Iowa's pressing game). This was really our first opportunity to see a healthy, filled-out Patrick -- his time spent in the weight room during quarantine was readily apparent -- in an Iowa uniform and he did not disappoint in the slightest.
Still, if Patrick's debut was surprising, Keegan Murray's was downright jaw-dropping. Murray finished with 12 points (on 4/10 shooting, 2/6 from deep) and 7 rebounds, a block, and an assist. He earned praise in the lead-up to the season for his rebounding and his aptitude in that area of the game was evident in this game. His scoring touch around the basket was a little loose at times, but the back-to-back threes he drilled in the second half looked quite good. Now, obviously, it would be foolish to put the cart beyond the horse here -- NC Central is not an especially good team and Murray in particular did a lot of his damage against the Eagles' tired starters and second-unit guys. Future teams will scout McCaffery and Murray a bit more and will also feature opponents who are just plain better. But the basketball IQs that Patrick and Keegan showed were very solid and they should definitely be exciting freshmen to watch this season.
Iowa's only other double-digit scorer was CJ Fredrick, who finished with 10 points on 3/5 shooting, all from behind the arc. He also had three assists and a rebound and looked like he was able to pick up where the left off last year during an impressive freshman campaign. Iowa's other trio of starters had some rocky moments. Jordan Bohannon finished with six points and went just 2/7 from long range. Joe Wieskamp had just nine points (on 2/4 shooting, 5/6 from the free throw line), though he did have five rebounds, a block, and an assist. It did not matter one whit today, but Iowa will need to do more to get him involved in future games. Connor McCaffery had a team-high four assists and three rebounds, though he also had three fouls and was uncharacteristically beat on defense on several occasions.
Speaking of... defense is the $1,000,000 question for Iowa basketball this season. How well the Hawkeyes can play on that end of the floor is going to determine what the ceiling is for this team. Their performance today was... adequate? After a shaky start, Iowa buckled down on defense in the final ten minutes of the half (that was one of the drivers of their 20-2 run) and maintained that intensity fairly well at the start of the second half. Things got looser toward the end of the game and the opening minutes (against Iowa's starters) were a little clunky. Overall, Iowa held the Eagles to 42% shooting overall and 32% shooting from deep; those are pretty solid numbers. But Iowa did allow NC Central to score 32 points in the paint and while the Eagles shot just 6/19 from long range, a few too many of those attempts were not contested as tightly as you'd like to see. There were a few too many open looks for NC Central and a few too many guys getting beat to the basket; hopefully we see Iowa tighten up things on that end of the floor in their next few games.
Aside from the defense, the only other point of concern in this game was the three-point shooting; Iowa shot just 33% (10/30) from deep this afternoon. That's really only a point of concern because the shots weren't falling, though. Many of the looks Iowa was getting were good, they just didn't fall. If Iowa can keep getting looks that good in upcoming games, you'd expect a few more of those three-point attempts to go through the net. If Iowa had made just two more threes, they would have shot 40% from deep and cracked 100 points overall; not too much to complain about there.
Fran emptied the bench at the end of the game, which gave us an opportunity to see all of the non-Keegan Murray true freshmen, as well as some members of the Bench Mob. Tony Perkins had four points and featured some really impressive ups on a dunk near the end of the game. Ahron Ulis had five points, all on free throws, and also managed two rebounds and an assist. Kris Murray had four points and three rebounds in his time on the floor. And Josh Ogundele made his debut as well, hauling in two rebounds and verifying that he is, indeed, a very large human being. As a reminder, the NCAA granted all winter athletes a free year of eligibility, so all of these freshmen can play as much as they (or Fran, really) want this season and it won't impact their ability to play four years at Iowa beyond this season.
All told: a nice, easy 30-point win is a good way to start this most exciting of seasons for Iowa hoops. There are a few things for the team to try and improve, but this was a fine debut overall for Luka and the lads.
NEXT: Iowa hosts Southern at 4 PM Central on Friday, November 27 (BTN).