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After Putting in the Work, Keegan Murray’s Breakout Is Here at Iowa

The Hawkeyes star used his freshman season to soak up knowledge and make his mark through his effort, and he’s reaping the benefits in Year 2.

For as long as he can remember, Keegan Murray has been able to bank on his father Kenyon’s advice being spot on in any given situation.

Even last season, when Keegan was “grateful” to have the role as a key contributor as Iowa pursued a national title with National Player of the Year Luka Garza doing it all, Kenyon often reminded Keegan that the lunch-pail approach would be the best strategy for future success.

“He told me to look at where I was a year ago,” Keegan says. “I wouldn’t think I’d be in this position back then. He said to keep working hard and it would all work out.”

This time, however, Kenyon was wrong—or at the very least, he totally undersold the whole “work out” part of the master plan for his son. After contributing 7.2 points a game last season for the Hawkeyes, the versatile 6' 8" forward has more than tripled his production as a sophomore, posting 24.6 points a game, good enough to lead men’s Division I.

Iowa forward Keegan Murray

Murray dribbles against a Virginia defender.

“It’s a big jump,” Keegan says with a laugh. “I honestly can’t say that I thought it would be this big. I’ve always been a guy who could score. In the offseason I really focused on getting my jump shot more consistent and being able to score on all three levels more efficiently.”

The result? Substantial hikes in his numbers in virtually every statistical category, including shooting 61.2% from the field, 34.5% from the three-point line and 85.7% from the free throw line this season.

“The special thing about Keegan is that he doesn’t rattle,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery says. “The moment doesn’t bother him at all. He’s just a worker in every regard.”

Murray’s blue-collar, tunnel-vision approach is rooted in the fact that coming out of high school, college coaches just couldn’t see his vision. As a result, Murray graduated high school with just one D-I offer, from Western Illinois. That said, Murray is aware that the “underrated” label in high school is uber cliché, and he’s candid about his standing at the time.

“I played on the Adidas circuit, but I played in the silver division for the Iowa Barnstormers, which is like the B team,” he says. “I was skinny and wasn’t as athletic, so a lot of teams passed. I ended up doing a prep year, and Iowa was the first school to offer. Like my dad said, it all works out the way it’s supposed to if you put in the work and focus on that.”

The gift of being overlooked and underrated in high school was that Murray never had the chance to develop the proverbial ego that tends to latch on to five-star prospects. “Every top-ranked guy thinks he’s gonna come in and be the guy,” Murray says. “I was just wired differently.”

Instead, Murray knew that to see time on a national title contender with Garza as the centerpiece of the offense, he’d have to stand out in other ways. To that end, he set a goal before his freshman season started to out-rebound Garza every day in practice. By the preseason, Murray was consistently the Hawkeyes’ top rebounder, raking in 10 boards during practices.

“The coaches started to notice that pretty quick,” Murray says. “Summer workouts he got me most of the time, but I stuck with my plan and got to No. 1. We were always No. 1 and No. 2 in practice every week. That’s a mentality that I keep even now. That’s what’s helped me have the success I’ve had.”

Don’t get Murray wrong—he’s not only fully aware of what’s coming, but he’s also clear that his drastic surge in production early on this season caught a lot of teams off guard. McCaffery says Murray being able to see how Garza handled heightened defensive attention will be invaluable as his bull’s-eye continues to grow this season.

“Luka accepted the challenge of dominating people who were trying everything to stop him,” McCaffery says. “It motivated him more, and that’s what’s gonna happen with Keegan. He wants the challenge and he’s accepted it. He can impact the game in a lot of ways. He gets points, rebounds, blocked shots. He doesn’t turn it over, he guards the other team’s best frontcourt player … He never really thinks about himself, quite honestly.” 

Even as a freshman, Murray knew how rare it was to be able to soak up knowledge and learn positive habits from the best player in the game and took full advantage.

Iowa's Keegan Murray dunks

“Being with Luka last year, it really opened my eyes to how he approached every game,” Murray says. “He knew that he was the best player on the court every night. That’s how I feel this year. No matter what, I know that I’ve put in the work to be great. I have all the skills that I need. The only thing I focus on now is my effort; that’ll get you rebounds and points and stuff like that. Scouting reports can’t account for your effort, and I’m always gonna give 100% no matter how much attention the defense is giving me.”

In the meantime, Murray—who missed Iowa’s 77–70 loss to No. 1 Purdue with an ankle injury and is questionable for Monday’s game against Illinois—is enjoying a whole different kind of attention this year. From random fans yelling his name out of moving cars while he strolls around Iowa City’s downtown district to countless selfie requests, Murray is learning the true meaning of the phrase “to the victor goes the spoils.”

His newfound fame is the gift that keeps on giving, a truth his twin brother, Kris, a talented forward for the Hawkeyes who is having his own breakout season (11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds), learned within the last month.

“He’ll be walking downtown, and people will yell ‘Keegan!” Murray says with a laugh. “He’ll go with it and take the pic pretending like he’s me. Then he’ll text me, and we’ll have a good laugh about it. Yeah, it’s been fun, but there’s a long way to go. We can be so much better, and I can be so much better. That’s the only focus.”

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