IOWA CITY, Iowa - A kid with one Division I scholarship offer as a senior in high school elects to polish his basketball skills at a prep school.
He gets an offer from a Big Ten school. His dream school, the same one his dad played for. He accepts the offer, then hears social media critics blast his future coach for taking him because he was a legacy, not a genuine prospect.
A year later, he’s been projected as a potential first-round NBA Draft pick after making the Big Ten’s all-freshman team.
What would Keegan Murray think if he read a story like that?
“I’d say it’s a remarkable story to believe,” Murray said.
The Keegan Murray story is remarkable. And true.
“If you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you want to,” Murray said. His critics have put a chip on his shoulder, one he intends to carry with him for the rest of his career.
“I just feel like having that chip on my shoulder wherever I go in life is big for me,” he said.
It’s not the first time Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery has been part of an unlikely rise to fame. As an assistant coach at Lehigh, he out recruited Delaware and Lafayette for Daren Queenan, who ended his career as the 10th leading career scorer in NCAA Division I history.
“It’s more likely to happen at that level, because they just fell through the cracks,” McCaffery said. “But there’s been some really good players who weren’t heavily recruited.”
Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, for instance, who has returned for one more season. He’s already the Hawkeyes’ career assist leader and needs just 11 more 3-pointers to become the Big Ten’s career leader from distance.
“We took a lot of crap for taking him, too,” McCaffery said. “On the day we signed him, if I said he’s going to have more assists than anyone who has ever played here, and more 3s than anyone who has ever played in the Big Ten, you’d say, “He’s out of his mind.’ But that’s recruiting. It’s not an exact science.”
Bohannon’s game benefitted from brothers Jason, Zach and Matt, who all played Division I basketball ahead of him. One of the reasons Keegan’s game has grown is because of the intense sibling rivalry he has with his twin brother, Kris, who also signed with the Hawkeyes when his brother did and is also expected to play a significant role on this year’s team.
“Having him here has helped a lot,” Keegan said. “In the offseason we’d come here (Carver-Hawkeye Arena), just the two of us, and work on being competitive. We played a lot of one-on-one. Just having him throughout my basketball journey has been incredible for me. We’ve just kept pushing each other our whole lives, and it doesn’t stop here.”
Keegan’s basketball life changed for the better on Jan. 2, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. It was No. 10 Iowa’s 11th game of the season, at No. 14 Rutgers.
Murray scored 12 of his career-high 14 points, grabbed eight of his nine rebounds and added three blocked shots while playing all but 90 seconds of the second half. Down a point, Murray rebounded Joe Wieskamp’s missed 3-pointer and was fouled. He made two free throws to give Iowa the lead for good in a 77-75 victory.
“I feel like that game kind of changed the perspective of the season for me,” Keegan said. “It was a turning point for me and my confidence. I feel like that game is when Fran started to trust me.”
Murray finished the season averaging 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds, with four starts, against defenses that quickly added him in their scouting reports. A year later, he’s poised to step into a larger role with Wieskamp and Luka Garza now in the NBA.
“He’s ready,” McCaffery said. “He’s a confident kid. He stays within himself. Nothing seems to really rattle him at all. He worked hard in the offseason. He never tries to do the things he can’t do on the floor.”
When he wasn’t working on his game over the summer, he was growing another inch. He’s 6-9 now. He weighed 205 pounds at the end of last season. He’s 225 now. He’s worked hard on his 3-pointer after shooting just 29.6 percent (16-for-54) as a rookie.
He learned last season, when Big Ten foes started paying more attention to his tendencies, that consistency of effort was extremely important.
“Having a bigger target on my back doesn’t affect anything for me,” Keegan said. “My effort and energy will always be there.”
When he wasn’t working on his game over the summer, he had to deal with the NBA talk. “My phone started blowing up one day,” he said. “People started texting me. That’s how I found out. I’m not a big social media person.”
Ask him now about that NBA buzz, and Murray dodges it quickly.
“I’m just focused on the team,” he said. “I’m trying to get better as a person and a player. I’ve been putting a lot of hard work in. I’ve been an underdog my whole life. That’s just my mentality going into this year.”
Quiet by nature, Keegan’s also tried to become more of a vocal leader. And that extra voice is needed. Bohannon, Connor McCaffery and Joe Toussaint are the only players on the roster who have played in Big Ten arenas with fans in the seats.
“If I can use my voice to help the younger guys and help the new guys in any way I can, that’s been my focus in the preseason,” Murray said.
A role player last season, Murray sounds like a guy ready to take the next step. He talked to Wieskamp about the expectations Joe dealt with as he went from a successful freshman season to his sophomore year.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” Murray said. “For me, it was just honing my skills.” Now it’s time to write the next chapter in the Keegan Murray story.
“When I was in high school (at Cedar Rapids Prairie) I wasn’t highly recruited,” Keegan said. “I had one offer, from Western Illinois. I decided to go to prep school. For me, it was having that chip on my shoulder and knowing that the person across from me was not better than me. That’s just something I bring night in and night out. I think that will help me overall, and in the Big Ten.”