Iowa men’s basketball team dominates second half, beats Minnesota in Fran McCaffery’s absence

Billy Taylor, Iowa’s acting head coach while Fran McCaffery is in health and safety protocols, led the Hawkeyes to a 71-59 win over the Gophers.


Daniel McGregor-Huyer

Iowa forward Keegan Murray attempts a shot during the Iowa men’s basketball game against Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Billy Taylor has been part of plenty of wins over his 21 seasons of college basketball coaching experience. But Sunday’s victory over Minnesota had a bit of extra meaning behind it.

After Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery entered health and safety protocols because of a positive test result for COVID-19 on Friday, Taylor — who had been tasked with scouting the Gophers — was made Iowa’s acting head coach. McCaffery was an assistant coach at Notre Dame when Taylor was a four-year letterwinner (1992-95) for the Fighting Irish. Taylor has been an assistant coach for McCaffery on three different occasions. Taylor sat straight up with his hands placed on the table in front of him minutes after Iowa’s 71-59 over Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The 48-year-old wanted to begin his press conference with words of admiration for his mentor.

“I wouldn’t be sitting at this table, at this podium, if it weren’t for the influence of Fran McCaffery,” said Taylor, who has had head coaching stints at Ball State, Lehigh, and Belmont Abbey. “He means so much to me in terms of his mentorship over the course of 30-plus years. He’s been a teacher to me and an advocate for me. I’m just incredibly humbled by the opportunity to be here in this position and lead the Hawkeyes to victory.”

The 12-point Hawkeye victory that Taylor gets to celebrate didn’t always appear likely.

Minnesota jumped out to an early seven-point lead in the first half and led by four points at halftime. An Iowa fan excessively yelled “you guys were 13-point favorites” at the Hawkeye bench throughout the intermission.

Between last week’s trip against Ohio State being canceled because of weather, Fran McCaffery being away with COVID-19, coming off a couple of losses, and having to listen to a new head coach, Taylor said it took Iowa a little longer than it would have liked to get into a good rhythm.

The majority of halftime discussion had to do with having “the required amount of pride” when playing defense and avoiding mismatches. Taylor’s message was received.

After the Gophers took a five-point lead with 16:48 remaining in the second half, the Hawkeyes went on a 19-4 run, while Minnesota shot 2-of-14 from the field, to take over the game. Iowa outscored Minnesota, 37-21, over the final 20 minutes of the game. Minnesota shot only 23.3 percent from the field in the second half, compared to Iowa’s 51.6 percent.

“They made tough shots in the first half and they were getting the matchups that they wanted,” said Iowa forward Keegan Murray, who finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal. “At halftime, we decided that we were going to take it to heart. We’re not gonna let the guy on the other side of the ball score on us.

“I felt like, for us, it was the tale of two halves,” Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson added. “We’ll figure out through film and watching tape what happened in those last 20 minutes. They did what they did a little harder, a little better.”

Iowa outscored Minnesota 34-16 in the paint and 21-4 off turnovers.

There has been no update on behalf of the Iowa men’s basketball program for whether or not Fran McCaffery or Taylor will coach in Iowa’s next game on Thursday.

But Sunday showed Iowa can win without its head Hawkeye on the bench.

“Fran has set the standard for the program and how it is supposed to be run,” Murray said, “Coach Taylor did an excellent job preparing us for this game.

“Oh, it does feel good,” said Taylor, who grinned upon hearing this was his first win as a head coach against a Big Ten program. “But I’ve got to be honest with you, every win feels great. We certainly earned it today.”

Big picture

Iowa improves to 15-7 overall and 5-6 in Big Ten play after Sunday’s win, which was the program’s 100th in its series history with Minnesota. Iowa is back in the win column after back-to-back losses.

Minnesota is 11-9 overall and 2-9 after its loss. The Gophers are in 13th place in the Big Ten, while the Hawkeyes ninth place. The Hawkeyes swept the Gophers this season.

Shaking up the starting lineup

Fran McCaffery wasn’t on-hand for Iowa’s contest with Minnesota, but his decisions had an impact on the game right from tip-off.

The Hawkeyes sported a slightly different starting lineup and rotation against the Gophers.

Guard Tony Perkins was inserted into the starting-five in place of junior Joe Toussaint, who has started every game this season. Toussaint saw only five minutes and 48 seconds of game action, less than Ahron Ulis (21:29), Kris Murray (14:41), and Payton Sandfort (10:12) off the bench. 

“It’s difficult for Joe Toussaint, someone who has started all year,” Taylor said. “We need him. But one of the things we said in the locker room afterward was that this is a team that has responded with different lineups. For today, Ahron Ulis was kind of a hero for his defensive effort. But we’re gonna need Joe Toussaint. We’re gonna need Tony Perkins. We’re gonna need Payton Sandfort.”

Ulis finished with nine points on four-of-nine shooting, while also posting five rebounds and providing intense defense that sparked Iowa’s late run. After every game, Ulis chats with his brother, Tyler Ulis — a former All-American at Kentucky and NBA player.

“I talk to my brother after every game. He tells me the good, tells me the bad — everything that I need to work on,” said Ulis, who is hoping there was more good than bad against Minnesota. “I try to just listen to him. He’s been on that stage before.”

Connor McCaffery “wasn’t quite ready to go yet,” after separating his shoulder against Penn State on Jan. 31, Taylor said. That provided more opportunities for Sandfort, an aggressive shooter who the coaching staff wanted to give minutes to against a team that primarily runs a zone defense. Sandfort finished with five points and three rebounds.

Two-thirds of McCafferys on hand

Two-thirds of Iowa’s McCafferys were on the court in some capacity for Sunday’s game, and they both made an impact in the Hawkeye win — although in different ways.

Forward Patrick McCaffery scored 18 points (8-of-14 from the field) and collected seven rebounds against Minnesota. Connor McCaffery acted as an assistant coach of sorts since he couldn’t play. The senior was involved in huddles during timeouts and often gave pointers to players on the bench.

“He’s a great leader,” Keegan Murray said of Connor McCaffery. “He’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around as a player. I think, with coach McCaffery gone, Connor really stepped into that role, and that benefited our team. Having a guy on the bench who you play with on a daily basis — he’s just another voice to relate to.”

Up next

Iowa returns to the court on Thursday for a road matchup with Maryland in College Park. The game is scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m. and will air on ESPN2.