Iowa’s Payton Sandfort gaining confidence, becoming reliable bench option

Sandfort played sparingly in January, but has logged double-digit minutes in all of Iowa’s last four games — a stretch where he is shooting 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3-point range.


Gabby Drees

Iowa guard Payton Sandfort and Iowa forward Filip Rebraca walk off the court after a basketball game betwen Iowa and Western Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Leathernecks, 92-71.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Jon Rothstein, a college basketball insider for CBS Sports known for his Twitter catchphrases as much as his breaking news reports, has watched the last three Iowa men’s basketball games and tweeted out the same phrase during all of them.

“Payton Sandfort,” Rothstein’s tweets say. “Buy stock now.”

That stock seems to be rising of late.

Sandfort, a freshman forward for the Hawkeyes, was seeing regular minutes off the bench to start the season — averaging 12.5 minutes a contest through Iowa’s first 13 games. But in January, the 6-foot-7, 215-pounder saw only five minutes of playing time per game. Then February arrived, and Sandfort was back to being a reliable bench option for the Hawkeyes. In Iowa’s 98-75 win over Nebraska on Sunday, Sandfort shot 5-of-8 from the field and 2-of-4 from 3-point range on his way to scoring 13 points — his most since Dec. 29. He also grabbed a team-leading and career-high eight rebounds.

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“Obviously [my confidence] has grown over the last couple of weeks,” Sandfort said. “I went through a really rough stretch there but I’m really proud of myself. I stayed in the gym even when I wasn’t getting the minutes that I wanted. I stuck with it, and it felt really good over the last couple of games to do what I know I can do.”

As Sandfort’s confidence has risen, so has his playing time.

The former Waukee High School standout’s 17 minutes marks his highest total since Dec. 21 and his fourth straight game playing double-digit minutes. During the last four games, Sandfort is shooting 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3-point range. The business major should continue to be a significant bench piece for the Hawkeyes (17-7 overall, 7-6 in Big Ten play) as they inch closer to the start of March Madness, particularly an upcoming three-game stretch.

All of Iowa’s next three games come against teams that could be in the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa hosts Michigan (13-10, 7-6) on Thursday at 6 p.m. (the game will air on ESPN). Then, the Hawkeyes head to Columbus for a rescheduled game against No. 18 Ohio State on Feb. 19 before returning to Iowa City for a Feb. 22 showdown with No. 19 Michigan State. Michigan is currently one of the first four teams out in ESPN bracketology guru Joe Lunardi’s most recent projections, which were released on Tuesday. Iowa is a No. 7 seed in Lunardi’s bracket, while OSU and MSU are both No. 5 seeds.

Last month, when Iowa was preparing for teams like the one it will play on Thursday night, Sandfort was practicing on the scout team.

Sandfort said he played on Iowa’s scout team in practice to get some more on-court work while he wasn’t a main part of the rotation. Sandfort often matched up with Keegan Murray, a projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Those battles reminded Sandfort of last summer, when he arrived on campus and didn’t know if he had what it took to be a Hawkeye after struggling against Murray. But those battles proved to be beneficial for the freshman.

“I would go home and I would call my dad and I’d be like, ‘This dude is kicking my butt. I don’t know if I’m built for this,’” Sandfort said of Murray, who dropped a career-high 37 points against Nebraska. “I started getting a little better playing against him. And then I see him out here and he’s doing a lot worse than he did to me. That makes me feel a lot better.

“He fights for every single ball and tries to make all the hustle plays,” Murray said. “That’s all you can ask for out of a freshman. He does all the little things.”

After Sunday’s performance, Sandfort thinks his cold stretch is behind him. That should prove to be beneficial for Iowa over the last seven games of the regular season.

Sandfort made only four shots from the field in January, when Iowa hit the heart of its Big Ten schedule. McCaffery said Sandfort’s minutes didn’t necessarily have to do with any struggles on his part, rather just trying to balance Iowa’s backcourt rotation.

McCaffery labeled Sandfort as a “no-mistakes guy” who doesn’t have any “freshman moments” on the court. That makes sense. Sandfort comes from a basketball family. His mother, father, and grandfather are all former basketball players. Sandfort’s younger brother, Pryce, plays at Waukee Northwest High School and is receiving interest from Division I programs. His father and grandfather have coached him, too. At the start of the pandemic, Sandfort spent hours at a time with his grandfather in the gym, rebounding missed shots off the rim.

“I’m trying to play 10 guys and he got the short end of it a couple of times,” McCaffery said. “Every time I’ve put him in he’s produced. I don’t really remember putting him in where he struggled or I thought he played like a freshman right there.”

That trust from McCaffery and his coaching staff has allowed Sandfort to play with the same confidence and style he has had since being a three-star recruit.

And that rise in confidence has led to Sandfort’s rising stock.

“The main reason I picked here is the green light I’ve seen Fran give his players and growing up watching the program,” Sandfort said. “I can’t thank Fran enough, he’s really let me come in and play my game. Even [Sunday], not just shooting but I was able to get rebounds and push it in transition with my dribble, which I did a lot in high school.

“He’s really let me do what I’ve been doing my whole life and keep going from there.”