Iowa men’s basketball sophomore Payton Sandfort heating up after early-season shooting struggles

The 6-foot-7 forward’s shot wasn’t falling during the first stint of the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten schedule, but he has bounced back in recent games.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa guard Payton Sandfort backs down a defender during a men’s basketball game between Iowa and Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Terrapins, 81-67.

Grant Hall, Sports Reporter

Iowa men’s basketball’s Payton Sandfort is no stranger to heating up over the course of a season.

The 6-foot-7 Waukee, Iowa, native eased his way onto the scene as a true freshman at Iowa, averaging five points per game for the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten tournament title team. Sandfort established himself as one of the top 3-point threats in the Big Ten after the midway point of the 2021-22 campaign, as he knocked down 36.6 percent of his triples as a first year.

Throughout the offseason, Sandfort was highlighted by coaches and teammates as a potential breakout candidate. He seemed poised to improve upon his freshman season’s shooting splits across the board in 2022-23, but after a solid start in non-conference play, Sandfort’s percentages dipped significantly.

Despite a 24-point effort against Southeast Missouri State on Dec. 17, Sandfort struggled throughout the Hawkeyes’ December slate. He started Big Ten play with three consecutive games without converting a field goal, shooting a combined 0-for-19 against Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Penn State, and scoring two total points.

Amid his shooting slump, however, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery told reporters that Sandfort’s value to the team is not restricted to stretching the floor.

“He’s working hard, staying after it, and staying positive,” McCaffery said. “Sometimes, guys that are good shooters get a reputation as just a shooter. Payton Sandfort is a really good basketball player. He just [plays] a complete game, he’s active defensively, and can play multiple positions.”

Sandfort seemingly flipped a switch after a New Year’s Day loss at Penn State. He began to heat up, scoring 11 in a two-point win over then-No. 15 Indiana with 4-for-9 shooting on Jan. 5.

His mini-breakout performance came three days later against a tough Rutgers team. Sandfort knocked down six of his eight field goal attempts, including 4-of-5 from behind the arc and 6-of-7 from the charity stripe, en route to a 22-point outburst.

However, Sandfort’s encore against Michigan far outshined his efforts against the Scarlet Knights. He knocked down a career-high four 3-pointers. He converted an and-1 3-pointer to send the contest to overtime, and the Hawkeyes escaped with a 93-84 win. Sandfort scored 24 of his 26 total points in the second half.

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“I was kind of mad at myself at halftime,” Sandfort said after the overtime victory. “I wasn’t [being] aggressive enough … In the second half, I just wanted to be aggressive and make plays. I’m just really happy we got the win.”

McCaffery praised Sandfort’s resilience after facing adversity early.

“He didn’t make very many mistakes,” McCaffery said. “He obviously made huge plays. That’s what you remember. But what I remember is, he did everything right. He was being closely guarded … They would chase him around, they were being physical with him, and he just kept moving.”

Sandfort has credited the people around him for his bounce back from his struggles. He sought professional help to address the issue.

“It was a weird stretch of something I’ve never really gone through before,” Sandfort said. “I’m kind of thankful for it because it opened my eyes to some things that need some work, because I’m really hard on myself. It was nice to have some people tell me ‘it’s going to be okay’ — sports psychologists, coaches, family members.”

After a 12-point performance in a home win over Maryland, Sandfort has elevated his season statistics to 10.2 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting — an increase over his 41 conversion rate a season ago. His 3-point shooting percentage currently stands lower than his freshman output, but Sandfort’s numbers and confidence are on the rise.

Teammate Filip Rebraca told reporters Sandfort’s return to sniper status has elevated the team’s play as a whole.

“It was really good [to see him break out of his slump],” Rebraca said after Sandfort’s 22-point performance at Rutgers. “He missed a few to start, but once it started falling, it’s like it’s never-ending. It’s really good to see him score because we need him.”