Iowa Hawkeyes vs. North Dakota Fighting Hawks Pick & Prediction NOVEMBER 7th 2023


While the outside focus on the 2023 Iowa Hawkeyes is fixed on subtractions and lost star power, the internal outlook of optimism has everything to do with a freshman class the team views as program-building pillars.

Once the central orbit of the Iowa program, twin brothers Keegan and Kris Murray were first-round NBA draft picks the past two summers: Keegan with the Sacramento Kings in 2022 and Kris to the Portland Trail Blazers in June.

Iowa begins introductions of its newcomers and kickstarts the process of proving it can sustain success without a Murray in the lineup when it hosts North Dakota in its season opener at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The Hawkeyes are testing the assertion from coaches that quality depth, a mix of youth with high expectations and trusted experience, will propel them to another NCAA Tournament berth and beyond. Seniors Tony Perkins and Patrick McCaffery, and junior Payton Sandfort, are the veteran core, while a four-man freshmen class of Pryce Sandfort, Brock Harding, Owen Freeman and Ladji Dembele figure to get immediate playing time.

“They were brought in here with that expectation by the staff,” McCaffery said of the freshmen. “I think their expectation is they are going to play. They have been terrific from day one. There hasn’t been much difference, no matter how I split the teams up. Those guys can all make plays for each other. They can all make shots. There is a sense of toughness and mindset that they have. They are all winners. In high school they were big winners. Obviously, it makes us a lot bigger.”

Freeman’s combination of size and skill might put him in position to make the biggest immediate impact. He’s also years into a partnership with the instinctive Harding, Freeman’s senior year teammate at 4A state champion Moline and longtime AAU co-stars at Mid-Pro Academy. Harding was Mr. Basketball in Illinois in 2023.

Opponents who scouted Harding last season won’t be swayed by his program photo or frame (6-0, 155). On a competitive mindset and playmaking grading scale, the Hawkeyes rate him somewhere between John Stockton and off-the-charts.

Pryce Sandfort, Iowa’s Mr. Basketball last season, is the younger brother of 6-7 forward Payton Sandfort and already has a reputation as a lights-out shooter that stood out during recent exhibition games.

Dembele was a four-star recruit from Mali (Africa) by way of St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.), where he starred as a high school junior and senior. After originally admitting the pace and physicality of the college game was a challenge, Dembele has taken off, coach Fran McCaffery said. He’s been a weight room star and at 6-8, 260 pounds, potentially brings a type of presence Iowa hasn’t had in recent years.

“He works hard every single day. I mean, he goes after it. He gets every offensive rebound every time down the court,” Harding said.

North Dakota was predicted to finish fifth in the Summit League’s preseason poll and returns sophomore forward B.J. Omat, a preseason second-team selection in the Summit League who averaged 12.6 points and 4.3 rebounds a game last year.

North Dakota head coach Paul Sather said Iowa is a team that plays fast, so the keys will be to limit turnovers on offense and be stout in transition defense.

“They’ve got plenty of really talented players that are high IQ, high level players with great skill,” Sather said. “We’re going to have our hands full, but what a great opportunity. You go in there and you get better from the game regardless. If you get inside that 10-minute mark or inside that 5-minute mark and it’s a two-possession game, you are giving yourself an opportunity and anything can happen.”

–Field Level Media

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