BLOOMINGTON — Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, sitting at a table in the depths of Assembly Hall following the Hawkeyes’ 90-68 drubbing of Indiana, is thinking back to Jan. 2021. He was asked about Tony Perkins, Iowa’s increasingly important, versatile guard.
Back in Jan. 2021, during Perkins’ first college season, Iowa was on the road at Rutgers. Iowa had a very talented backcourt that season and Perkins saw limited action. But due to the circumstances, Perkins was thrown in the game. His stat line is unassuming: one point in just a few minutes.
But it was a ranked matchup. It was also only Perkins’ second Big Ten game. Though the stat line might not have shown, McCaffery saw something.
“(He was) right in the middle of a very difficult road win,” McCaffery said. “I said, ‘OK, we got something special here.’”
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He was right. Perkins is having his best college season, averaging 12.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Tuesday against Indiana was a homecoming. The Lawrence North grad put on a show, scoring 23 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. In front of many family members, he was a catalyst in Iowa’s blowout win.
“When you talk about tough guys, tough guys aren’t guys that want to square off,” McCaffery said. “Tough guys make plays and they come back if they make a mistake and they come back if they miss a shot. They fight you on defense. They fight you on the glass. They drive the ball. And they understand the game. If he’s open, he shoots it. If there’s space, he drives it. If he’s covered he moves it. I mean, it’s not complicated. He is a player in every sense of the word.”
Prior to his senior season at LN, Perkins had offers from the mid-major likes of Ball State, Toledo and Bradley. He was largely overlooked with a 247Sports Composite ranking is almost startling: 314th nationally in the 2020 class. An Iowa assistant saw Perkins play, then tipped off McCaffery. The Iowa head coach eventually met with legendary Lawrence North coach Jack Keefer.
“What are you doing?” McCaffery remembers Keefer asking him. “You want him or not?”
“I said, well, let’s do it,” McCaffery said. “He can play for me.”
“They believed in me,” Perkins said. “I loved the coaching staff, the community, everything about Iowa.”
Perkins went on develop into a 2020 Indiana All-Star and helped Lawrence North to a 25-2 record as a senior, with its state title chase halted after sectional due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
In his first two seasons at Iowa, Perkins was overshadowed by some incredibly talented players, but now he has stepped into a more prominent role for a Hawkeyes team looking to make a postseason push. He is averaging career highs in minutes, points, rebounds and assists per game. He is third on the team in points per game, second in assists per game and tied for third in rebounds per game. It’s a far cry from averaging just more than six minutes per game in his first season.
“I think it’s a belief in himself,” McCaffery said of Perkins’ development. “I wish I could tell you it was something miraculous I did. I don’t think that’s the case. He’s always been a gamer.”
Belief was a common word in Perkins’ response, as well.
“Believing in myself,” he said. “I would say that. Working out every day. Getting in the gym with the coaches. Them believing. My family, they believed in me and they helped me with this process.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s game, McCaffery said he didn’t have a conversation with Perkins about the significance of playing IU.
“I don’t mean that in an arrogant way,” McCaffery said. “Let’s just say, he understood.”
On Tuesday, Perkins did, torching the program that didn’t take a chance on him.
“All my family knows that IU didn’t recruit me,” Perkins said. “So they know that would motivate me to play the way I played today. So them being here and them being able to see that and play in this legendary gym, felt good.”
What made it more impressive is that Indiana was coming off a seismic win at Purdue and amid an impressive stretch of play. But the Hawkeyes smashed the Hoosiers in an offensive onslaught spearheaded by Perkins. Iowa shot 55.6% from the field and 56.5% from deep.
There’s symmetry in the fact that on Tuesday IU could’ve used a Tony Perkins.
“I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Perkins said. “In high school, it was the same thing. Got recruited late in high school. Wasn’t really talked about in high school. And I always looked at that like a chip on my shoulder. I always had that on my shoulder to show people that I actually could hoop.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Tony Perkins leads Iowa in beatdown of his homecoming to Indiana