IOWA (20-5, 9-5) VS. MARYLAND (19-7, 10-5)
Six games. Three at home. Three on the road. Six games are all that's left between the Cardiac Hawks and a Big Ten tournament double-bye. And there is no game more important to that possibility than Tuesday night's contest with Maryland.
At least as far as Kenpom is concerned, Maryland is the best team that Iowa has seen since February 1. The Terps play to their strengths: They have size across the front line, and use it to control the glass on both ends of the court. Maryland is tenth nationally in defensive rebound rate, and 34th on the offensive glass (by way of comparison, Rutgers -- who turned Saturday's game into a war -- is 89th and 31st, respectively). The Terps also block a ton of shots, limiting opponents to less than 45 percent shooting inside the three-point arc. And all of that interior size allows their guards to focus on contesting the three, which drives opponents down to 31 percent from behind the line. The Terps don't press, and they don't jump passing lanes; Maryland forces fewer turnovers than any team in the nation other than Idaho. They simply don't need to. You get a possession, you're probably getting a shot. It's just going to come with a hand in your face, and you're probably not getting a second chance.
Offensively, it's not much different. Maryland is a competent if unspectacular shooting team, but their rebounding edge nullifies most of any shooting disadvantages. The Terps shoot 36 percent from three, 52 percent from two, and 74 percent at the free throw line. They're not great at protecting the basketball: 20 percent of Terrapin possessions end in a turnover, with more than half of those the sort of live-ball turnovers that generally lead to fast break points; in a typical 70-possession game, that totals out to 14 turnovers, of which eight are steals. That's hard to maintain in every game.
Three players get top billing. Sophomore forward, and NBA lottery candidate, Bruno Fernando (6'10", 240) is first on the team in rebounding (10.6 rpg) and blocks (1.9 bpg), and second in scoring (14.5 ppg). He's a beast in the paint, and a matchup nightmare for Fran McCaffery tonight; he's too big for Cook or Kriener to handle alone, and probably too athletic for Garza. He's probably going to require a double team, which frees up Anthony Cowan (6'0", 180), Eric Ayala (6'5", 205) and Aaron Wiggins (6'6", 200) to light it up from the perimeter.
Cowan isn't as much of a three-point shooting threat as the other two (33.1%) but isn't bashful about taking his shots (5.9 three-point attempts per game). He also gets to the line more than any other Maryland player, and knocks down free throws at an 83 percent clip when he gets there. Ayala and Wiggins, on the other hand, are deadly from outside; both are north of 42 percent from three, and combine to take more than eight three-point shots per game.
And with all that, we still haven't talked about freshman forward Jalen Smith (6'10", 215), who is third on the team in scoring (11.8 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.8 rpg), or shooting guard Darryl Morsell (6'5", 200), who provides another option to get to the rim. The Terps aren't deep, but those six are as good as Iowa will see the rest of the way in 2019.
The good news: Fernando is prone to turn the ball over, as is Cowan and Ayala. There is one thing in common for nearly all of Maryland's losses this year: They came against elite defensive teams. Four of the Terps' seven losses came against teams ranked in the Kenpom top seven in efficiency (Virginia, MSU, Wisconsin, Michigan). The other three were from peculiar circumstances. Purdue shut down Fernando and Smith, and got a bit lucky that Cowan was 2/10 from three. Seton Hall got two guards to combine for 50, which makes winning a bit easier.
But the template for Tuesday night might come from Illinois. The Illini, playing Maryland at Madison Square Garden, pressured the bejezzus out of the Terrapin backcourt and Fernando and kept the Terps off the offensive glass, forcing 21 turnovers and limiting Maryland to just 45 shots in a 71-possession game. A bunch of live-ball turnovers and defensive rebounds essentially nullifies the math behind Maryland's strategy. Iowa showed nine days ago that it can press, and it used traps and presses to great effect on Saturday. I wouldn't be surprised if McCaffery lets Fernando and Smith get their fill (double teams only when the dribble has stopped, as Iowa did against Rutgers) and try to force the Terps into giving the game away in the backcourt.
The other good news: Maryland's standing might be a bit inflated by the schedule; they faced Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers, Minnesota and Indiana in five of their first six Big Ten games, and their only two truly impressive results of the season -- wins over Wisconsin and Purdue -- came at home. Last weekend's loss at Michigan took Mark Turgeon to 0-19 at Maryland on the road against ranked opponents. Iowa has a chance to make it an even 20.