IOWA (15-5, 6-3) VS. MARYLAND (16-4, 6-3)
DATE: January 30, 2020
TIME: 7:30 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Xfinity Center, College Park, Maryland
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING: BTN Plus
LINE: Maryland -5.5
KENPOM: Maryland -4 (Iowa 34% win probability)
Iowa went through an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, at least by Iowa standards. Between November 28 and December 21, the Hawkeyes played six of seven games away from the muted confines of Carver Hawkeye Arena, all against teams that are either in Power Six conferences or projected into the NCAA Tournament. Coming out of that stretch 5-2 increasingly looks like a minor miracle, one that hardened this squad and made them the cutthroat savages they now are.
Once Iowa got back home, things got better. The Hawkeyes just won four home games in eighteen days, culminating with Monday's Lazarus-like performance against Wisconsin. Iowa has now won nine straight at home, the longest such streak since 2015-16, when the Hawks held serve until February 24.
And so, after a nice, long stretch at home, the Hawkeyes head back into the ball of knives that is the Big Ten road schedule. It starts with a familiar foe: Maryland, which Iowa summarily dispatched to start the previous homestand three weeks ago. Not much has changed in our assessment of the Terps since then: They lost a close game at Wisconsin, then beat Purdue at home and found their road footing in wins at Northwestern and Indiana.
Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith are two of the most-used players in the conference. Cowan (6'0", 180) is really the only point guard on the Terps' roster at the moment, and is averaging 36.4 minutes a game since in Big Ten play; in nine conference games, Cowan has sat out a total of 32 minutes. Smith's (6'10", 225) cumulative minutes aren't as exhausting, but his backups transferred out of the program over Christmas break and the fill-in -- seven-footer Chol Marial -- hasn't worked out. Smith has averaged 36 minutes in the four games since the Iowa loss, posting a 22.5/10.25 line in the process, and those kind of minutes for a 6'10" post-up points-and-boards guy are a special kind of murder.
The extra time and increased production have done wonders for Smith's status: He's been the Kenpom MVP of each of Maryland's last four games and is now ninth in the Kenpom Player of the Year race (Luka Garza is second, just FYI). And it's tempting to look at Smith's recent surge and predict that this game will come down to Smith vs. Garza, the sort of heavyweight matchup that made Don King rich.
It would be easy to dismiss the previous meeting as a poor road team playing on the road. But honestly? Maryland is still a mediocre-at-best perimeter shooting team -- Smith is the only guy on the team averaging more than one attempt per game and shooting north of 36 percent -- and Iowa can still run zone against interior-oriented teams that want to pull Garza away from the basket through pick and roll. Perhaps Maryland shoots better at home, where they haven't been defeated all year. Perhaps Smith really has made the Great Leap Forward and all those minutes won't catch up with him yet. Perhaps Cowan is destined to improve on that nine-point, three-turnover performance at Iowa.
Yes, it would be easy to dismiss the previous meeting as a poor road team playing on the road. But to do so would ignore the fairly obvious point: Iowa is a really terrible matchup for Maryland. Iowa is a much better perimeter defensive team, especially against the dribble drive, this season, and its center is better -- not significantly better, but better -- than Maryland's. The places where Maryland needs to get production are the places where Iowa is built to stop it. That much was obvious three weeks ago. On Thursday night, we'll find out whether the Curse of the Big Ten Road Game is enough to overcome it.