Iowa basketball is a cardiac episode waiting to happen. The Hawkeyes, apparently deciding that their buzzer-beating win over Northwestern wasn’t thrilling enough for their fans, took the tension to a new level with their shocking last-second win over Rutgers. Joe Wieskamp’s miracle shot to beat the Scarlet Knights will long be etched into the memories of Hawkeye fans due both to the incredible degree of difficulty associated with it, as well as the bizarre circumstances that led up to it.
As thrilling as the endings of Iowa’s previous two games have been, there is some concern that the Hawkeyes have needed to rely on last-second heroics to defeat two teams that they are demonstrably better than. Iowa’s next opponent are the Maryland Terrapins, a 19-7 team with wins over both Wisconsin and Purdue that holds sole possession of the 4th place ranking in the Big Ten standings. Iowa may not need another buzzer-beater to extend their winning streak to five games, but if they are forced to endure prolonged difficult stretches the way they did against Northwestern and Rutgers, they may find themselves in a hole they aren’t capable digging themselves out of.
Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into Tuesday’s game:
1. Does Iowa have an answer for Bruno Fernando?
Maryland’s frontcourt is anchored by 6-10 sophomore Bruno Fernando, an athletic, physically imposing center who impacts the game on both sides of the ball. Despite lacking a consistent mid-range game, Fernando excels at running the floor in transition, finishing through contact (Fernando shoots 67% from two), and cleaning up the offensive glass. On defense Fernando anchors a unit that has held Big Ten opponents to 63.5 points-per-game, and Fernando’s dominance as a rim-protector has made life difficult for any players attempting to score in the paint. Maryland has limited opponents to 46% shooting from two this year, which can largely be attributed to Fernando’s imposing presence on the low-block.
Iowa’s game against Rutgers exposed a number of ways in which Fernando could have a highly disruptive impact on the Hawkeye game plan. First, Iowa struggled to keep Rutgers off the offensive glass, surrendering 14 offensive rebounds, including six to freshman Myles Johnson (like Fernando, Johnson also stands at 6’10 and over 240 lbs.). Fernando is a walking double-double who averages 10.6 rebounds per game, and his bruising strength and superior rebounding instincts could present a challenge for the Hawkeyes assigned to keep him of the boards.
Furthermore, the Hawkeye offense frequently found itself stifled by the impressive size of the Scarlet Knight frontcourt. Despite only recording two blocks against the Hawkeyes, Rutgers defenders challenged and altered a number of shots in the paint and forced Iowa’s forwards to give the ball up in scenarios where they would normally be content to shoot it. Fernando, a legitimate candidate for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, is a better defender than any member of the Rutgers frontcourt, and his impressive quickness allows him to switch onto guards without losing a step. He is one of the only post defenders Iowa will play who can match Tyler Cook’s athleticism and can legitimately challenge Iowa’s star forward at the rim.
When Maryland has the ball, Iowa needs to swarm the talented big man the way they did against both Ethan Happ of Wisconsin and Kaleb Wesson against Ohio State, while also working to ensure that Fernando can’t kick the ball to open three-point shooters like Aaron Wiggins and Eric Avala. Iowa’s excellent help defense frustrated Happ and Wesson in earlier meetings, and Fernando has occasionally been mistake-prone when forced to make a quick decision to either keep the ball or kick to an open shooter in the face of an unexpected double-team. Furthermore, if Iowa can make a concerted effort to keep Fernando off the glass, they can limit his opportunities to generate second-chance baskets off rebounds.
The closest comparison to Fernando that Iowa has played this year is Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy, who dominated the Hawkeyes to the tune of 23 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks. For the Hawkeyes to emerge victorious against Maryland, they will need to do a better job of limiting Fernando’s impact on the game than they did Murphy’s.
2. Which team can win the turnover battle?
Iowa struggled with turnovers against Rutgers, particularly during the first half. While some of Iowa’s 15 giveaways can certainly be attributed to strong defense played by the Scarlet Knights (Geo Baker personally recorded five steals in this contest, after all), many of them were simply the result of lazy cross-court passes, poor decision-making, and sloppy ballhandling on the part of the Hawkeyes. While Iowa’s defense played an uncharacteristically solid game against Rutgers, its frequent turnovers led to a number of easy buckets for the Scarlet Knights that greatly aided them in their upset bid.
Iowa needs to improve its ball-security if it intends to make any significant noise in March, and the Terrapins may be just the team against whom the Hawkeyes can regain their confidence in avoiding turnovers. Maryland has forced the fewest turnovers (120) and recorded the fewest steals (52) of any Big Ten team during conference play while, ironically, committing the most turnovers against Big Ten competition with 200. Maryland boasts an excellent defense in spite of its inability to force turnovers, and Iowa cannot afford to make the Terrapins’ job any easier for them by making unforced errors. Similarly, if Iowa can force Maryland to continue its turnover-prone ways, the Hawkeyes may be able to generate easy fast-break opportunities to make up for the difficulties Maryland may give them defensively.
3. Can Maryland’s young talent handle a hostile road environment?
The major reason for Maryland’s high number of turnovers during conference play is the team’s surprising youth. The Big Ten’s youngest team and one of the five youngest teams in the country, Maryland regularly plays five freshmen, including the talented and highly-recruited 6’10 forward Jalen Smith. Junior Anthony Cowan provides veteran leadership for the Terrapins, though he has been rather inefficient shooting the ball this season, making fewer than 40% of his shots. Fernando, despite having the size and strength of an upperclassman, is himself only a sophomore.
The Terrapins’ surplus of young talent has many fans bullish about the team’s long-term prospects, but there are legitimate questions about whether Maryland is mentally ready to win an important game in a hostile road environment such as Carver-Hawkeye Arena. On one hand, Maryland has racked up five road wins this year, including double-digit victories over Minnesota and Ohio State, both of whom are likely bound for the NCAA tournament. On the other hand, Maryland handily lost to Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska on the road, and has historically struggled mightily to win marquee road games. Since arriving at Maryland, head coach Mark Turgeon is an astonishing 0-19 in road games against ranked opponents, and Turgeon has not won such a game since his Wichita State team defeated 15th ranked Syracuse on the road in 2006. For a Maryland team with such well-documented struggles in high-profile road games, defeating an Iowa team that can seemingly manufacture wins from thin air will be a tall order, indeed.