The #19 Iowa Hawkeyes (15-5, 6-3) head to College Park to face the #15 Maryland Terrapins (16-4, 6-3) in an important game despite marking the halfway point of both teams’ conference schedules. After the Hawkeyes win just under three weeks ago, both teams have combined to go 7-1 and are tied for 4th in the conference behind Michigan State, Illinois, and Rutgers.
Though it is still January, it is never too early to pontificate about the conference positioning, especially considering the double bye awarded to the top 4 teams in the Big Ten. An Iowa win would give them what amounts to a two game lead over the Terps plus an edge against the team they would share third place with in Rutgers.
It’s a tall task, though, considering Maryland has demonstrated a much more competent offense from the friendly confines of the Xfinity Center. They average 74.7 points at home versus just 62.3 points on the road. Perhaps more impressive than their offense at home is their defense: they yield 52.5 points per game, including a staggering 55.5 in conference play. Their opponents? Illinois, Ohio State, Indiana, & Purdue.
They’re a balanced squad according to KenPom, with an offense ranking 28th and their defense coming in at 12th, they rank 9th overall.
- Jalen Smith: After an underwhelming-by-his-standards 13 points against the Hawks, Smith has gone on the best run of his career, averaging 22.5 points on 62.7% shooting and 10.3 rebounds (4.3 offensive). We all know he’s going to match up with Luka Garza. May the better man win.
- Anthony Cowen: Cowen has been around so long, it feels weird for his senior season to be here in real life. He’s had better seasons from the field, from three, from the line, etc. but he’s absolutely capable of going off against the Hawkeyes. While he averages a shade under his career point total against the Hawks at 13.4 PPG, his 5/10 outing from 3 buoyed the Terrapin offense in last year’s matchup at Carver-Hawkeye. He’s certainly capable of another similar outing.
- Sophomore Wing X: Both Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins have experienced a bit of a slump in their second year after both shot over 40% from three last year. Perhaps the report is out on them now, but once again, these guys are capable of making Iowa pay when doubling Smith. A recent switch has flipped Ayala for Wiggins in the starting lineup and, knowing Iowa’s luck, he’ll go off from deep after starting conference season 6/35 from 3 (17.1%).
- Can Iowa manage Smith’s explosion? Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Jalen Smith’s last two weeks is how he has extended his range so successfully. He was certainly a respectable shooter prior to facing Iowa, at 36.7% on 30 attempts but he’s been a flamethrower since, shooting 10/19 and currently leading the conference. That dimension to his game will force Luka Garza (and Ryan Kriener) to cover him at the 3 point line and open driving lanes for Maryland’s cadre of wings. The best way to eliminate that is for Garza (and Kriener) to battle him down low offensively and do his best to get Smith off the court by way of foul trouble. Behind him are two largely non-existent bigs, which could make things even easier for the Hawks offensively as “Sticks” is blocking over 2 shots per game.
- Did the Hawkeyes pack their jump shot? Frankly, it’s unfair to overreact to a poor shooting performance for this outfit, as they have shot less than 30% from deep just four times on the season. But it is a fair concern as Iowa may struggle inside considering the rim protection of Mark Turgeon’s squad - they rank in the top 10% of block percentage according to KenPom. If the Hawks can get it rolling early, it will enable Garza to work 1x1 with more frequency. Given his 8/21 outing the last time these two faced, he could use all the help the Hawks can muster.
- Can the defense replicate some what we saw last time they faced off? Joes Toussaint and Wieskamp combined for 7 steals in performance which yielded a season-best .699 points per possession. I wouldn’t expect a redux of that result, which was Iowa’s best in-conference number since 2015 (against Rutgers - thanks KenPom), but the activity they displayed in crunch time against Wisconsin is something which needs to translate on the road - especially if they’re faced with another close game.