Maryland and Iowa are playing a pretty serious basketball game on Thursday night (7 p.m. EST, ESPN), so we got in touch with a pretty smart Iowa fan to talk about the game.
Thanks to Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants, SB Nation's equal parts entertaining and deeply informative Hawkeyes blog, for stopping by to give us a detailed outlook on Fran McCaffery's program. Be sure to follow Ross and BHGP on Twitter and check out some of the good work they do.
Other than that, let's get straight into it:
TT: From the outside, I certainly didn't see this coming. Did you imagine Iowa would be anywhere near this good?
ROSS: No, definitely not. I was optimistic, largely because Iowa returned four starters from last season's team and had a wealth of experience among their top five guys (four seniors and one junior), but they were losing an All-Big Ten first team standout (Aaron White) and the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year (Gabe Olaseni) and their bench looked like one giant question mark because it largely consisted of six freshmen and a JUCO transfer.
This team had potential, but they also had a lot of questions. Could the seniors elevate their games and play the best basketball of their careers? Could Uthoff harness his incredible talents and become a consistent superstar? Could secondary scoring options emerge? Could the bench provide some valuable contributions? Could Iowa restructure their style, which was built around scoring in the paint and getting to the free throw line and would now be more based around outside shooting? Happily, the answer to all of those questions has been a resounding yes.
Mike Gesell is near the top of the Big Ten in assists, Anthony Clemmons has become a terror on defense (he absolutely stifled Michigan State's Bryn Forbes in two games this season) and a sparkplug on offense, and Adam Woodbury has become an absolute rock on defense and a skilled passer and screen-setter on offense. Uthoff has become the wonderfully unique superstar we always hoped he could become and Peter Jok has finally shaken off long-term injuries and emerged as his sweet-shooting sidekick. Dom Uhl, Nicholas Baer, and Brady Ellingson are all providing valuable minutes for Iowa off the bench and helping keep Iowa positionally versatile (and all three are very dangerous from outside, which has been a boon for Iowa's shooting).
And Iowa has gone from being an average or worse three-point shooting team in Fran's first five years at Iowa to an absolutely dead-eye squad, bombing away at 41 percent from 3-point range and capable of burying an opponent in minutes.
TT: Fran McCaffery keeps a reasonably low profile, but it strikes me that he's put together such a dominant team in an area with somewhat limited high school basketball talent. How has he managed to build this roster?
ROSS: The state of Iowa actually produces some good talent -- better than you might expect -- but the problem in recent decades has been keeping it home. (Hello there, Harrison Barnes, Marcus Paige, Doug McDermott, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich...) But Fran has been able to keep the top in-state players home (barring Paige, who was a recruit when Iowa was still trying to crawl out of the godawful mire they'd descended into under Todd Lickliter).
Guys like Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell aren't elite recruits on the level as the guys listed above, but they are very, very good prospects (both were generally 4* guys) and they were sought after by big-name programs (Roy Williams and North Carolina were Iowa's main competition for Woodbury). Peter Jok was a high-level recruit before a debilitating knee injury derailed things for him in high school; it's taken him several years to fully recover from that injury, but it's been paying off for Iowa in a big, big way this season.
More importantly, they're guys that have stayed all four years and developed well. Player development has been absolutely vital under McCaffery -- the level of improvement that guys have made between their freshmen and senior seasons at Iowa has been absolutely remarkable. To a man, every player that stays at Iowa for 3-4 years gets better and several have had absolutely outstanding senior seasons (Jarrod Uthoff is the latest in this trend, following on from Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble in recent years). Development like that takes time, patience, and stability -- but Iowa's had all those things and they're reaping the rewards big time this season.
Related to that development is Fran's ability to identify lightly-recruited talent and find unheralded players -- guys like Aaron White and Anthony Clemmons were not drowning in big-name offers by any means, but they've turned into outstanding players for Iowa.
TT: Uthoff and Jok are eye-catching, in particular, on a deep roster. What makes them both so hard to play against?
ROSS: Honestly, my colleagues at BHGP have done such a bang-up job breaking down Uthoff and Jok earlier this season that there's not a lot I can add to their analysis. But in a nutshell, Uthoff is just an incredibly unique player -- his ability to score from outside (he's shooting 48 percent from 3-point range) and get blocks (3.0 per game, best in the Big Ten), despite not being a traditional rim protector is basically unprecedented.
Only Shane Battier really approaches what he can do. Uthoff is quick enough to slip by most larger defenders and finish at the hoop, but he's long enough (6'9 with an incredible reach) that he can also shoot over just about anyone, too. There simply isn't a good way to defend him one on one. Jok is a tremendous shooter, gifted with a quick release and beautiful form and he's converting an awful lot of those shots -- 40 percent of his 3s and 43 percent of his overall shots.
He's also really improved his defense as well, particularly when it comes to jumping the passing lanes -- his steal rate is up to 3.2 percent and he's averaging 1.6 steals per game this year. He and Uthoff are both very weird as players -- but in the best possible ways.
TT: Let's say Maryland manages to contain both Uthoff and Jok. Who else should Maryland fans fear?
ROSS: If you contain Uthoff and Jok, congrats -- I think you've got the win in the bag. Iowa has a very good team, but those two are definitely Iowa's most dangerous weapons and they need them to play well to win, especially against an opponent as dangerous as Maryland.That said, Adam Woodbury, Mike Gesell, and Anthony Clemmons are all averaging around 9 points per game and can do some damage.
Gesell and Clemmons are streaky, but if they get hot from outside, they could do a lot of damage. (Gesell has been dealing with a slight hamstring injury for the last week, though, which may limit him a bit.) Woodbury isn't a traditional post scorer, but he's improved a lot over the years and can do some damage in pick and roll situations and on the free throw line (where he's an 82 percent shooter).
Finally, Dom Uhl is the best best to provide a spark off the bench -- he's shooting 51 percent from 3-point range and he's become a real matchup problem for opponents; Iowa often brings him in to spell Woodbury at the five, which creates mismatches on defense, because he's good enough from the outside to lure opposing posts out of the paint and quick enough to blow by them when they do.
TT: Do Iowa fans regard this as their biggest game of the year? Put another way, what's the external view of Maryland?
ROSS: It's hard to say, because we keep having to re-asses that phrase -- "biggest game of the year" -- with every win. The Big Ten opener against Michigan State was huge. Then the game in West Lafayette was huge. Then the rematch with Michigan State in East Lansing was huge. And then the rematch with Purdue was huge. So in some respects this just feels like the latest in a string of big games for Iowa -- the first half of Big Ten play has been pretty relentless for Iowa.
But this one does feel pretty special, too. It's a game featuring two top-10 teams, which is not something Iowa has seen in, uh, a really long time. And it's a game against another Big Ten title contender; a loss for Iowa wouldn't be too damaging, given their success so far this year in league play, but a win would just further consolidate their already rock-solid grip on the Big Ten lead. So there's definitely a lot at stake here.
I think the external view on Maryland is one of respect with a twinge of skepticism. There's no doubt that Maryland has an impressively talented roster -- especially in the starting lineup where they're absolutely loaded with likely NBA draft picks -- but they've not always performed up to that lofty pedigree in their actual games this year.
I don't think any Iowa fans expect this to be an easy game at all, but I do think there is a little feeling that the Terps aren't quite as good as their ranking or record or hype might suggest. I also think the newness of Maryland to the Big Ten is taking a little bit of the edge of this match-up. If this was against a longtime Big Ten power with whom Iowa has a lot of history -- say, Michigan State or Wisconsin -- then this game would feel like a bigger deal. Maryland still has that new car smell when it comes to the Big Ten, though.
TT: Fill in the blanks: ______ wins, because _____.
ROSS: Iowa wins, because I can't pick against a team that's won nine in a row and swept Michigan State and Purdue already this season. I think this will be an extremely difficult game -- very likely Iowa's toughest of the regular season so far -- but I don't think this team is going to be intimidated by a hostile road environment in College Park.
They've won at West Lafayette and East Lansing this year and this core group of seniors (and Jok) has seen a lot of difficult road environments over the last few years. Maryland's roster will present a big challenge for Iowa, but I think Uthoff and Jok make enough shots down the stretch for Iowa to edge out a win, 67-64.