Iowa is Maryland’s biggest game of the regular season

When Maryland’s schedule was released, there were several games that jumped out at fans. There was the renewal of their rivalry with Georgetown. A return to Chapel Hill for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge looked pretty exciting. Traveling to Madison Square Garden to face UConn certainly intrigued people.

Looking at the conference slate, a trip to East Lansing surely looked like it was going to be a heavyweight clash. A home-and-home with defending conference champions Wisconsin seemed like they would be tight games, with Diamond Stone only adding more intrigue to the matchups. Indiana, Purdue and Michigan were also all ranked preseason, and it was fair to give some attention to those matchups as well.

The fans weren’t really wrong about having any of those games circled. Georgetown was a thrilling win, UNC was a slugfest and their games at Wisconsin and Michigan State were competitive and tight. However, now that we are more than two months removed from Maryland’s season-opening win over Mt. St. Mary’s, we now know what Maryland’s most important game of the regular season is: Iowa at home on January 28th.

The fact that Iowa is currently ranked #3 in the country is hard to believe, so it helps to look at how they got there. Their non-conference slate had wins over Wichita State, Florida State and Marquette. They also lost to Notre Dame, Dayton and Iowa State. They grabbed the attention of the nation in their Big Ten opener, by getting an upset at home over then #1 Michigan State, without Denzel Valentine. They followed that game up by overcoming a 17-point halftime deficit in West Lafayette and handing Purdue only their second loss of the season. After a 77–66 home win against Nebraska, they got a rematch with Michigan State, this time with their star player healthy. Quite remarkably, Valentine did not matter. Iowa went into the Breslin Center and came away with a fantastic 76–59 win. They’ve beaten Michigan at home, Rutgers on the road, and swept Purdue yesterday with a 83–71 win in Iowa City.

Iowa is currently in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten regular season title thanks to their sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue. They are one of only four teams left in a power conference who are unbeaten in conference play.

More than anything else, this is an important game to Maryland for the implications it’d have for the conference standings. If Maryland wins on Thursday, they’re only one game behind Iowa and two games behind an Indiana team who hasn’t had to face any of the Big Ten’s heavyweights yet. If they lose, Maryland is staring down a three game deficit they’d need to overcome to win at least a share of the regular season title.

However, this game goes beyond just the conference standings. Maryland has had two chances to deliver a signature win that shows why they have spent the entire season in the top ten. Plagued by first half turnovers, they were unable to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill despite Melo Trimble’s 23-point and 12-assist effort. They also could not pull out a win in East Lansing due to a particularly dreadful night of defensive rebounding. Maryland is a good team who has not beaten the two best teams they have played. A win over Iowa would go a long way to demonstrating that Maryland can play to their full talent level. A loss would mean the Terrapins are 0–3 against teams in the top 25 and it’d be fair to wonder just how good they really are. This game also looms large for Maryland’s seeding come tournament time. A win would greatly boost their case for a one or two seed. A loss would make it increasingly likely that a three seed is their best case scenario.

This is also a big game when you think about the state of the Maryland program in recent years. When Maryland upset Wisconsin last February, it was the first game between two top 25 teams at the Xfinity Center since Greivis Vasquez willed Maryland to victory over Duke in his last ever home game. That game took place in March 2010. Maryland was ranked #22 when they took down #4 Duke and was at #15 when they knocked off #5 Wisconsin last year. Maryland is ranked at #8 and Iowa is at #3. It is the first top ten matchup at the Xfinity Center, ever. Maryland has come a long way from their game against Duke, to the game against Wisconsin, to now.

This Thursday, January 28, 2016, Maryland is playing Iowa at the Xfinity Center in a top ten clash. In November 2015, November 2014 and March 2010, that sentence would have sounded bizarre. Yet it is now true.