Maryland matchup offers Iowa women's basketball a big chance for resume enhancement

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — March urgency hasn’t fully kicked in yet for everyone — but it’s coming. Teams like Iowa women’s basketball and others that need a strong final push are watching the gap close quickly between now and the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 24 Hawkeyes (16-6, 10-3 Big Ten Conference) are hovering in this gray area of postseason prognostication — not on the bubble but also not in the hosting discussion. The record looks solid, both inside and outside the league, and there are multiple Quadrant 1 victories that uphold a decent resume.

That signature, eye-popping win, though, is still missing.   

Which brings us to Monday’s matchup inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

In comes No. 12 Maryland (18-6, 10-3) for what should be a riveting evening of college basketball. ESPN2 will be in the house, as should several thousand Iowa supporters ready to roll at opening tip. Given what’s ahead, this is the Hawkeyes’ best remaining regular-season chance to add serious substance to a resume still featuring a hosting-worthy ceiling. Iowa would like to play its first two NCAA games in Iowa City.

Iowa guard Tomi Taiwo (1) shoots a free throw during a Feb. 9 game against Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Is this the most daunting Terrapins team? No. Maryland already has three conference losses for the first time since the 2018-19 campaign, with multiple weeks of regular-season basketball remaining. However, Brenda Frese’s latest squad still boasts tons of potency and would be plenty good enough for a signature win on Iowa’s slate. Four of Maryland’s six losses came against teams ranked in the top-10 at the time. The only two that weren’t were back-to-back stumbles to Michigan and Ohio State in late January. All the Terrapins have done since then is win six straight.

ESPN’s latest bracketology has Iowa and Maryland in similar spots. The Hawkeyes are currently a No. 6 seed — one line below the Terrapins — but Iowa owns just three wins against other projected NCAA Tournament teams (Nebraska twice and Central Florida). That fact coincides with the Hawkeyes’ NET sheet, which looks decent at face value but is missing some host-worthy punch.

Entering Monday, Iowa has a 21 NET ranking and is 5-4 in Quadrant 1 games. Four of those five victories have come on the road, where the Quadrant 1 range (1-75 NET) extends further out to account for the non-friendly environment. The Hawkeyes should get full credit for those victories — at Northern Iowa (Nov. 14), at Nebraska (Jan. 9), at Purdue (Jan. 13), at Northwestern (Jan. 28) — and their Quadrant 1 statuses. But further dissection reveals it was mostly the road environment, not the opponent, that made those top-level wins by the current metrics. Only Nebraska (20 NET) falls in the Quadrant 1 range regardless of location.

The good news for Iowa is plenty of chances remain for improvement. Including Monday, four of the Hawkeyes’ five remaining regular-season games are against top-15 foes. Throw in Iowa's Big Ten Tournament games, and the Hawkeyes could safely finish as a host (a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament) by the time March Madness commences.

The opportunities up ahead are narrative-changing for a reason, though — and that’s because of what’s on the other side. An essential home-and-home against No. 6 Indiana — Feb. 19 on the road, Feb. 21 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena — follows the Maryland matchup. Only then does Iowa get a brief breather at cellar-dwelling Rutgers (Feb. 24) before ending the regular season at home versus No. 4 Michigan (Feb. 27).

It’s hard to envision Iowa running the table during that stretch. Finishing with a winning record will be difficult enough, requiring two top-15 victories if the Rutgers game is an assumed victory. The best chance at doing so almost certainly includes Iowa winning Monday.

Players and coaches don’t prefer this big-picture assessment, and it’s understandable why. Those with the most at stake here — and those directly in charge of dictating the necessary outcomes — aren’t going to obsess beyond the game most immediately in front. Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said as much last week.

“If you look at the big picture too much, it can be daunting a little bit,” Bluder said Tuesday. “And that’s why I don’t do it. It’s cliché — ‘one game at a time’ — but it’s really true. Because if you start looking down the line, it can be like, ‘Oh my gosh. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that.’

“Yes, I’m a realist. I know there are big games coming up. But I truly don’t focus on all of them yet. It’s too early for me to start thinking that way.”           

So we’ll finish this by bringing everything back to Monday. For immediate and future reasons, a win would send the Hawkeyes flying high toward their lofty March goals.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.