Iowa wants to play well in February, dance in March

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa's basketball team was facing a do-or-die scenario when the calendar turned to February. No one had to remind them of that.

"We talked as a team," senior forward Aaron White said. "We said, 'We've got to get things rolling. The whole month of February. Why not go 8-0?' That's our mindset. We think we can win every game we play. If we play like we did (at Michigan), I think we can."

Going 8-0 would be a bold NCAA statement for a team that got behind the 8-ball a February ago. The Hawkeyes went 3-4 last February, and ended the season with seven losses in their last eight games.

This February started with Iowa's most complete performance of the Big Ten season in a 72-54 victory at Michigan Thursday. A similar effort will be required when No. 17 Maryland makes its first Big Ten visit to Carver-Hawkeye Arena at 2:15 p.m. Sunday.

The Terrapins are 7-3 in the Big Ten and 19-4 overall. This will be the first time the schools have met since Iowa beat Maryland in the semifinals of the 2013 NIT, 71-60. Five of the 10 projected starters in Sunday's rematch – White, Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell for Iowa, Dez Wells and Jake Layman for Maryland – played in that last meeting at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The timing of the Michigan victory couldn't have been better. Iowa had lost three straight entering that game, after a 4-1 start in Big Ten play.

"Losing three in a row, you could really get down on yourself," White said. "But we didn't do that. We made it a point to commit to each other. That's what we did."

This Iowa team has shown an alarming ability to ditch the game plan once things start to spin out of control. But the Michigan game was all about sticking to the scouting report through the ebbs and flows of a game.

"We were committed," Iowa guard Peter Jok said. "Committed to what the coaches were saying."

Playing well in February is mandatory if the Hawkeyes want to play in the NCAA Tournament in March. And beating the ranked Terrapins Sunday would be a plus. Iowa is 3-5 this season against teams ranked in either The Associated Press or USA TODAY Coaches polls.

"We have an experienced team," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "We've got pretty confident guys. They don't seem to get rattled. We've lost to good teams that played well. Usually we don't get sideways with the trappings of the game, the importance of it."

The Hawkeyes' strength of schedule was 13th at the start of play Saturday, with an RPI of 47 according to the NCAA. But Iowa's strength of schedule won't get much of a bump after Sunday. Of the last eight regular-season games, Indiana is the only team with a chance to be ranked when the Hawkeyes face them.

Protecting the home court hasn't been easy for Iowa this season, losing to Iowa State by 15 points, Michigan State by 14 and Wisconsin by 11. Two of those three games were sellouts, like Sunday's game is.

"This is just another opportunity to really show how good we are and build some momentum," Gesell said.