Four thoughts as Iowa men's basketball resumes Big Ten play on Monday against Maryland
Iowa's men's basketball team took care of business in its final three non-conference games but the next few months will dictate the season's success.
The Hawkeyes carry an overall 10-3 record but are 0-2 in Big Ten play so far. They resume conference play this week with Maryland at home on Monday and at Wisconsin on Friday.
The conference season is just beginning, but falling into an early hole in arguably the country's best conference isn't ideal.
"It's the old cliche of taking it one game at a time," coach Fran McCaffery said. "Hopefully you go on a run (of wins), you certainly hope you don't go on a run the other way. As you look around this league, every game is going to be tough whether you're at home or on the road.
According to ESPN's bracketology, Iowa's a projected 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament and moving upward in the midst of their three-game winning streak. However, if they continue to drop conference games early in January, they'll quickly find themselves on the bubble or on the outside looking in.
With conference play on the horizon, McCaffery met with media members via zoom on Sunday. Here are four takeaways:
Here's what to expect from Maryland
Maryland (8-4, 0-1), like Iowa, is on a three-game winning streak after dropping the previous three games before that. Additionally, they're searching for their first Big Ten win. Led by guard Eric Ayala, the Terrapins have three players that average double-digits in scoring but overall haven't showed nearly the same team scoring prowess (70 points per game) as Iowa (87 points per game).
Still, McCaffery notes that they're much better than the majority of the teams they've played this year.
"I like their team," McCaffery said. "I think they've improved in some areas in regards in post play. I think Qudus Wahab (Georgetown transfer) was a really good addition, I think (Julian Reese) is an outstanding freshman. They have other experienced transfers that come off the bench and compete. Really good team."
The matchups within the game to watch is Maryland's rebounding ability (fifth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin) vs. Iowa's 10th-ranked rebounding team and the strength-on-strength matchup in turnovers. Maryland's one of the top five teams in the Big Ten at generating steals while Iowa's one of the most turnover-free teams in the country. The Hawkeyes are second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and fifth in fewest turnovers per game.
The Terrapins have a veteran team but it's worth noting that Monday's matchup will be their first true road game of the season. Their three games away from home this year have all been at neutral sites.
Hawkeyes hope they've learned from recent mistakes
Iowa's had one stretch already this season with several big games in a row: A near 10-day stretch beginning with Virginia and ending with Iowa State. But they only posted a 1-3 record during that time. Nearly a month later and they've won three games in a row and prepare to enter a Big Ten where every game is important.
Where is Iowa at mentally following a successful holiday break? According to McCaffery, this isn't anything that the majority of his players haven't seen before.
Iowa played their usual slate of non-conference games, conference challenges such as ACC/Big Ten followed by two early conference games and the holiday slate. This year hasn't been as successful as years past but some of those tough games have prepared them for what they'll face nightly in conference play.
"Our guys know what this is," McCaffery said. "Our league has proven top to bottom that it's the toughest league because everyone's good. All of them have been through that with the exception of Payton (Sandfort) and Riley (Mulvey). We have ultimate respect for everyone in our conference and we'll get them ready."
What's helped most on the court, and what they'll try to replicate against Maryland, is success in rebounding and how that translates into points. During their three-game losing streak, the Hawkeyes were outrebounded by a staggering 61 rebounds. During their current three-game win streak they're plus-40.
Playing good defense and limiting second-chance opportunities have allowed Iowa to return to their offense that focuses on scoring in transition. Three straight games over 90 points shows they've returned to form. But doing it against Big Ten teams is a different challenge
"We got some stops — I think that's the key," McCaffery said. "We've been rebounding better and defending well over these last few games and I think we'll be challenged in a different way against Maryland."
Payton Sandfort is finding a groove again
True freshman forward Payton Sandfort has scored double digits in back-to-back games after scoring just 10 points in their previous seven games. The most encouraging part about his recent success is consistency knocking down 3-pointers. He's 5-for-12 over his last two games (41.6%) after a 1-for-12 slump in the previous seven games.
Iowa's 35% three-point percentage as a team ranks eighth in the Big Ten. Sandfort continuing to provide consistent shooting off the bench will go a long way in helping the Hawkeyes turn around their 0-2 conference record. But McCaffery's hoping that more elements of his game begin to take shape as well.
"He's got a multitude of things that he does positively on the floor," McCaffery said. "Everyone knows he can shoot but he can put it on the deck, he can pass it, works on (defense) and is in great (physical) condition so he moves well on both ends. He's a very valuable guy. I think he's just going to keep getting better."
McCaffery provided injury updates for Connor McCaffery, who reinjured his ankle in their last game against Western Illinois, and Josh Ogundele (ankle), who has been out since their Dec. 21 game against Southeastern Louisiana. The coach said that Connor McCaffery "looks pretty good" but Ogundele isn't quite there yet.
However, even in a worst-case scenario where both couldn't play, McCaffery's confident in their plan to spread the minutes out.
"We'll give a few more minutes to other top guys," McCaffery said. "Then it becomes a factor of who's in foul trouble (and) is there anyone playing particularly well that you just want to leave out there? It's a situation we'll manage as the game goes on."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.