The non-conference season is over, the Hoosiers are 11-2, and now the real fun begins.
At noon on Saturday, Indiana will kick off Big Ten play for the rest of the regular season and in doing so, immediately face a huge test on the road in the form of No. 15 Maryland.
This will be the second ranked opponent IU has faced and it could arguably be Indiana’s toughest test of the season thus far. The Hoosiers took down No. 18 Florida State by 16, but that game was of course a home contest.
Beyond FSU, Indiana’s other victories against high-major opponents have all been close and very much incomplete performances. Most of Indiana’s recent games, win or loss, have seen a breakdown and collapse of a lead late. This trend includes IU’s last game, a 71-64 home loss to Arkansas, where the Hoosiers led by double digits, yet the Razorbacks ended the game on a 19-3 run in the last 8:08 to play.
If the Hoosiers want a chance to steal a road win, they’re going to have to play a lot better than they have over the last month, period. The only true road game Indiana has played thus far came on December 7 against Wisconsin, a 20-point loss. Still, the Hoosiers have won two neutral site games against Connecticut and Notre Dame.
Indiana is going to have a lot on its plate in order to get that elusive second win over a ranked opponent. Maryland is incredibly talented and has the resume — and roster — to prove it.
The Terrapins have challenged themselves early on in their schedule, with notable wins over Temple, Marquette, Notre Dame and Illinois. Marquette is by far the best win, a team currently receiving votes, but a little outside the top 25. The Terps easily took care of Marquette though, with an impressive margin of victory of 21 points. Also, Notre Dame, the common opponent between these two who Indiana beat by two, Maryland defeated by 21.
Maryland’s only losses come on the road, with a seven-point loss on the road at No. 21 Penn State and a four-point loss to Seton Hall.
To go along with a strong resume is an even stronger level of roster depth from the Terrapins. There is legitimate star power with senior guard Anthony Cowan and sophomore forward Jalen Smith. Both were All-Big Ten First Team preseason selections.
The six-foot Cowan is the senior leader of the group; he also leads them in scoring with 16.7 points per game (fourth in the Big Ten), assists (about four per game), and steals with 18. Cowan’s versatility on both ends of the floor, along with being an elite passer and shooter, hitting 37 percent of his jumpers from deep, make him a load to handle, despite the size.
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Smith is a 6’10” big man who dominates the post. Coming out of high school, there were high expectations as he was both a 2018 McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic participant. The sophomore’s raw talent level regarded consideration to leave for the NBA after one year, but he decided to return to Maryland, and he has seen a jump in improvement for just about all statistical categories.
Smith’s most notable abilities are the way he protects the rim and dominates the inside. He has 31 blocks on the season thus far, which is the fourth most in the Big Ten, and he’s also the conference’s second leading rebounder with 10.1 rebounds per game. He does most of his scoring work from close range too, averaging 13.1 points per game. What makes Smith even more lethal offensively is the fact that players can’t risk fouling him because he’ll make you pay, as he is a 75 percent free throw shooter.
To supplement the production of Cowan and Smith, Maryland showcases other talented players including sophomores Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, along with junior Darryl Morsell. Wiggins and Ayala both score more than 10 points per game, while Morsell’s outside jump shot thrives, hitting about 35 percent of his looks from beyond the arc. He also rebounds well for a guard, corralling 5.7 rebounds per contest.
On paper, the styles of Maryland and Indiana are quite similar. Both score in the upper 70s on average, shoot 31 percent from the three-point line, and in general have a lot of really close statistical figures across the board.
The difference is the star power that Maryland has comparatively to IU. Jalen Smith is going to be the most talented post player Indiana has seen so far this season, and he will truly test both Trayce Jackson-Davis and Joey Brunk. Expect a tight rebounding battle and lots of blocked shots for both sides.
The bigger question is if Indiana’s guards are going to be able to disrupt or challenge the strength of Maryland’s backcourt. Issues that have plagued Indiana in recent games and throughout the season such as lackluster perimeter defense and turnovers need to be adjusted if IU wants to keep Cowan, Ayala and Morsell in check.
As the first game to re-open conference play, this contest holds a lot of magnitude for Indiana. A win makes up for the Arkansas loss and bolsters the resume in a huge way with a second ranked win, helping out conference standing. A loss gives Indiana two consecutive losses, and an already losing conference record.
In either case, it sets Indiana’s tone for the rest of the way.