COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- What a difference a gym makes.
Maryland's 74-68 victory over Iowa on Thursday would have been a massive win regardless of the context: The Hawkeyes have blitzed their way through a brutal Big Ten schedule and risen to No. 3 in the AP poll as a result. Yet Thursday was even bigger than a mere win over a top-five team: It was Maryland's first win over any ranked team all season.
That's right: For as good as Maryland has looked -- for as obviously talented and filled with promise -- the Terps somehow made it two days shy of February without handling a fellow rankee. To be fair, they had only two chances, and both of them (at Michigan State, at North Carolina) came on the road against former No. 1-ranked teams.
Thursday was their first opportunity to do so in the friendly confines of the Xfinity Center. It was a chance the Terps had to take. They did. Here's how:
Maryland shut down Jarrod Uthoff
Maryland's offense can be, at least in flashes, its most brilliant facet. It can also obscure the truth about Mark Turgeon's team: It is at its best on the defensive end. The Terps entered Thursday night with just the Big Ten's seventh-most-efficient offense. Their defense, however, had allowed the second-fewest points per trip in league play.
Alongside Rasheed Sulaimon, fellow newcomer Robert Carter has been the most important piece in the Terps' defensive work. He was especially good Thursday. His first-half work against Iowa star Uthoff -- whether matched up or in help, always with an eye on the Hawkeyes' All-American -- was a key reason Uthoff had his worst game of the season. Jake Layman was also excellent on Uthoff, who finished with just nine points on 2-of-13 shooting from the field. Against most teams, the 6-foot-9 senior is a mismatch nightmare. Maryland had not one but two players well-equipped to play him.
It was fitting, then, that Maryland's biggest play of the game -- a Melo Trimble strip of guard Mike Gesell with 75 seconds left that allowed the Terps to expand their four-point lead to a decisive 66-60 margin -- was the single most important play of the game.
Rasheed Sulaimon was, as usual, making big plays
In October, Turgeon explained his decision to recruit the former Duke transfer in straightforward fashion: Sulaimon had "been there before." He wasn't "afraid." Turgeon looked prescient once more Thursday night. It was hardly the first time.
Sulaimon's knack for big plays in close games at the Xfinity Center seems innate. His second half was a showcase of aggressive, attacking basketball, all twisting finishes and whirling dribbles, sometimes to score, sometimes to assist, but almost always to make a particularly well-timed and much-needed play. He racked up 17 points, five assists and four rebounds, and that barely captures his impact on the game.
There's still plenty of room on the Iowa bandwagon
The first 20 minutes of Iowa's visit to Maryland were the worst 20 minutes of Uthoff's 2015-16 season. By halftime, he had three points, zero field goals, two rebounds and a handful of uncharacteristic defensive lapses to his credit. Maryland was flying, the crowd was roaring, and one of the best players in the country was nowhere to be found.
And Iowa trailed by just six points.
The same story played out for Uthoff throughout the second half. Yet the Hawkeyes only closed the margin -- hanging in, making great decisions, making Maryland earn every inch.
You don't start the Big Ten season unbeaten against the schedule the Hawkeyes have, sweeping Michigan State and Purdue in the process, if you don't have a Plan B. Fran McCaffery's team has a Plan B-through-Z.
It's more than talent, and more than strong defensive fundamentals. It's everything else: The frog-in-the-pot buildup of McCaffery's zone press, which begins as a token look and lulls opposing guards to sleep as it gradually gets more and more intense. The way Iowa's guards hit every cut, off of every screen, with a textbook-tight curl. It's how easily, and opportunistically, the Hawks steal points back with lightning fast-break strikes. It's adjustments and clever tweaks and a shared obsession with detail.
This team is good enough to not need to be so smart, so precise or so tricky. The Hawkeyes are all of the above anyway.
Thursday might have been Maryland's night, its win, the big one the Terps needed. But Iowa made them work for it -- and, in the process, did absolutely nothing to diminish its own reputation. The Hawkeyes are really good.