It might not be the Final Four, but it is the final four.
Tuesday night Maryland will face Iowa in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden. While many fans were disappointed the Terps did not make the NCAA Tournament, the appeal of the NIT is the chance to play in New York City for the semifinals, and if Maryland wins, the finals.
“We're excited,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said to the media on Monday. “We feel like we're playing our best basketball of the season here late and have a great team; a fun team to coach and a fun team to be around.”
Since a late season loss to North Carolina on March 6 where the Terps did not play well, Maryland has looked like strong team in all of its games since. In three games in the ACC Tournament and then the NIT, Maryland registered impressive wins over Duke and at Alabama.
The road to New York has not been easy for the Terps.
They faced a nearly double-digit deficit late in the second half against Denver in the second round of the NIT. Turgeon changed his strategy late in that game – going small – and Maryland came back to win the game by double figures. Then at Alabama, Maryland almost blew a lead late, but held on for the win. Alabama missed a shot at the buzzer that would have sinked the Terps.
In Iowa, Maryland faces a well-coached foe with a strong frontcourt. The Hawkeyes (24-14, 9-9 in the Big Ten) are 10th in the country in rebounding, and are coming off a convincing 75-64 win at Virginia. Maryland struggled in two losses to Virginia this season.
“We're looking forward to playing a great, well-coached Iowa team that has a lot of toughness and they run the motion as well as any team in the country,” Turgeon said. “It will be a great challenge for our defense but we're looking forward to it.”
Since postseason play began for the Terps, sophomore slasher Dez Wells has been a beast. Wells is averaging more than 18 points a game in the postseason, and shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery leans on Roy Devyn Marble for scoring. Marble leads the Hawkeyes at just over 14 points a game, and he shoots more than 33 percent from the 3-point line. Marble scored 24 in the win over UVa.
Unlike Maryland’s last few opponents, Iowa has size to match up on the interior with the Terps. Much will swing on the play of Terps center Alex Len, who played one of his best games of the season against Alabama.
Len scored 15 points and hauled in 13 rebounds against the Crimson Tide, and is one of four Maryland players averaging double figures during the postseason. Much speculation exists that Len will declare for the NBA Draft following this season, so many Terps fans believe they could be seeing Len’s final games in a Maryland uniform.
But Turgeon will not focus on what might happen after the NIT. The trip to New York is in many ways a reward for a young Maryland team that stayed focused, and has improved late in the year.
“We're happy to be in New York,” Turgeon said. “So I know how special this place is with Times Square and it's been great for our families too. It's spring break for families so we're kind of treating this as a family outing so everybody's happy.”