NEW YORK - Pierre Jackson is one win away from capping his stellar Baylor career with the Bears' first NIT championship.
To do that, he'll have to break down Iowa's defense in the title game of the 76th National Invitation Tournament tonight.
The Hawkeyes have faced plenty of good point guards this season in the Big Ten, though none quite put up Jackson's type of numbers. The junior-college transfer leads the Big 12 this season in points and assists per game, putting him in line to be the first player in a major conference to do that since Arizona's Jason Terry led the Pac-10 in 1998-99.
On Tuesday night, Jackson put up his third straight double-double with 24 points and 10 assists to get the Bears back into the title game. Baylor lost to Penn State at Madison Square Garden in 2009.
The Bears struggled with the Cougars for the first 30 minutes or so of Tuesday's semifinals, before Jackson took over and Baylor finally put away BYU.
Afterward, he was perfectly cool - and why not? It was a performance typical of him since he transferred to Baylor from the College of Southern Idaho.
Iowa (25-12) vs. Baylor (22-14)
NIT Championship Game
Tonight, 8:05 p.m.
At Madison Square Garden, New York City
"If we win on Thursday, I'll probably be here shaking because I'm too excited," he said.
If that happens, Jackson will probably have played a key role. In the NIT so far, he's had triple-doubles in his last three games, and set a tournament record with 16 assists in the Bears' win over Arizona State in the second round.
"I think the thing that impresses me the most is how quickly he gets rid of the ball," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "As soon as he recognizes where the help comes from, he loads the guy up."
Iowa, on the other hand, got out to a big lead over Maryland early, then spent the rest of the game holding off the Terrapins with varying levels of success. Devyn Marble scored 10 points in the game's first 7 minutes, and finished with 21 to help the Hawkeyes reach their first NIT title game by beating the Terrapins 71-60.
Like Jackson, Marble took over when the Hawkeyes needed him, though the biggest shot of the game came from Iowa's senior captain, Eric May.
He sank a 3-pointer with 1:01 to play while the Hawkeyes held a six-point lead, icing the game and sending the Hawkeyes one win away from the title game. Whether they win or not, Iowa's going to finish the season with plenty of promise. After a rough start in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes seemed to come together.
They've won 11 of their last 14 games, finishing in the conference stronger than anyone but Ohio State, including NCAA Final Four participant Michigan. But the Buckeyes' season is over.
Part of what carried them, and what got them to the title game, was the Hawkeyes' defense. They went to a zone against Maryland and the ACC team set to join the Big Ten soon didn't quite know what to do.
Baylor coach Scott Drew hopes he has his team prepared for Iowa's look.
"I know statistically defensively they'll be as good as anyone we played this year. We've played some great ones, Kansas comes to mind right away," Drew said. "But all season long, they've held their opponents for the season under 30 percent from 3, 38 percent from the field. I think they do a tremendous job in contesting shots, being very physical, making sure you don't get easy buckets. "
One wild card could be Baylor 7-footer Isaiah Austin. The lanky freshman almost appears more comfortable farther away from the basket, where he is happy to handle the ball, and can display a nice shooting stroke.
"How many 7-footers go out and make 3s?" McCaffery said.
Iowa's got plenty of size to counter the Bears, but the Hawkeyes' success probably rides on Marble, the way Baylor's does on Jackson.
"I have not seen enough of Iowa to know if Marble means as much as Pierre does for us," Drew said. "I know Pierre is the straw that stirs our drink."