Iowa closes its non-conference schedule Sunday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. APB is one of the nation's worst teams: After wins over Division II Tuskegee and Morehouse (no, not that Morehouse) to start the season, the Golden Lions have lost eight consecutive games against Division I opponents, including a 34-point loss to Oklahoma State, a 26-point loss to SMU, a 33-point loss to Texas A&M, and a 37-point loss to Creighton. I think we're safe.
A win Sunday would leave Iowa 11-2 in the non-conference schedule, a result that was largely expected when the schedule was announced. How Iowa got there, though, was somewhat unanticipated. So where does Iowa stand with the non-conference season coming to an end?
The good news: Even with a slight downgrade in schedule due to underperformance of some (Notre Dame) and a blown-up bracket at Atlantis (UTEP over Tennessee; Villanova over Kansas), Iowa sits comfortably in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes are currently 24th in the RPI, a significant upgrade from last season. While Iowa is 0-2 against teams in the Top 25, its losses are explainable and its wins are better than last season. The human polls, far less important to the selection process than the RPI, have the Hawkeyes on the cusp of the Top 25.
As solid as the RPI and polls are, they pale in comparison to other computer metrics. Long story short: Computers love Iowa. Jeff Sagarin has Iowa ranked fourth, behind only Oklahoma State, Arizona, and Ohio State (Iowa's two losses, Iowa State and Villanova, are fifth and sixth, respectively). With Sagarin's home advantage built in, Iowa would be a favorite against any team in the country at Carver Hawkeye Arena. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has his own version of RPI, in which Iowa is ranked ninth (and in which Iowa has the nation's second-best offense, behind only Iowa State). Kenpom places the Hawkeyes 14th nationally, and predicts an 11-7 record in the Big Ten. These are all signs that the ceiling could go higher.
The Big Dance
At the moment, Iowa is a firm lock to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years. Lunardi has Iowa as a No. 6 seed as of December 16, actually moving the Hawkeyes up a line despite the loss in Ames. Jerry Palm at CBS Sports gives the Hawkeyes a No. 7 seed. Frankly, given Iowa's resume and the upcoming Big Ten slate, those numbers have plenty of room for improvement.
The important statistic: RPI No. 40. No team from a power conference with an RPI above No. 40 has been left out of the field since the RPI formula changed in 2005. Given Iowa's standing among analysts, both in computer rankings and through the "eye test," the Hawkeyes could be the first team to break through that barrier if their RPI crashes. Barring a string of bad losses, that looks unlikely. A catastrophic collapse in conference play -- something like 7-11 with a five-game losing streak to close the season -- is about the only thing standing between Iowa and the Big Dance.
The Big Ten
The B1G is still ahead of the ACC and Big East as the nation's best conference by a healthy margin, according to Kenpom. Both Wisconsin and Ohio State look to be among the nation's elite teams at the moment, and Michigan State is certainly not to be trifled with. Wisconsin leads the nation in RPI and has seven wins over teams ranked in the Kenpom top 100 at the time of the game. Ohio State is 10-0, beloved by the computer polls, and posting arguably the nation's best defensive stats. Michigan State took a bad home loss from North Carolina, but boasts a win over Kentucky and has the pedigree for a championship. Both Lunardi and Palm have those three teams among the tournament's top eight seeds at the moment.
There's a mad race between Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Indiana to join those top-tier teams, and Iowa is arguably leading the way. Michigan has sputtered to a 6-4 start without Trey Burke. The record is in part due to brutal scheduling: The Wolverines have already faced Iowa State, Florida State, Duke, and Arizona, with Stanford still on the slate. But Michigan's defense has certainly been suspect so far, and Mitch McGary's early-season injury issues certainly took their toll. Indiana turns the ball over far too often and shoots poorly from the perimeter. Yogi Ferrell is the Hoosiers' only serious deep threat and Crean's new pack of freshman have largely failed to contribute (save Noah Vonteh). Minnesota's getting by on perimeter shooting, free throws, and surprisingly disciplined defense. It's what you would expect from a team with seven upperclassmen in an eight-man rotation.
Illinois and Penn State are a step behind the second level, though the Illini have managed a 9-2 start. Purdue, Nebraska, and Northwestern round out the standings.
Could Iowa win the conference? Sure, but it does not look likely. For one, Iowa gets two games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Illinois; out of the conference's best eight teams, the Hawkeyes miss a home-and-home against only Indiana. Contrast that with Wisconsin, which plays Ohio State and Michigan State only once, and gets both games at home (Wisconsin's road one-and-dones are Penn State and Nebraska; their schedule could only get easier if Delany added Rutgers to the conference early).
Of course, there's that other issue, too.
After Friday's loss to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes are a positively Ferentzian 3-9 in games decided by four points or less or tied at the end of regulation since 2012. Iowa's only wins in such games: 2012 WIsconsin (70-66), 2012 @ Penn State (74-72 only after a furious PSU comeback), and 2013 Xavier (77-74 in overtime). The Xavier win was McCaffery's first overtime win in four seasons at Iowa; he's lost five overtime games in the same time period, including a loss to Villanova just two days after the Xavier game. Of Iowa's 14 losses to power conference opponents over the last two seasons, nine have been by four points or less. That's particularly brutal for a team that always looked on the cusp of a tournament bid in 2012-13 and looks primed for a potential conference title run this year.
The most distressing part of that trend is that nearly all of Iowa's close losses over the last two seasons have come in games where the Hawkeyes were favored to win in the game's last ten minutes. In eight of the nine games Iowa has lost by four or fewer points since 2012, the Hawkeyes were favored to win at some point in the game's final ten minutes. In five of those nine losses, Iowa was favored at the 10 minute mark. In six of those nine games, Iowa was favored with one minute to go. In fact, Iowa's average percentage chance of winning those games with 60 seconds left: 56.8%. Actual winning percentage: Zero.
It's a brutal, exhausting trend that Iowa has to get over if this is going to be the transcendent year that we have hoped to see. The answers aren't particularly easy: There is no single symptom that is causing the problem. But if there is one thing we have learned from Iowa football in the years since Iowa basketball was last relevant, it's that teams have to learn how to handle late-game situations over time. Do we have faith that Iowa will find it in time? Faith is all we have at the moment, so it will have to do.