The Big Ten season is two-thirds done now, with 12 of the 18 scheduled games in the books. We're just a month away from the Big Ten Tournament, which could prove to be a vital part of Iowa's late push for an NCAA Tournament spot. So let's take a look at what we know (and can guess) about that event.
Big Ten Tournament pairings if the season ended now:
1 - Indiana
2 - Michigan State
3 - Ohio State
4 - Wisconsin
5 - Michigan
12 - Penn State
8 - Illinois
9 - Iowa
7 - Purdue
10 - Northwestern
6 - Minnesota
11 - Nebraska
What's the most plausible best case scenario, record-wise, for Iowa?
Probably 10-8. That's a 5-1 finish, losing at Indiana and beating everyone else.
Could Iowa finish higher than the 6-seed?
Probably not. The remaining schedules for Wisconsin (here) and Michigan (here) don't look likely to provide four additional losses for those teams. Ohio State has the most daunting schedule of the trio of teams tied at 8-4 (here), but even if they lose four more games and end up tied with Iowa, they would still own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa. If it's a multi-team tiebreaker, Iowa's still probably out of luck -- those hinge on records in games played between the tied teams and we don't have a very good record against teams in the upper half of the league this year.
Can we catch Minnesota for the 6-seed?
It would have been easier if Wisconsin could have beaten them last night (that would have given Iowa and Minnesota identical 5-7 league records), but it's still possible. First and foremost, of course, is the game against Minnesota on Sunday -- Iowa must win that game to have a realistic shot at the 6-seed. If they lose that game, the Gophers would have a 2-game advantage in the standings, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker. If Iowa wins, Minnesota and Iowa will have identical 6-7 conference records and head-to-head will be a wish (one win apiece). Minnesota still probably wins on tiebreakers, based on this:
2. Each team's record vs. the team occupying the highest position in the final regular-season standings (or in the case of a tie for the championship, the next highest position in the regular-season standings), continuing down through the standings until one team gains an advantage.
Neither team has a win against Indiana (yet?), but assuming Michigan State stays near the top of the league standings, then it seems like Minnesota's win over them way back on December 31 could give them the edge over Iowa. So for Iowa to grab the 6-seed ahead of Minnesota, Iowa likely need to finish ahead of Minnesota in the standings, not just tied with them. If we assume Iowa will lose to Indiana, then we would need to find two more conference losses for Minnesota on their schedule. Luckily for us, they play Ohio State (away) and Indiana (home) in their next two games after the Iowa game -- those could both easily be losses.
But Iowa's best path to the 6-seed might be a three-way tie between Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois. In that scenario, we would look at the composite head-to-head results of the tied teams. Assuming Iowa beats Minnesota on Sunday and Illinois later in the season (which is necessary to get us into a three-way tie, I suspect), then those head-to-head records would be:
And Iowa would win that tiebreaker. So there's a fair amount of things that would need to happen still, but the 6-seed is conceivable.
How does Iowa's closing schedule compare to the closing schedules for Illinois and Purdue?
Illinois and Purdue look like the teams that Iowa will be battling with around the 7-9 seed spots, given that we're all locked up at 5-7 at the moment. Here are the remaining schedules of all three teams:
IOWA: Minnesota, at Nebraska, Purdue, at Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska
ILLINOIS: at Northwestern, Penn State, at Michigan, Nebraska, at Iowa, at Ohio State
PURDUE: at Indiana, Northwestern, at Iowa, at Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota
Iowa has the most advantageous schedule of the three, it appears. They get to play both Illinois and Purdue, giving them a direct opportunity to put distance between them and their rivals for a better seed. They also only have to play one of the Big Ten heavyweights once more this season (Indiana); Illinois has two more games against heavyweights (Michigan, Ohio State) and Purdue has at least two (Indiana, Michigan) and potentially three (depending on your feelings about Wisconsin).
Really, this seems like a race between Illinois and Iowa. Purdue has been trending downward after their solid start in league play: they've lost five of their last seven games against B1G competition, mostly in lopsided fashion. They also have the toughest remaining schedule of the three; in addition to the top-tier teams they still have to play, their easiest game is against Northwestern, who beat them by 15 earlier this year. The Boilermakers seem likely to wheeze to the finish line in league play, frankly. That pits Iowa and Illinois against one another for the 7- and 8-seeds... and possibly the 6-seed, if they can draw Minnesota back into the pack.
Who could Iowa play in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament?
Iowa seems likely to finish in the 6-8 seed range, barring an ugly collapse down the stretch. That means they would play the 9-11 seeds in round one. We can rule out Penn State: pluckiness can only carry you so far and they are firmly entrenched in last place in the league, which means the 12-seed. As discussed earlier, Iowa is very unlikely to reach the 5-seed. The teams Iowa is most likely to face in R1 are Purdue, Northwestern, and Nebraska. Iowa is currently 2-1 against those teams and by the end of the season we'll hopefully be 5-1 against that trio (knock on wood). If Iowa is unable to pip Minnesota or Illinois for the 6- or 7-seeds, we'll probably see Purdue in the 8/9 game. (They have a game up on Northwestern and as tricky as their remaining games are, Northwestern's remaining schedule might even be worse.)
As far as which of those three teams would be most desirable for Iowa to play... it's hard to say until we see how Iowa does against Nebraska this year (we went 1-1 against them last year), but at the moment it seems like Northwestern would be the best match-up for Iowa. That seems strange to say, given what a challenge they've been for Iowa in recent years, but Iowa is 2-0 against them this year with an average margin of victory of 17 ppg. Northwestern's roster is also horribly depleted; "Chicago's Big Ten Team" may literally be running on fumes by the time they reach the league tournament in Chicago. I'd happily take my chances with Iowa going 3-0 against them this year. Otherwise, let's wait and see how Iowa does against Nebraska. On paper, it looks like a good match-up for Iowa, but on paper it looked like Iowa should mop the floor with Penn State, and they gave us plenty of heartburn in their two showdowns with Iowa this season. Still, to get Northwestern or Nebraska (likely the most favorable match-ups for Iowa in round one), Iowa will probably need to finish with the 6- or 7-seed.
If Iowa can make it out of round one, then what?
Obviously, this is hard to figure because there's still a lot of uncertainty in the top five seeds in the Big Ten, too. Still, there has been a little separation -- Indiana and Michigan State each have two-game leads in the standings on the Wisconsin/Michigan/Ohio State trio and it may be tricky to pull them back.
If Iowa's the 6-seed, they'll play the 3-seed in round two if they win their opening round game.
If Iowa's the 7-seed, they'll play the 2-seed in round two if they win their opening round game.
If Iowa's the 8-seed, they'll play the 1-seed in round two if they win their opening round game.
Against the "big five" of the Big Ten, Iowa has a 1-5 record this season and it will drop to 1-6 if they aren't able to upset Indiana in Bloomington next month. Iowa's lone win was against Wisconsin, who they also lost a 2OT heartbreaker to last week. Of all the five teams at the top of the standings, the Badgers look like the best potential match-up in order for Iowa to get a win in round two. Of course, other than the Michigan debacle, Iowa has also played the "big five" teams fairly close this year -- they made strong comebacks against Indiana and Ohio State and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Michigan State.
From a personnel standpoint, Michigan still seems like the worst match-up for Iowa -- we lack the size and/or experience to contain their array of talented perimeter players, especially with Marble not at full speed. Indiana is also a scary match-up and if they're playing well, Iowa has no prayer against them. (To be fair, no team in the country can stop the Hoosiers if they're playing well; their best is better than everyone else's best this year.) Michigan State has looked much better in recent weeks than the team that just eked out a win in Iowa City in early January. Ohio State has been up and down of late, but they're still a very dangerous team.
Frankly, any of these teams would be a very difficult obstacle for Iowa to overcome. But assuming Iowa can get to round two in the Big Ten Tournament, whoever they play in that round would likely be their last chance to record a "signature" win before the season ends (although if they won that round two game, they'd likely get a game against another very good Big Ten team in the tournament semifinals). And they just might need to win that game to put them over the top in the eyes of the selection committee, given their weak RPI (95th per RealTimeRPI and 87th per ESPN's RPI calculation) and disastrous non-conference strength of schedule (324th per ESPN, 340th per KenPom).
Anyway. That's where things stand at the 2/3 mark of the season. The home stretch awaits. The brutal part of Iowa's schedule is over and it's time for the Hawkeyes to take advantage of what's left. This schedule was set up for them to make a run at things late in the season -- now it's time to make that happen.