The key to a tournament bid is a healthy RPI; unfortunately, the weakness of Iowa's schedule may keep them on the outside looking in
Note: Throwing this post from the preseason back to the top of the page, just to show off how smart Horace is. -- Ed.
I hate to splash cold water on the enthusiasm of Iowa basketball fans just as the season is about to begin, but there's something everyone needs to realize: Iowa's chances of making the NCAA tournament are slim this year -- not necessarily because of the quality of the team, but because of the quality of the schedule. Once again, Iowa has created one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country, with such stern tests as Texas-Pan American (#330 in Ken Pomeroy's preseason ratings), Central Michigan (#322), Howard (#301), Gardner Webb (#240), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (#329), South Dakota (#314), South Carolina State (#346), and Coppin State (#317). If the schedule weren't leavened with required games against Virginia Tech, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, the team's only opponent with a KenPom rating better than 200 would be Western Kentucky (#180).
This is ridiculous. I haven't checked, but I would bet good money that Iowa has the softest schedule of any major conference team. Iowa managed to make a majority of their non-conference schedule sub-300 ranked teams. This could barely be called a Division I basketball schedule. More than anything it resembles the kind of non-conference schedule college football teams put together in order avoid losses that might cost them precious bowl dollars (although that doesn't always work out -- see Central Michigan). But it's worse than that -- it's like only scheduling FBS teams, and not even good ones.
Here's an idea of how bad Iowa's schedules have been this year and last. Looking at all the Big 10 schools, here is how they rated last year in terms of a) their non-conference opponents' average RPI and b) their overall opponents' RPI:
- Michigan State (90 overall, 149 non-conference)
- Ohio State (94 overall, 160 non-conference)
- Penn State (95 overall, 159 non-conference)
- Illinois (98 overall, 160 non-conference)
- Purdue (99 overall, 167 non-conference)
- Northwestern (99 overall, 167 non-conference)
- Michigan (100 overall, 172 non-conference)
- Wisconsin (100 overall, 156 non-conference)
- Nebraska (104 overall, 188 non-conference)
- Minnesota (106 overall, 182 non-conference)
- Indiana (112 overall, 188 non-conference)
- Iowa (116 overall, 205 non-conference)
You may have noticed that Iowa takes the cake for weakest schedule in both categories, and that in the non-conference slate it's the weakest schedule by a healthy margin. This year, matters are arguably worse. Going by the RPI figures from the end of last year, Iowa's opponents rate out at an average score of 128 overall and 232 in the non-conference. I didn't have time to run all the figures for the rest of the conference this year, but I'm guessing Iowa will have the softest schedule in the league once again.
This is a serious problem for those who want to see the Hawkeyes play in the NCAA tournament. The RPI is a flawed measure of team quality, but it is nevertheless one that the NCAA still considers. Last year, Iowa had such a low RPI (125th in the country) that it was doubtful the team would even make the NIT. Even if Iowa outperforms last year's team in conference, they will be hard-pressed to push their RPI above 100, unless of course one of two things happens: 1) They manage to finish in the top four or five of the conference, or 2) Gardner Webb, Coppin State and Howard simultaneously go on a historic tear and win all their games. The largest component of the RPI is "opponent's winning percentage", which makes up 50% of the score, and the Hawks will be getting precious little boost in that area this year. Seven of the team's 30 games are against teams that collectively finished last year with a record of 67 wins and 147 losses, so Iowa probably won't get much credit for beating them. Also, these are home games, which the RPI discounts, meaning that Iowa will get even less of a benefit from playing these games. For better or worse, Iowa's schedule really comes down to 21 games: the Big Ten schedule, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, and Virginia Tech.
You might say, "well, if we do well enough in those games, we'll be fine." But that's not true. Every win adds a little bit to a team's RPI, and every loss by your opponents (and your opponents' opponents) knocks you back a little. So playing a non-conference slate of 300-level cupcakes costs you opportunities to improve your RPI by playing a slightly better breed of opponent.
Most teams play soft non-conference schedules, but there is soft and then there is soft. If you look at a team like Michigan State, for instance, the non-conference consists of a few very tough opponents (Kansas, Texas, Connecticut, Miami), a few respectable middle of the road teams (Oakland (#149 per KenPom), Boise St. (#89), Bowling Green (#166)) and a handful of real cupcakes. There is an art to scheduling a properly soft non-conference schedule, and the smart schools make sure to invite teams that are weak, but not so weak that they won't win games over the course of their schedules. As Luke Wynn described in an article on gaming the RPI, coaches like Pitt's Jamie Dixon have figured out just which non-conference opponents guarantee the best return:
What Dixon likes to do for his home guarantee games, he says, "is play the teams that we think are the best picks to win the non-BCS conferences." These are the best "gap" teams, because they're beatable despite having high RPI returns. In 2010, Dixon beat five of them in Wofford (69 RPI), Wichita State (43), Kent State (47), Ohio (95) and Robert Morris (129). He only had one 250-plus RPI opponent (Youngstown State, at 271), either, and so it didn't matter that he played just one marquee game (against Texas) and lost it; the Panthers were in good standing due to their choices of non-BCS opponents. Despite their efficiency profile suggesting they were the quality of a 7-8 seed, they were a No. 3 on the strength of their RPI.
Iowa is not ready to take on the elite teams Michigan State faces, but they could easily improve the quality of their mid-range opponents. A victory over the 150th-ranked team in the country might not seem that much better than one over the 300th-ranked team, but if you know the 150th-ranked team is likely to win most of its games in conference, it could make a significant difference in your RPI. And most importantly, it will help you whether you win the game or not. The RPI consists of three components: 25% your winning percentage (with adjustments for home and road games), 50% your opponents' winning percentage, and 25% your opponents' opponents' winning percentage. The latter two components will apply regardless of the outcome of your games. It's a crazy, stupid way to measure the quality of teams (only 25% for the outcomes of a team's games?!?!), but for some reason the NCAA still looks at it and teams need to recognize that reality.
The question, then, is why Iowa has made their schedule this way? It won't help them reach the NCAA tournament; if they finish in the top half of the Big Ten, they are likely in no matter what, and if they don't, their lack of quality wins outside the conference will probably sink them. A superficially better record may increase interest in the team by casual fans, thus boosting ticket sales -- a 10-2 or an 11-1 non-conference record would have people very excited -- but I doubt it would do as much for the team as a tournament bid. There's the sad possibility that the coaches and administration know that this year is not yet the year, that this team will only really take off in 2013-14, not 2012-13. They may realize that this team is not quite good enough to take on powerhouses like Niagara, Wyoming, and Delaware, that they need to warm up for Big Ten play in the shallow end along with Coppin State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. I can't imagine that games like that will prepare the team for #1-ranked Indiana, but we shall see. Personally, I'd rather have the Hawks test their mettle against half-way decent competition, but Iowa's schedulers clearly see things differently. If their main goal for the year was putting on the appearance of progress for recruits and fans, then they may have made a wise calculation; if their goal was to help Iowa make the NCAA tournament, they have failed.