Ken Pomeroy, our favorite advanced stats and ratings guru, released his 2015 college basketball preseason ratings yesterday, so it seems like a fine team to look at them from an Iowa perspective. As ever, KP ratings are not the be-all, end-all (as anyone who watched Iowa's late season collapse a year ago in spite of tremendous KP ratings can certainly attest), but they are a useful benchmark and they give us a solid way of beginning to evaluate Iowa's 2014-15 schedule.
First things first: Iowa checks in at #32 in the initial KP ratings, just a few steps down from their final placement in the 2014 ratings (#28). Iowa is squarely in a midst of a slew of Big Ten teams in the KP ratings, sixth overall among B1G teams. But eight (!) Big Ten squads are rated between #26 and #40 in these ratings; that's over half the league. And that doesn't even include KP's top four Big Ten teams: Wisconsin (#6), Michigan State (#12), Ohio State (#14), and Michigan (#15). The top-to-bottom quality of the Big Ten this year could be just brutal. I mean, if the 11th best team in the league (Purdue) is also the 40th best team in the entire country... Oof.
Meanwhile, what of all those non-B1G teams Iowa will be playing? How do their KP ratings stack up? Good question.
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* Iowa won't play both Syracuse and Cal in non-conference games this year. They'll play one of them the day after the Texas game, the opponent to be determined by the result of Iowa's game with Texas (and Syracuse's game with Cal).
Overall, it's a very solid non-conference schedule. I was initially critical of it and the presence of teeth-rotting cupcake squads like Longwood and UMBC, but I'll eat a little crow on that front now that the full non-conference slate has been revealed and we have a better sense of how good the teams on it are projected to be. Six of Iowa's non-conference games will be against teams ranked in the Top 150 of the KP ratings, with five of those teams ranked #72 or better. (RPI, not KP, is what matters for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but there are no RPI ratings to look at yet and KP ratings are often in the same ballpark as RPI ratings, so they'll do in a pinch.) I still think that playing three teams ranked #313 or worse is excessive and pointlessly harmful when we know that teams that bad are utter RPI bombs, but so be it. But, please, please, please: don't schedule teams like freaking Longwood in the future. Schedule a D II team instead. In terms of RPI (and, hell, probably in terms of competition), you'll be better off, at least until the NCAA closes that loophole in the RPI calculations. At the very least, don't schedule three teams like Longwood.
Still, between Texas, North Carolina, Iowa State, and Cal/Syracuse, there's a good amount of quality on this non-conference slate. UNI's getting some love as a potential MVC title contender as well; if they turn out to be that legit, then that game will become another very good game on Iowa's non-conference resume. There will be several opportunities for Iowa to get attention-grabbing (and RPI-boosting) wins with this schedule; hopefully they're able to take advantage of that fact.
And, finally, which conference is the strongest in all the land? KP does provide a conference ranking, which is created by averaging the AdjO and AdjD of the teams in each conference. Per that metric, the Big Ten emerges as the top dog, followed by the Big 12 and the ACC. (The SEC is a distant fourth.) But ultimately it might depend on how you choose to measure conference strength.
If you value elite teams and potential NCAA title contenders, then the ACC looks like the top dog. They have four teams (Duke, Louisville, Virginia, and Syracuse) ranked in the top 11 of the KP ratings; the Big Ten and Big XII each just have one team in the top 11. On the other hand, if you value consistency and quality throughout the league, the Big XII and Big Ten are the leagues you want to back. Remember my note that the 11th best team in the Big Ten (Purdue) could be the 40th best team in the nation (based on the KP ratings, at least)? Well, that also means that the 11th best team in the Big Ten could be better than eight of the fourteen teams in the ACC.
The Big XII might not have quite as upper-crust quality as the Big Ten (there's a somewhat sizable drop-off in these KP ratings from #4 Kansas to #19 Texas), but the creamy middle of the league might be even tougher than the Big Ten's own imposing middle class: seven of the top-31 teams in these KP ratings are Big XII squads, or nearly 1/4 of the top teams. Then again, the Big Ten has five of the top-31 -- or six of the top-32 -- so we're really splitting hairs at this point.
The larger takeaway is this: there are a few more "off" nights for teams in the ACC than there are teams in the Big XII or Big Ten. A game withGeorgia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College, or Virginia Tech looks quite a bit easier than a game with Purdue, Penn State, Northwestern, or even Rutgers (the equivalent teams in the Big Ten). The Big Ten schedule is going to be a merciless grind.
The silver lining to all this top-to-bottom quality is that I think it does mitigate some of the concerns about the imbalanced schedules that resulted from conference expansion. Does it really matter if your double-play games are Iowa, Maryland, and Illinois or if they're Nebraska, Minnesota, and Purdue? Probably not. On the other hand, schedule imbalance could have a much bigger factor in the ACC race; it could be huge if one title rival draws double-plays with, say, Virginia and North Carolina, while another title rival draws double-plays with, say, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Anyway, just some food for thought.