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Iowa Basketball: Exploring the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament Seeding Scenarios

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Iowa could finish the year as low as 11th in the Big Ten. They could also win their first regular season title in 40+ years. Here’s how.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Iowa
Can Luka Garza power the Hawkeyes to their first regular season title in more than 40 years?
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With a convincing 85-76 win over #25 Ohio State last Thursday evening, the Iowa Hawkeyes moved into a two-way tie for 3rd place in the Big Ten standings with Michigan State and solidified their position for the Big Ten Tournament as we come down the home stretch. Now, with just four games left, the positioning for that all important double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament will shift with each result in the conference. We saw that at play this weekend as Iowa’s tie for third place turned into a 4-way tie for second place, just two games back of first place Maryland.

With the help of this fantastic site, which utilizes the predicted outcomes per Sagarin to generate the Big Ten Tournament bracket, we’re walking through the potential seeding scenarios for the Hawkes as well as the rest of the conference over the final two weeks of the regular season.

Base Case

The base case built in to the current projections from Sagarin indicate Iowa will finish 5th in the conference. That’s just outside the top four for the all important double-bye.

What does this assume?

It’s pretty reasonable. Sagarin, and KenPom for that matter, predict Iowa to win out at home with wins over Penn State and Purdue, and lose out on the road at Michigan State and Illinois. Per KenPom, Iowa has a 31% chance of winning at Michigan State tomorrow night and a 42% chance of winning at Illinois in the regular season finale. Conversely, KenPom gives Iowa a 61% and 66% chance of beating Penn State and Purdue respectively.

Other key assumptions:

  • Maryland wins out, including at Minnesota and Rutgers and at home against Michigan State and Michigan.
  • Penn State goes 3-1 with home wins over Michigan State and Rutgers, a road win over Northwestern and a road loss to Iowa.
  • Illinois goes 3-1 with wins over Indiana and Iowa at home, a road win over Northwestern and a road loss to Ohio State.
  • Michigan State goes 2-2 with home wins over Iowa and Ohio State and road losses at Maryland and Penn State.
  • Wisconsin finishes 2-2 with home wins over Minnesota and Northwestern and road losses to Michigan and Indiana.

Projected Seeding - Base Case

1. Maryland (17 - 3)
2. Penn St (14 - 6)
3. Illinois (13 - 7)
4. Mich St (12 - 8) Defeated Iowa and Wisconsin based on round-robin record (2-1).
5. Iowa (12 - 8) Defeated Wisconsin and lost to Mich St based on round-robin record (1-1).
6. Wisconsin (12 - 8) Lost to Mich St and Iowa based on round-robin record (1-2).
7. Michigan (11 - 9)
8. Ohio St (10 - 10)
9. Purdue (9 - 11) Defeated Rutgers and Indiana based on round-robin record (3-1).
10. Rutgers (9 - 11) Defeated Indiana and lost to Purdue based on round-robin record (2-1).
11. Indiana (9 - 11) Lost to Purdue and Rutgers based on round-robin record (0-3).
12. Minnesota (8 - 12)
13. Nebraska (3 - 17)
14. Northwestern (1 - 19)

Worst Case

While missing out on the double-bye in the base case isn’t ideal, it could get a lot worse for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has a relatively difficult schedule coming up with road trips to the Breslin Center and the State Farm Center, both places that Iowa has struggled in historically. At home, the Hawkeyes face off with a top 10 team in Penn State and a Purdue team that took them to the cleaners in West Lafeyette.

The worst case scenario, and it’s not inconceivable given the schedule and injuries, has Iowa losing all four of their remaining games. Assuming everything else goes according to the Sagarin predictions, but Iowa manages to lose out, they would fall all the way to 10th in the Big Ten Tournament seeding. As ugly as that sounds, it gets worse when you consider they would be in line for an opening round rematch with Ohio State, followed by a neutral site tiebreaker with Maryland. Less than ideal.

Projected Seeding - Worst Case

1. Maryland (16 - 4)
2. Penn St (14 - 6)
3. Illinois (13 - 7)
4. Wisconsin (12 - 8) Defeated Mich St based on winning percentage against #1 teams [Maryland] (1-0).
5. Mich St (12 - 8) Lost to Wisconsin based on winning percentage against #1 teams [Maryland] (0-2).
6. Ohio St (11 - 9) Defeated Michigan based on head-to-head record (2-0).
7. Michigan (11 - 9) Lost to Ohio St based on head-to-head record (0-2).
8. Purdue (10 - 10) Defeated Indiana and Iowa based on round-robin record (4-0).
9. Indiana (10 - 10) Defeated Iowa and lost to Purdue based on round-robin record (1-2).
10. Iowa (10 - 10) Lost to Purdue and Indiana based on round-robin record (0-3).
11. Rutgers (9 - 11)
12. Minnesota (8 - 12)
13. Nebraska (3 - 17)
14. Northwestern (1 - 19)

There are also a slew of scenarios with other games where a 10-10 Iowa team could land as high as 7th or as low as 11th. Most of them are unlikely, requiring some pretty big upsets, but they exist and weird things happen in March.

Bottom line: there is still the possibility, however small, that things head south. Way south.

Best Case

As bad as the bad scenarios are, the inverse is also true. Perhaps even moreso. There’s no scenario that I’ve been able to uncover where Iowa finishes lower than 11th in the conference. On the flip side, there is a scenario where the Hawkeyes could win the whole thing.

And thanks to both Maryland and Penn State dropping games on Sunday, there are actually a couple paths to the best case. All of them require some help, primarily when it comes to Maryland, but they’re possible.

Key Requirements for #1 Seed

  • Iowa wins at least 3 games.
  • Maryland loses at least 3 games.
  • Michigan State loses at least 2 games.
  • Penn State loses at least 2 games.
  • In certain scenarios, Illinois loses at least 2 games.

Remaining Schedules
(% chance of winning per KenPom)

Iowa: @MSU (31%), Penn State (61%), Purdue (66%), @Illinois (42%)
Maryland: @Minnesota (49%), MSU (62%), @Rutgers (50%), Michigan (63%)
Penn State: Rutgers (70%), @Iowa (39%), MSU (57%), @Northwestern (78%)
Michigan State: Iowa (69%), @Maryland (38%), @Penn State (43%), Ohio State (64%)
Illinois: @Northwestern (71%), Indiana (67%), @Ohio State (29%), Iowa (58%)

Scenarios for Iowa to Win

The most straight forward path for Iowa to win the Big Ten is the most difficult. If the Hawkeyes win all four of their remaining games, they’ll finish no worse than 2nd in the conference. From there, if Maryland loses at least two games, Iowa will have their first Big Ten regular season championship since 1979.

If Iowa drops a game the rest of the way, things get notably harrier. First and foremost, the Hawkeyes would need Maryland to drop three of their final four games. With home matchups against both Michigan schools and trips to Minnesota and Rutgers, it’s possible.

But that’s not all. As outlined above, Iowa needs both Michigan State and Penn State to lose at least two games. Again, based on remaining schedules, that is highly plausible.

If Iowa manages to win at Michigan State this evening (and assuming they then lose at Illinois), they would then need to root for Rutgers to knock off Penn State in the Bryce Jordan Center. If the Scarlet Knights can’t get that done, Iowa needs Michigan State to win at Penn State (as well as already needing them to win at Maryland) and also lose at home to Ohio State.

On the other hand, if Iowa loses at Michigan State but wins at Illinois, the Hawkeyes would again become Rutgers fans. They would need the Scarlet Knights to win at Penn State and at home against Maryland. They would also need Ohio State to win in the Breslin Center in their final game. If not, Iowa would need Michigan State to lose at Penn State and at home to Ohio State while knocking off Maryland on the road


There are a lot of ifs involved and a lot of scenarios on the table, including one floating around the inter webs that involves ten teams in the conference all finishing 12-8 on the year.

Unfortunately for Iowa fans, in such a scenario they don’t actually tie - they fall just short of winning the conference thanks to tiebreakers. Here’s how that would play out.

1. Ohio St (12 - 8) Defeated Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers based on round-robin record (8-6).
2. Iowa (12 - 8) With Wisconsin, defeated Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St based on round-robin record (7-6). Defeated Wisconsin based on winning percentage against #11 teams [Minnesota] (2-0).
3. Wisconsin (12 - 8) With Iowa, defeated Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St based on round-robin record (7-6). Lost to Iowa based on winning percentage against #11 teams [Minnesota] (1-1).
4. Maryland (12 - 8) Defeated Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St, Iowa, and Wisconsin based on round-robin record (8-7).
5. Mich St (12 - 8) With Michigan and Penn St, defeated Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maryland based on round-robin record (7-7). Defeated Penn St and Michigan based on winning percentage against #11 teams [Minnesota] (2-0).
6. Penn St (12 - 8) With Michigan and Mich St, defeated Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maryland based on round-robin record (7-7). Defeated Michigan and lost to Mich St based on winning percentage against #11 teams [Minnesota] (1-1).
7. Michigan (12 - 8) With Mich St and Penn St, defeated Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Maryland based on round-robin record (7-7). Lost to Mich St and Penn St based on winning percentage against #11 teams [Minnesota] (0-1).
8. Indiana (12 - 8) Defeated Illinois and Rutgers and lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, and Penn St based on round-robin record (6-7).
9. Illinois (12 - 8) With Rutgers, lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, and Indiana based on round-robin record (6-8). Defeated Rutgers based on Division I Opponent Win Percentage (you must check yourself).
10. Rutgers (12 - 8) With Illinois, lost to Ohio St, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Mich St, Penn St, and Indiana based on round-robin record (6-8). Lost to Illinois based on Division I Opponent Win Percentage (you must check yourself).
11. Minnesota (9 - 11)
12. Purdue (7 - 13)
13. Nebraska (3 - 17)
14. Northwestern (1 - 19)

Beyond the scenarios laid out above, the Hawkeyes have a chance to finish anywhere from 1st to 11th in the conference with potential matchups against every other Big Ten team not named Nebraska and Northwestern in their first game of the Bug Ten Tournament. At the end of the day, winning solves all the problems. That begins tonight in East Lansing. We’ll gain more clarity with each passing game.