College sports are wild. Like, really wild. The roller coaster ride of a season for all but the bluest of bluebloods is enough to give most invested fans a brain aneurysm. That has perhaps never been more true than in the season the Iowa Hawkeyes are currently having on the hardwood.
A few short weeks ago, this team looked dead in the water. The Hawkeyes lost five of eight games in the month of December, punctuated by the biggest upset in modern college basketball history when they were not only beaten, but blown out at home by an utterly abysmal Eastern Illinois team the week before Christmas. That loss snowballed into back-to-back losses in the Big Ten to bookend the New Year’s weekend and sitting at 8-6 overall and 0-3 in conference play, there was talk that Fran McCaffery had lost his team, that perhaps he should be let go and that this team would be lucky to make the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament.
Beginning in the new year, however, the Hawkeyes rattled off four straight wins in the Big Ten to jump right back into contention for the coveted double-bye come Big Ten Tournament time in March. Iowa has found new ways to win, getting strong contributions from big man Filip Rebraca on a nightly basis, while Payton Sandfort went from an 0-19 start in conference play to one of the hottest shooters in the conference. Connor McCaffery proved a stabilizing force, Kris Murray did his best impression of what twin brother Keegan is doing for the Kings (which is to say hitting virtually every open look he gets) and Tony Perkins put the exclamation point on things with a career-high 22 points in Iowa’s home win over Maryland.
But just when it seemed like this group had figured things out and were poised to be a force down the stretch, a COVID-19 outbreak at Northwestern caused the Hawkeyes’ matchup with the Wildcats to be postponed and the rhythm of conference play was thrown off. Iowa traveled to Columbus last weekend and left with their first loss in three weeks after giving up the most points since the miserable home debacle with Eastern Illinois that started their initial skid.
Now, with the regular season more than half complete and the conference slate approaching the midway point, the roller coaster ride continues for the Hawkeyes with a pivotal fork in the road approaching. Iowa is set to travel to East Lansing on Thursday for a second straight road game against an NCAA quad-1 opponent. A win not only would boost Iowa’s NCAA Tournament resume, but also potentially jump the Hawkeyes into the top-4 in the conference pending other results. A loss would drop Iowa to 12-8 on the year and potentially as low as 10th in the conference standings (again, pending other results).
So, where exactly do things stand heading into this critical stretch for the Hawkeyes? Actually pretty decent. Certainly much better than feared a few short weeks ago, but perhaps not as great as they seemed just one week ago with a home matchup against Northwestern on deck.
Iowa enters the matchup with Michigan State on Thursday evening at 12-7 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten. That puts them in a 3-way tie for 7th place in the conference with Indiana and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes, of course, have already beaten the Hoosiers and lost to the Badgers in Carver with return dates to both schools on the slate in February.
Using Sagarin data, mred provides projected game results and the subsequent impacts on conference standings at bball.notnothing.net. As things stand today, Iowa is projected to drop the game in East Lansing, but still pull out a top-4 finish in the conference thanks to wins over Northwestern, Illinois, @Minnesota, Ohio State, @Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Here’s a look at the full projected Big Ten standings using current Sagarin data as of January 25th.
1. Purdue (18 - 2)
2. Rutgers (14 - 6) Defeated Indiana based on winning percentage against #1 teams [Purdue] (1-0).
3. Indiana (14 - 6) Lost to Rutgers based on winning percentage against #1 teams [Purdue] (1-1).
4. Iowa (12 - 8) Defeated Illinois based on head-to-head record (1-0).
5. Illinois (12 - 8) Lost to Iowa based on head-to-head record (0-1).
6. Mich St (11 - 9)
7. Maryland (10 - 10)
8. Ohio St (9 - 11) Defeated Michigan, N’western, and Penn St based on round-robin record (3-1).
9. Michigan (9 - 11) Defeated N’western and Penn St and lost to Ohio St based on round-robin record (3-2).
10. N’western (9 - 11) Defeated Penn St and lost to Ohio St and Michigan based on round-robin record (2-3).
11. Penn St (9 - 11) Lost to Ohio St, Michigan, and N’western based on round-robin record (1-3).
12. Wisconsin (8 - 12)
13. Nebraska (4 - 16)
14. Minnesota (1 - 19)
In terms of the Big Ten Tournament, that would set up quite nicely for the Hawkeyes. As noted, it would provide for the coveted double bye and a path to the semifinals that features all teams the Hawkeyes would have already beaten in the regular season.
Here’s a look at the bracket using only the currently projected outcomes. Note that you can toy with individual game outcomes at bball.notnothing.net and see the impacts on final Big Ten standings as well as the tournament bracket.
Perhaps more important than Big Ten standings is just where things stand with regard to the NCAA Tournament. After getting the proverbial BTT monkey off their back a season ago, the only major sticking point for most Hawkeye fans is a lack of NCAAT wins and that all-important return to the Sweet Sixteen.
As things stand today, Iowa is quite firmly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Despite a modest impact from the Ohio State loss, the Hawkeyes have a top-40 NET ranking while the advanced metrics all look very favorably on Iowa’s season to-date. RPI continues to prove woefully outdated and almost entirely useless, though it is still something apparently looked at by the selection committee.
Here’s a rundown of how things stand per the various metrics as of January 25.
More important than the raw metrics is the resume for the Hawkeyes. Iowa enters this pivotal stretch at 4-4 in quad-1. That’s a winning number for the tournament, as is the 2-2 record in quad-2. But the softer part of Iowa’s schedule is starting to fall apart a bit as Georgia Tech has fallen all the way down to a quad-4 win while that Eastern Illinois black eye really sticks out on a resume.
Despite that bright red blemish on the right, the Hawkeyes are projected to be quite safe come Selection Sunday. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Iowa as an 8 seed in his most recent bracketology, opening things up in Birmingham, AL against 9 seed New Mexico. While that seems like an attractive first round matchup, facing off with a 1 seed in the Round of 32 is not a recipe for the Hawkeyes advancing to their first Sweet Sixteen in 24 years.
The projected 8 seed by Lunardi is in line with the broader consensus. According to BracketMatrix.com, that’s exactly where Iowa is projected on average. However, there is certainly some variability across projections, as you might expect for a team that’s been as up and down as Iowa has this season. The Hawkeyes are projected from as high as a 5 seed to as low as an 11 seed by various bracketologists contributing to the Bracket Matrix project.
The road to achieving the high end of those potential outcomes starts on Thursday night with a trip to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans, who are projected to be a 7 seed. The Hawkeyes and Spartans will tip off at 6pm CT. The game will be broadcast on FS1.