Football's in the books (give or take National Signing Day tomorrow, at least) and Selection Sunday is just six weeks away, which means it's that time of year when we start really paying attention to college basketball and start figuring out who's in and who's out of the NCAA Tournament picture, which teams to root against for bubble purposes, which teams to root for for RPI boosting purposes, and so on. Iowa was in very good standing, NCAA Tournament-wise, just a few weeks ago when they were fresh off a season sweep of Ohio State and sitting at 13-5 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten. Life was good.
Unfortunately, since then we've dealt with mini-injury scares for Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni and Iowa's dropped three games in a row to fall to 13-8 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten. Individually, the losses aren't bad -- two of them came against the world-dominating* Wisconsin Badger squad that's ruling the Big Ten with an iron fist and the other came on the road against a solid (but not great) Purdue team. Collectively, though, that adds up a drop in status -- and safety -- for Iowa when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. They were cruising the heady waters of 5-6-7 seed territory not too long ago; now they're down in double-digit seed land. Lunardi and Jerry Palm both have them as 10-seeds, while SB Nation's Chris Dobbertean has them as an 11-seed. They're still safely avoiding Dayton and the dreaded play-in (sorry, "First Four") games for now, but only just.
* Piscataway is not a part of this world.
ESPN debuted their regular Bubble Watch feature today and the description of Iowa there really hits the nail on the head:
Iowa [13-8 (4-4), RPI: 52, SOS: 11] Bubble teams come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few consistent templates every year. There are the teams with nothing notable about them, which find themselves in bubble contention for lack of viable alternatives. Then there are teams such as Iowa, which are best described as "maddeningly inconsistent." In November, the Hawkeyes fell to Syracuse and Texas on back-to-back nights, only to win at North Carolina two weeks later. Iowa swept Ohio State; it lost on the road to Purdue. The Hawkeyes have a top-10 strength of schedule; their RPI barely cracks the top 50. There are a lot of contradictions here and no guarantee they add up to an NCAA tournament berth when all is said and done.
Iowa does have some good wins (@UNC, OSU x2), no real bad losses (@PUR doesn't count as a bad loss), and a strong strength of schedule rating, but all those overall losses are starting to pile up and Iowa's RPI (a flawed metric that we know is still very important) is very bubble-y.
The good news is that as angst-inducing as Iowa's recent three-game losing streak has been, there is a light on the horizon. Iowa's struggles have been, in part, schedule-related. Two games in ten days against the Fightin' Buzzcuts is some straight-up dirty pool from the Delanytron 9000 and six of Iowa's first eight Big Ten games have come against teams in the top half of the conference. But as Scott Dochterman noted in The Gazette recently, Iowa's schedule really does get easier moving forward:
Iowa's schedule lends itself to a narrow mind-set. The Hawkeyes' first 10 league opponents have a combined Big Ten winning percentage of 63.3 percent (57-33). That includes two games against Wisconsin (7-1) and Ohio State (6-3). Iowa lost twice to Wisconsin and swept Ohio State.
The final eight opponents own a 31.9 percent league winning percentage. Only Indiana (6-3) has a winning record. Iowa has two games against Northwestern (1-7) and plays at home against border rivals Illinois (4-5) and Minnesota (3-7), along with Rutgers (2-8). The Hawkeyes get their first peek at Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena and play at Penn State (2-7). Iowa also has beaten the Cornhuskers (4-5) and Gophers in previous meetings.
One of the persistent issues during Iowa's struggles over the last few weeks has been their defense. Opponents are making 45% of their shots against Iowa in league play, which is the 12th worst figure in the league. (Interestingly, there isn't a particularly strong correlation between bad field goal defense and bad records in Big Ten play this year; Wisconsin and Indiana are the two teams allowing teams to make more field goals than Iowa.) While part of that has been a result of breakdowns from Iowa, Iowa's also just played a lot of strong offenses so far, as noted by The Daily Iowan's Danny Payne:
Iowa has played the Big Ten's best offenses twice - Wisconsin and Ohio State - as well as third- and fourth-rated Purdue and Michigan State.
In those six games, Iowa is 2-4 and the wins over the Buckeyes both came when they shot 42.1 percent and 38.3 percent.
Iowa gets to face some much weaker offenses in the season's remaining ten games, which should be good for (some of) what ails the Hawkeye defense.
Before the next section, it's necessary to note only three of Iowa's remaining opponents - Indiana, Northwestern, and Penn State - are in the top half of the league in field-goal percentage.
If Rutgers or Illinois shoots the lights out against Iowa, then yes, Iowa has a very definite Problem on their hands. But the odds -- and stats -- suggest that's unlikely. (No whammies no whammies no whammies...)
The KenPom projections for the remainder of Iowa's schedule are also pretty sunny, tabbing Iowa for a 7-3 record the rest of the way, with the only losses coming at Michigan, Penn State, and Indiana. (The Penn State game is a virtual coin flip -- the Nittany Lions are given just a 51% likelihood of beating Iowa.) Of those seven wins, Iowa's odds of winning are 60% or better in all but one game (the road game against Nebraska). Those are pretty good odds.
Of course, we've been down this road before in the not-too-distant past and wins on paper don't necessarily translate into wins in reality. And KenPom projections certainly aren't infallible. Iowa needs to play better defense than they have over the past few weeks and, as much as possible, avoid those lengthy, spirit-crushing field goal droughts where the offense looks like they're at a restaurant and the menu is in Portuguese. If they can do that, the wins should come. Should. Probably. Hopefully.
The downside of Iowa's relatively soft remaining schedule is that Iowa also doesn't have many opportunities to turn heads or notch a really impressive, resume-building win, either. Maryland is the only team remaining on Iowa's current schedule that's ranked, although it's conceivable that Indiana could find themselves ranked again by the time their game with Iowa (March 3) rolls around. But Iowa will have an opportunity to boost their RPI -- and their NCAA Tournament resume -- with volume, with one un-sexy win after another over the next month. If they can go 8-2 or 7-3 down the stretch, they can finish with 19 or 20 wins, a very solid mark in Big Ten play (11-7 or 10-8), and a handful of quality wins. That should leave them in solid shape when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Iowa's recent three-game losing skid didn't cripple their NCAA Tournament hopes -- but it did remove a lot of their margin of error the rest of the way. This week's games seem especially important. Two more losses would run Iowa's losing streak to five in a row. That might put Iowa in a position where Iowa needs to win out in order to keep their NCAA Tournament aspirations afloat. It would also probably further damage their confidence (which can be an issue for this team, as we've seen in the past) and that would make a turnaround even harder to accomplish. It feels odd to label pre-Valentine's Day games as "must win" games, but if these games don't quite hit that mark, then they aren't far away from it, either. Iowa really needs some wins -- at the very least a win -- this week to bolster their resume and to get things headed in the right direction again.