The reveal of Florida State as Iowa's opponent in the annual B1G-ACC Challenge means that Iowa's 2015-16 basketball schedule is basically locked down in terms of opponents -- or at least the interesting opponents. There are still a handful of non-conference games to be announced, but they're virtually all certain to be home dates against cupcake opponents from alphabet soup conferences down the RPI ladder.
The big kahuna of Iowa's non-conference schedule is the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge; Iowa recorded one of their biggest wins of the season at that event last year (beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill). The Big Ten-ACC Challenge match-ups are generally guided by a desire for competitive parity and the final standings from the season prior. So Iowa, a 22-win team that made the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, and finished tied for 3rd in the Big Ten drew Florida State, a 17-16 team that finished tied for 8th in the ACC at 8-10 because... reasons? ESPN's Eamonn Brennan called it "the Battle of the Underrateds" since it pits an up-and-coming FSU team with a lot of young talent (including ESPN's #11 overall recruiting class for 2015) against an Iowa team returning a lot of experienced talent (including four starters). That said, it's also not exactly a match-up with a ton of juice (as evidenced by Brennan also ranking it 7th among the 14 B1G-ACC match-ups). Then again, most match-ups were liable to bet letdowns after Iowa drew a plum date against UNC in Chapel Hill last season. And it beats Penn State, locked into an unholy pseudo-rivalry with Boston College thanks to the machinations of ESPN and the Delanybot 9000.
Of course, the B1G-ACC Challenge isn't the only inter-conference showdown that Iowa will be involved with this season -- we also know that they're going to be traveling to Milwaukee to face Marquette in the first edition of the Gavitt Tip-Off Classic, which pits teams from the Big Ten and the Big East in an effort to create some more splashy games to open the college basketball season. Like Florida State, Marquette underachieved a season ago (13-19 overall and dead last in the Big East) but is expected to be much better this year thanks to a gangbusters recruiting class (ESPN's #10 overall recruiting class). The dominant storyline in both of Iowa's marquee non-conference showdowns figures to be the experience of Iowa's wily veterans against the raw talent and youthful potential of Marquette and Florida State.
Mind you, calling Iowa's games against Marquette and Florida State the marquee match-ups of the non-conference portion of the schedule may be selling short the real headline attraction of Iowa's pre-conference slate: the annual clash with Iowa State. Iowa State could very easily be the highest-ranked team Iowa faces in the early going -- they were ranked in the top-10 in several way-too-early preseason rankings released over the last few months and it's unlikely that will change before December, barring some unexpected injuries or departures (among the players or coaching staff). This game could be Iowa's best chance to really make a big statement in the first half of the season and claim a signature win (as well as a potential RPI bonanza down the road). Iowa State has owned the series lately, taking two in a row and five of six overall, but before that there was a long streak of parity in the series -- Iowa and Iowa State alternated wins between 2001 and 2008. The game is in Ames, where Iowa hasn't won since 2003 and where Iowa State has lately tended to tear through teams like actual tornadoes.
It's also the last chance for an Iowa team with an unusually home-grown identity (two of its most important players, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury, are Iowa natives and a third, Mike Gesell, grew up just across the river in South Sioux City, Nebraska) to grab some in-state bragging rights -- Uthoff is 0-2 lifetime against Iowa State and Gesell and Woody's lone win over Iowa State came in 2012 (a game also notable for being a breakout performance for another Iowa senior-to-be, Anthony Clemmons). And it might be the last really big Iowa-Iowa State game for a bit, between the uncertainty surrounding Iowa's team after next year's senior class departs and the perpetual NBA rumors around Fred Hoiberg.
As for the other notable non-conference games, we know that Iowa is going to play in the 2015 Orlando Classic as their annual non-conference tournament. The rest of the field for the Orlando Classic includes Notre Dame, Wichita State, Xavier, Dayton, Alabama, USC, and Monmouth. Assuming the field is seeded based on this year's results (which is typical), it could look something like this:
1) Notre Dame
2) Wichita State
Notre Dame, Wichita State, and Xavier were all RPI Top-30 teams in 2014-15, although Wichita State projects as the most fearsome opponent in the field right now, given that Gregg Marshall turned down approaches from Alabama and Texas after the season to stay at Wichita and the Shockers return key players Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. Notre Dame loses all-everything guard Jerian Grant and senior forward Pat Connaughton, but they do return guard Demetrius Jackson and big man Zach Auguste. They're also adding three 4* recruits, including ESPN 100 guard Rex Pflueger. Xavier loses talented big man, rec spec aficionado, and Uber driver Matt Stainbrook, but they return several other key players, including guard Myles Davis and unfortunately named forward Trevon Bluiett. All told, the Orlando Classic has a pretty solid tournament field and should be a nice boost for Iowa's RPI.
Finally, Iowa's involvement in the Big Four Classic will also continue (the event has been extended through 2017) and Drake is on tap to be Iowa's opponent in 2015.
We also know a fair amount about Iowa's conference schedule next season. We don't know the sequence of the games or the start times, but we do know which teams Iowa will be playing home and away, which teams they'll only be playing on the road, and which teams they'll only be playing at home.
It's obviously too early to really know how difficult this schedule is for Iowa (and the sequence of games will play a role, too), but on paper it looks pretty damn tricky. Going by BTN.com's early 2015-16 power rankings, Iowa has home-and-away dates with three of the top seven teams in the league and road-only dates with the conference's best (Maryland) and sixth-best (Ohio State) teams. The only bad team Iowa gets the benefit of playing twice is Penn State (projected 13th); they only get one game apiece against rebuilding Minnesota and Nebraska teams (as well as just one game against still-bad Rutgers). Illinois is a question mark team, but Assembly Hall is never an easy place for Iowa to play, either.
Again, it's too early to really know anything about these teams next year -- last year Nebraska was a chic pick to finish high in the Big Ten standings and, well, we know how that turned out. (lol nebraska) Someone projected to finish high next season will flame out. Teams will underachieve (although, on the flip side, some teams projected to finish at or around Iowa may also overachieve). But it looks like Iowa could have a pretty rocky road in Big Ten play -- equaling last year's 12-6 record in league play would be a hell of an accomplishment.
All told, we know the opponents (more or less -- we obviously don't know exactly who Iowa will be playing in the Orlando Classic just yet) Iowa will be playing in 25 games next season. Iowa has played 31 regular season games each of the last four years, so it seems like a safe bet that they'll do the same again in 2015-16. So who will those remaining six opponents be? Well, that's TBD, but you probably noticed a few gaps among the teams listed in this post -- namely home games in non-conference play (the Orlando Classic and the Big Four Classic both feature neutral-site games, while Iowa will be on the road against Iowa State and Marquette) and thrilling opposition like SIU Edwardsville, Penn, Northern Illinois, Gardner Webb, UNC Wilmington, etc.
Look, we know why these games exist -- Iowa needs the home game revenue and teams with bigger brand names tend to demand a home game in their gym (whereas the only thing these teams demand is a paycheck to make the trip to Carver-Hawkeye Arena). Outside of the annual series with Iowa State, Iowa hasn't played a home-and-away series against a non-conference opponent from a power conference since Arizona State in 2006 and 2007 (and they haven't played home-and-away series against any opponents except Iowa State since the home-and-away series with UNI and Drake ended in 2012). Not coincidentally, 2007 was also the last time the Big Ten had a 16-game regular season. An 18-game conference season, plus commitments to the B1G-ACC Challenge, Gavitt Tip-Off Classic, the Big Four Classic, the annual Iowa State series, and whatever that year's non-conference tournament happens to be really squeezes a lot of the flexibility out of the schedule. So, yes, Iowa's remaining non-conference games next season will be against a half-dozen teams from smaller conferences -- that's just the way it is. We can just hope that there won't be too many games against RPI kryptonite teams from the likes of the MEAC, SWAC, or Big South conferences.
So what do you make of this schedule?