For the last three years, Iowa has spent its March on the NCAA Tournament bubble. In 2013, a late regular-season run highlighted by eventual tournament teams Minnesota and Illinois got Iowa into the conversation, and a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament could have sent the Hawkeyes back to the NCAA Tournament. Alas, Iowa fell by three against Sparty, and spent the rest of March making a run to the NIT finals.
Two years ago, Iowa reversed course: Six losses in the last seven games, including a Big Ten tournament defeat against Northwestern, took the Hawkeyes from a mortal lock to the First Four, and the appearance felt hollow. Last year, there was consternation in February, but a late-season run effectively locked Iowa into the tournament field, and a first-round win -- Iowa's first in more than a decade -- confirmed the Hawkeyes' return to prominence.
Iowa now faces a new season with a veteran starting lineup (but extremely young bench) and one of the most difficult schedules it has ever faced. Finding more than 20 wins in a slate that includes road trips to Marquette, Iowa State, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and Indiana is tough; throwing in a competitive Big Ten home slate and a trip to a relatively difficult exempt tournament only ratchets up the difficulty level. Even if Iowa is able to hold serve at home, it is likely to be an underdog in at least 10 road games. And a 10-loss team is headed directly for the bubble.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has already projected his NCAA Tournament field for this year, and left Iowa out. Lunardi has the Hawkeyes in the "next four out" of the tournament. Obviously, the beauty of the Tournament is that preseason projections mean nothing, but Lunardi's projection already reinforces the fact that Iowa faces an uphill battle just to make the NCAA field this season.
Lunardi is hardly the only skeptic. Ken Pomeroy has Iowa 36th in the preseason. If that were to hold, the Hawkeyes could be left out: Last year's 36th-ranked Kenpom team, Vanderbilt, didn't make the Tournament, and five of the last seven teams to hold that spot at the end of the season either got a 12/13 seed or were left out entirely. And the questions over Iowa's tournament-worthiness aren't limited to the pros. Even the homers who write for this site can't find it in themselves to move the Hawkeyes above the middle seeds this year.
The sign of a mature, successful program is a quiet confidence that an NCAA Tournament berth is, if not guaranteed, at the very least is a step toward a larger goal. Iowa's not quite there yet, but it might be just one year away from getting to that level. Iowa's schedule is finally good enough to give the Hawkeyes an opportunity to play off the bubble. But if they can't -- and it's no failure if they can't -- get ready for another eventful February.