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Hawkeyes: NCAA Bubble, Inventory and More

The Hawkeyes are still feeling good about their regular season ending win against Nebraska on Saturday.  It was a festive and sometimes raucous atmosphere on Senior Day, it ended with smiles and pats on the back and a brief chance for appreciation on how the program has moved forward.

Here is partial list of things worth acknowledging now that the regular season has come to an end:

-At 20-11, this was Iowa’s first 20 win season in seven years
-At 9-9 in conference play, this was the first nine-wins minimum season in six years
-The Hawkeyes have gone from 11 to 16 to at least 20 wins in the past three regular seasons
-Fran McCaffery won his 300th game as a head coach
-Iowa finished 6th in the league, it’s best mark since a three-way tie for 4th at 9-7 in 2006-2007
-’Fans in the stands’ attendance finished at its best level in 10 years

The basketball program is headed in the right direction; an entertaining and exciting direction. As worthy has this season has been to now sit back and look over our shoulders for a bit, we also see some opportunities missed:

-Three-point home loss to Michigan State without Marble and after Iowa had a double-digit lead
-OT loss at Purdue. Iowa led with less than a minute left in regulation & missed winning shot
-Banked in three late against Wisconsin forces OT, Iowa loses in 2OT
-Iowa led by two with under :30 seconds when Minnesota hits a three, Iowa turns it over next possession
-Iowa led Nebraska by 19 in Lincoln, including by 16 at the half and wound up losing by four

If Iowa had gone just 2-3 in these five games, it would be one of the teams already considered ‘IN’ the NCAA tournament and not one of the teams who still needs to do work in order to have a chance at the dance.  Iowa has played in eight games decided by four points or less and it finished 2-6 in those contests.

Since the November 27th loss at Virginia Tech, there has been just one game where Iowa wasn’t competitive and that was the blowout loss at Michigan. It’s been a season worth tuning in for, worth going to the games for.

There isn’t any doubt that Iowa is one of the best 68 teams in the nation, as Fran McCaffery stated after Iowa’s win on Saturday, but that’s never been what the NCAA tournament has been about. There are now 37 or so at large bids, so it’s about being in that group.

Iowa’s out of conference schedule was put together with the notion that this program and team still needed to learn how to win, how to close things out. McCaffery was right in doing that, because this team struggled with those very things as you can see by the five game list above. This team wasn’t ready for a tough out of conference slate; it lost its toughest OOC game (Wichita State) and was handled in the process. It was blown out on the road by what turned out to be a below average Virginia Tech team.

Iowa’s non-conference strength of schedule was over 300th in the nation, out of 347 teams.

These are the reasons why Iowa finds itself in the bubble conversations related to the NCAA tournament. It was a bad bubble day for Iowa on Saturday, as Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Baylor all won games.

Iowa’s RPI moved up to 72, which inches it closer to the 60′s. Since the NCAA reconfigured the RPI formula in 2005, the lowest rated RPI team to make the dance was 67th. Iowa will play Northwestern on Thursday and if it beats the Cats, it might move to 68th or 69th, somewhere in that range. But if it loses its second round opponent, it likely falls back into the 70′s and the reality is it will fall out of the NCAA picture.

In my opinion, Iowa has to win two in Chicago. It must beat Northwestern for a third time, and while Northwestern is seeded 11th in the tournament they are the worst team in the league. Penn State won in Evanston this past week and I would much rather face the Cats than the Lions. Being that the game is at a neutral court is the only RPI boost Iowa would get.

Iowa will have to pull an upset in round two against either Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.

I believe Ohio State will beat Illinois at home today. If it does that, the Buckeyes are the two seed and out of Iowa’s sights as the Iowa-Northwestern winner will play the three seed.

Let’s just say OSU beats Illinois and is the two. Let’s also assume that Michigan State beats Northwestern today.

With those two assumptions, here is how things will play out for the three seed:

If Indiana beats Michigan, Michigan State will be the three seed
If Michigan beats Indiana, Michigan will be the three seed

If I were given a choice, I would choose Michigan State. Yes, Michigan has been wobbly over the past month of the season. They did lose at Penn State. That said, they also have the best point guard in college basketball and Michigan State doesn’t. Combine that with the fact that Iowa’s starting point guard (Mike Gesell) hasn’t played in two weeks and is questionable for a Big Ten Tournament return, those are the reasons why I’d like to see Michigan State over Michigan.

You could make a case the other way, as Michigan State is a much tougher and tournament tested team and program than Michigan. The reality is simple; a Top 10 foe will await Iowa in round two and Iowa must beat them if it wants to make it to the NCAA tournament. Even if it does than and loses in round three, they will still have to wait out the selection show because it’s not a guarantee.

It’s tough to spend too much time hand-wringing because this has been a very entertaining year. I think the program is a year or a half year ahead of where McCaffery thought it would be. We all know how bright the future is for next year, but this year is not over yet. Iowa will likely play at least three more games and I will enjoy each and every one of them. It’s great to be in March and actually thinking of the NCAA tournament as a possibility, even if that chance is still somewhat remote.

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