By Justin VanLaere
Iowa Basketball. Postseason Play.
The juxtaposition of those two phrases above used to be something not out of the ordinary. In fact, on an annual basis in March, “postseason” and “Iowa” used to be synonymous with each other. Dating back to Lute’s first run in the NCAA Tournament in 1979 (and up to Alford’s last season), Iowa went to the postseason 22 times in a 25 year span. 17 of those postseason berths were in the NCAA Tournament and the other 5 were NIT invites (2 by Dr. Tom in a 13 year span and 3 by Alford in an 8 year span). Steve Alford’s last year as coach at Iowa would be the beginning of a five year postseason drought for a Hawkeye Basketball program that rarely missed a bid.
Lute and Dr. Tom were successful in postseason play. Coach Olson took teams to the Sweet Sixteen and Final Four, while Coach Davis saw every single one of his nine teams make it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament (not to mention fielding an Elite 8 and a couple Sweet 16 teams). Coach Alford was able to get just 3 of his 8 teams to the NCAA Tournament, and only realized a single win once he got there. Yes, the decline started with Alford, but it certainly bottomed out with Todd Lickliter. Not only was Coach Lickliter not able to get Iowa to the postseason, he couldn’t get out of the season with a winning record. Enter Fran McCaffery. He picks up the pieces of what was left of the Iowa program and starts to rebuild. His first year isn’t fruitful, but you can see potential in the players and in what he and his coaches are trying to deliver to the University of Iowa and its fans. And here were are, nearing the end of the second season under Coach McCaffery and things are changing. NCAA? Not likely. NIT? Maybe. CBI/CIT? At minimum. Is a non-NCAA postseason something for fans to get excited about? With what this program, its alumni, its supporters, its players have gone through this last decade, the answer is “yes”. One hundred times, “yes”. It’s not something the program is striving for as a whole, but it’s baby steps. And sometimes you have to get really excited when that toddler starts to walk when its been stuck on its back like a turtle for so long. Furthermore, any postseason berth is meaningful, just ask Matt Gatens. If nothing else, this guy deserves some sort of postseason experience. He’s done everything asked of him as a Hawkeye, he didn’t bail on the program when it needed him the most. He just so happened to be extremely unfortunate to be a member of the Iowa Basketball in one its worst stretches in the history of the program. He didn’t complain, though. He just worked harder and continued to bleed Black and Gold. If anything, this postseason needs to happen for him.
So here we sit with just two regular season games left in the 2011-12 season. Two weeks ago, Iowa was left for dead. They had just lost back-to-back games on the road to two teams in the bottom half of the B1G. The NCAA Tourney was out of the picture, the NIT was a reach. Then something happened… Matt Gatens went bonkers. I mean, crazy, out of his mind, bonkers from behind the arc. He put on a sustained performance I can’t say I’ve ever seen another Hawkeye deliver.
Iowa took down two Top 25 teams and was one win away from evening up their record in the nation’s best conference. National media took notice and started to talk about Iowa’s chances to bounce on the bubble, however the Illinois loss over the weekend effectively ended that. Or did it? I’m not a national pundit, heck I’m barely a regional pundit, but I still had the thought that if this Iowa team could reel off 5 wins in a row and get to the Big Ten Tournament Championship, they’d have a infinitesimal chance at the NCAA Tourney. I wasn’t alone, as ESPN College Basketball writer Myron Medcalf agreed. Is it going to happen? Not likely, but let me break down Iowa’s postseason chances for you.
NCAA Tournament Bid
Most people in the country, in B1G country, and even in the state of Iowa are fairly confident that Iowa has no shot at the NCAA Tournament. That’s the general opinion and, honestly, it’s fairly difficult to argue with that mentality. ESPN officially just dumped the idea of Iowa in The Dance.
From the article:
Last week, the Watch watched (ahem) with interest as Iowa dropped Indiana and Wisconsin in consecutive games at home. Could the Hawkeyes make a last-ditch, come-from-nowhere run at the NCAA tournament? The answer, alas, was no: Iowa lost at Illinois on Sunday, officially ending any unlikely hopes that Fran McCaffery’s team had.
I’m not a genius when it comes to predicting the field, but I’ve held my own when it comes to figuring out the Bubble. Here’s how I see it…
This year’s Bubble is one of the worst I can recall in recent history. It’s soft. We’re talking melted butter soft. There are five or six teams that are going to get a bid that wouldn’t have gotten one in years past. Iowa is sitting at 15-14, a record that’s not sexy by any stretch of the imagination. Their 7-9 conference record has some potential, as does their 4 wins over ranked opponents this season. There are bad losses – Campbell, Penn State, and Nebraska, no doubt. So what has to happen? Simple. Iowa has to win. The Hawkeyes will need to reel off 5 wins in a row just to get back on the edge of that soft Bubble. Iowa is sitting with an RPI somewhere in the 120s. That’s not going to cut it, not even close. But they still have time to help themselves out. Jerry Palm confirmed to me that the highest RPI to ever get an at-large bid is 74. So, just to get back in the conversation, Iowa needs to get into the 80s. 5 games to raise their RPI ~40 spots, tough deal.
However, let me expound on the matchups Iowa might face in the Big Ten Tournament. They can get anywhere between the 6 and 9 seed. I think they end up 7th. Let’s just go with that. And the seed below are just my projections with a week to go. Iowa would get the 10 seed – Minnesota. Then the 2 seed – Ohio State. Then the 3, 6, or 11 seed – Michigan, Purdue, Penn State. Likely scenario: Minnesota (81), Ohio State (8), Michigan (14) and then play MSU (6) in the championship. Getting wins over two Top 25 RPI teams would be a huge boost and even just playing MSU is going to help Iowa’s SOS – albeit, the committee will probably already have their mind set before that champship game on Iowa – either in regardless or out if they lose. But let’s be honest, Iowa is not that great away from home. And last time they played OSU at home they got railroaded. It’s a big pipe dream right now. Again, a lot of things have to go right. Is it possible? Yes. It’s it probable? No. Not at all.
Previously, I thought if Iowa won on the road vs. Illinois, they’d need to win out and then get 2 in the conference tournament. Now that basically moves to winning out and getting 3 in the BTT, as losing on the road to a Top 100 RPI team doesn’t hurt you as bad as you’d think. Still… not much of a chance, and even if Iowa does reel off 5 wins, they aren’t a lock. They’d still be on the bubble, a big bubble, a soft bubble that will be ever inflating/deflating as the next two weeks happen. If this was any other season with a semi-strong bubble, there would be no chance for Iowa. But it just happens to be that this year’s bubble teams are atrocious, which helps Iowa out.
Keep this in mind, though. Iowa hasn’t won 3 straight Big Ten games in half of a decade. The last time they won 5 straight conference games was back in 2006. It’s not looking good for the NCAA Tournament for Iowa.
The other option is to Alford it and win the Big Ten Tournament. As of today, the odds of Iowa winning said tournament are 0.07% according to teamrankings.com. It’s an uphill battle, but that option still exists.
NIT Tournament Bid
The NIT isn’t as easy to get into since the NCAA took it over. As it sits now, regular season conference champions that lose in their conference tournament receive auto-bids to the NIT if they don’t get an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. That sucks up at-large NIT bids (another reason why other postseason tourneys spawned). Projecting teams for the NIT is so much more difficult than predicting those for the NCAA Tournament. You’ve got the auto-qualifiers that you don’t know about until they lose in their conference tournament. You have to assume that you correctly know which teams aren’t making the NCAA Tourney as an at-large team, as well. A lot of fluidity when it comes to the NIT selection process.
Ok, what are Iowa’s chances? I’d say below-average to average, as it sits right now. They certainly can play their way into the NIT field, though. If the Hawkeyes win the next two games, they are on the NIT Bubble. At that point they are at the mercy of what happens in the mid-major conference tournaments. The more regular season champions winning their conference tournament, the better. If they lose in the Opening Round of their conference tournament (assuming it’s vs. Minnesota), I don’t see them making it. If Iowa loses in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament to, say, Ohio State, they’d be sitting at 18-15 and 10-10 in the best conference in the nation. They’d be 6-4 in their last 10 games and have an RPI around 100 or so. I think that’s probably enough to get them into the NIT, barring any exodus of regular season champs in postseason conference tournaments. Anything less than 3 more wins for Iowa and the NIT is likely out of reach.
CBI / CIT Tournament Bid
This is probably the most realistic scenario for Iowa, a spot in one of the other postseason tournaments. A lot of people group these two tournaments together (as I did in my header, mind you), but they are very different tournaments. The CBI was established before the CIT and has had far more “big name” schools in it. The CIT has yet to involve a school from a Power 6 conference, I don’t expect that to change this season. If Iowa doesn’t go to the NCAA or NIT Tournament, they’ll land in the CBI. I think Iowa knows how much a postseason berth, any sort of berth, would mean for the program and for someone like Matt Gatens. They’ll take the bid if they get the invite. The CBI has had teams like Oregon, Washington, Utah, Virginia, Cincinnati, Oregon State, and Stanford participate in their tournament. Iowa is certainly not above the CBI. If the team fails to get 3 more wins, I’d expect them to land in this tournament, hosting a first round game inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And, yes, sub-.500 teams can make it into these tournaments – Miami (OH) recently got an invite with a 16-17 record. They are effectively a lock for this tournament, in my opinion.
Postseason Play. Iowa Basketball.
It might not be what most Hawkeye fans remember it as, but it’s a start. Iowa has time to make a move. They’ll have to put together a string of victories that the program hasn’t seen in a long, long time, but the opportunity is there. The postseason is there for this program. That is progress.