The Big Ten Conference is by far the best men’s basketball league in all of Division I this season. That is not debatable.
The conference is essentially guaranteed five NCAA berths with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all in the national rankings. And with the portfolios of Illinois and Minnesota, one would think those two squads find a way into the field of 68 as well.
The next best team waiting to see what happens with its fate is Iowa. The Hawkeyes sit in the No. 6 spot in this week’s Big Ten Tournament and will face Northwestern with the chance to sweep the Wildcats in three games on Thursday at 8 p.m.
Right now, the Hawkeyes aren’t in. But a win over Northwestern and another victory over the Spartans in the quarterfinals, and it will be hard for the committee to leave out Iowa, which would be 22-11 in the nation’s top conference.
“To me we have to win on Thursday night,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “That's what we have to do. You can talk about all that other stuff. We've got to win on Thursday night.”
So while there isn’t much drama with the top seven teams likely in the NCAA Tournament already, the Hawkeyes can provide some March Madness for their fans as they try to clinch their first NCAA Tournament berth since losing as the No. 3 seed to Northwestern State back in 2006.
The committee looks at several factors when deciding on the best 68 teams. It will glance over a team’s RPI, its strength of schedule and how many quality wins it has. They check for bad losses and how you finished in conference play. The kenpom, sagarin and BPI rankings also are considered.
Iowa will look good in some (kenpom, sagarin, quality wins and conference record) and not so good in others (RPI, bad losses and strength of schedule).
“I think that's why they're using different components now, and I think it's important to do that because the different formulas look at different things,” McCaffery said. “Kenpom takes exactly what you're saying into consideration, RPI does not as much. So there's just four different numerical things that the committee looks at, Sagarin, kenpom, BPI and then RPI, and I think it's important not to get too focused on one of them because they all look at different things.”
The fact of the matter is, Iowa just needs to win. And win more than one in the Big Ten Tournament. Beating Michigan State would give them another top 25 win and could bump their RPI up to where it needs to be to be considered for an at-large berth. Iowa currently has an RPI of better than 75, which would be the highest RPI for an at-large team if the Hawkeyes could land an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Hawkeyes could get some help along the way.
By beating Iowa State, Iowa may have to hope its instate rival does well in the Big 12 Tournament. The more wins the Cyclones get, the higher the RPI goes for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa also should hope for the best from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament. Those are all teams Iowa has wins over, thus more success from them also could lift the RPI.
McCaffery addressed his strength of schedule with the media last week. The Hawkeyes ranked as one of the worst non-conference schedules in the nation this year, and McCaffery knew that coming in. He also knew his team would have plenty of chances at securing quality wins because it was in the toughest league in the nation.
And if Iowa could have kept leads against Minnesota in Minneapolis and Purdue in West Lafayette and Wisconsin in Madison then we may have be having this conversation.
The Hawkeyes lost to Michigan State and Indiana at home by a combined seven points. That came during the early stages of the Big Ten season. Then three road losses to Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin by a combined 10 points put the Hawkeyes near the bottom of the conference standings.
The Hawkeyes rallied late in the year by winning six of their final eight games and ended up 9-9 in league play. That in most years would be enough to clinch a berth.
But Iowa still has to deal with a tough four-point loss at Nebraska in a game where the Hawkeyes led by 19. Then there’s that bad blowout loss at Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
All these tough losses and bad losses add up to being a team that is close to the NCAA Tournament but not quite there. Win half of those games or just three of those games and Iowa is looking at an at-large berth heading into the weekend and playing for a better seed in Chicago.
Instead, the Hawkeyes will provide plenty of nail-biting drama for their fans.
That is a welcomed site given the fact that the team hasn’t been this close to an NCAA Tournament berth since the Steve Alford days. And the team has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001.