IOWA CITY, Iowa — Four weeks from tonight, four teams will open the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
Will Iowa join the top 68 teams for the fourth straight season? Do the Hawkeyes even have a chance to get there? Right now, the answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second is … doubtful, at least as an at-large team.
The Hawkeyes (14-12, 6-7 Big Ten) are stranded in the RPI desert at 106, which they partially created for themselves in nonconference scheduling. The Hawkeyes’ early-season schedule contained five teams with an RPI — which measures a team’s wins, the opponents’ wins and the opponents’ opponents wins — below 250. Only four of Iowa’s nonconference foes currently have an RPI in the top 100.
Neither CBSSports.com analyst Jerry Palm nor ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi has Iowa approaching the NCAA Tournament in their most recent mock brackets. Both analysts list the eight next-best teams beyond the 68 qualifiers.
Iowa’s nonconference schedule
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Iowa’s RPI is nearly 40 spots worse than 2011 USC (67), which had the highest RPI of any at-large squad to reach the NCAA Tournament. Today, Iowa would struggle to reach the NIT. Among NIT at-large squads last season, Creighton had the worst RPI at 103, with Virginia Tech at 90. While tied for eighth in the Big Ten standings, the Hawkeyes have the Big Ten’s second-worst RPI, ahead of only Rutgers (152).
Some of the issues are Iowa’s fault — like scheduling sub-300 squads — but some are created by bad luck. In nonconference play, the Hawkeyes faced five teams that qualified for the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Those five programs had an average RPI of about 30 last year. This year, those squads’ RPI average is nearly 54. Iowa State had an RPI of 22 last year and this year it’s 55. Northern Iowa’s RPI was 73 last year and now it’s 131. Both of those squads won at least one NCAA Tournament game last year, and Iowa beat them both in December.
The Big Ten as a whole has RPI issues. The top seven teams last year had an average RPI rank of 27. This year, it’s 32. Last year three teams ranked in the top 15. This year, no Big Ten team is in the top 15. The NCAA Selection Committee released its initial top 16 rankings on Saturday without placing any Big Ten teams. That not only costs the league’s best teams, but it also has potential to hurt the vulnerable ones.
“From the initial Selection Sunday show from the other night, it looked to me with Wisconsin and Purdue not making the top 16, it was an RPI-leaning deal,” said BTN college basketball analyst Jess Settles. “They didn’t have a tremendous amount of respect for the Big Ten at the top. Anybody who doesn’t have a pretty solid RPI is going to be on the outside looking in. That’s my take on it.”
It’s an unfortunate scenario for the Hawkeyes, who currently are 6-7 in Big Ten play and could finish league action at 9-9 or better for the fifth straight year. Iowa starts three freshmen and boasts five in its regular rotation. The freshmen struggled early on defense after replacing four starters with a combined 392 starts. The Hawkeyes have steadily improved. Eight games into the season, they allowed 85 points a game. In the last 18, the Hawkeyes have given up 74.7. That’s up from 69.3 last year, but Iowa had four superb senior defenders a year ago.
“I liked their nonconference,” Settles said. “I thought it was very challenging for the most part. I know the committee will appreciate the nonconference. It was one of those things where the freshmen weren’t quite defensively ready early in the year to guard against that caliber of competition. So they know they’re much better defensively and you wish you could replay those teams, and I think they would fare much better. The points in the paint, the way teams beat them up early in the season, it ended up (costing them).”
Iowa faced a similar situation back in 2011-12, coach Fran McCaffery’s second season. Outside of senior guard Matt Gatens, Iowa was filled with young prospects and the program was rebuilding. The Hawkeyes finished 17-16 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. But Iowa’s RPI was 130, which quickly knocked them out of NCAA consideration. The Hawkeyes grabbed the final NIT at-large slot and beat Dayton in the opener before bowing out in the second round. That team rallied from a few bad November losses to become competitive for most of the Big Ten season.
“They’re definitely good enough to play in the postseason,” Settles said. “But this was a very difficult week for them as far as the (loss) against Minnesota, which was obviously heartbreaking with the calls down the stretch. Then to go to Michigan State without having a lot of legs after going through that double-overtime deal. So, yeah, they have a lot of work to do.”