December 25, 2012

Looking ahead

Hard to believe, but the Big Ten basketball season is upon us and for the first time in several years, Hawkeye fans can realistically talk about returning to the NCAA Tournament.

Last season the Hawkeyes exceed the expectations of most of the experts and finished with an 8-10 record in the conference and won a Big Ten Tournament game, which probably propelled them into a birth in the National Invitational Tournament.

This year the expectations are probably a little higher, even though the Big Ten Conference is probably as tough as it was last season. Last season the Hawkeyes faced an uphill climb coming out of the non-conference portion of the schedule because of an 8-5 record. This year the Hawkeyes improved by three games, going 11-2. More importantly, Iowa avoided bad losses, although the loss to Virginia Tech isn't looking as good as it once did thanks to the Hokies recent slide that includes losses to a 5-7 squad from Georgia Southern and a 36 point defeat this past week at the hands of a pretty good Colorado State team. Iowa's only other loss was to an 11-1 Wichita State team that will be one of the top squads in the Missouri Valley this season.

As mentioned in my weekend thoughts columns recently, I like the work that Ken Pomeroy does on his site, I think he does the best job of measuring the strongest teams in college basketball and it is a much fairer measure than the RPI. Pomeroy has Iowa as the #43 team in the country. One note about Pomeroy's ratings, he has Iowa with the 332nd toughest schedule in the country to date. That is out of 347 Division One programs in the country. It shouldn't come as much a surprise give Iowa's non-conference schedule wasn't exactly filled with heavyweights.

While some fans are concerned about the strength of schedule this year, I'm not too worried mainly because the Big Ten schedule will help quite a bit. Last year for example, Iowa didn't exactly face a tough non-conference schedule and they ended up with the 38th toughest schedule in the country. They might not get that high this year, but it will probably end up in the 40's.

Before diving deep into the Big Ten schedule and where Iowa needs to get to have realistic chance at putting on their dancing shoes in March, let's take an overall look at the Big Ten. Here's how I would rank the league so far.

1. Michigan - I think they are the best team in the league at this point in the year. They are undefeated and they have played very well.
2. Indiana - The Hoosiers were ranked #1 in the country before Butler knocked them off and they are still a national title contender. By the way, Pomeroy has Indiana at #1 in the country.

I think those two schools are clearly the top tier this year in the Big Ten…so far.

3. Minnesota - Their only loss is to Duke and Tubby Smith seems to have all the pieces in place. The question is can they sustain it in Big Ten play?
4. Michigan State - The Spartans are probably going to end up higher on this list, but I still wonder about their point guard play. I really like the potential of Gary Harris.
5. Ohio State - I probably have them ranked lower than most people, but I'm just not sure about their ability to score beyond DeShaun Thomas.
6. Illinois - Yeah, I know they have only lost once this year and they have beaten some good teams, but a team that relies on the three like they do generally have their fair share of struggles.
7. Iowa - I think the Hawkeyes could rise up past Illinois as the Big Ten season plays out.
8. Wisconsin - Bo Ryan hasn't finished lower than 4th in the Big Ten. Never count him out, although the loss of Josh Gasser has really hurt this team.
9. Purdue - The Boilers have the worst non-conference record of any Big Ten school at 5-6, but I think Matt Painter's team will always be a tough out.
10. Northwestern - The loss of Drew Crawford crushes the Wildcats chances this year.
11. Nebraska - Wasn't expecting them to be good, but I think Tim Miles is a guy that can build the Husker program in the future.
12. Penn State - Losing Tim Frazier means a long season in Happy Valley.

The key for Iowa is to get to at least 9-9 in conference play and the schedule sets up fair well, especially in the second half of the conference season to make that happen. That is, if they can survive the brutal first part of the schedule.

The Hawkeyes open with very difficult stretch of games. Host Indiana, at Michigan, host Michigan State, at Northwestern, Wisconsin, at Ohio State, and at Purdue. Before the season, I thought two wins out of the first seven would have been good. I think there is an opportunity to do better.

A big key will be the final eight games of the year, starting February 8th when Iowa hosts Northwestern. Then they travel to Penn State, host Minnesota, at Nebraska, host Purdue, at Indiana, host Illinois, and host Nebraska. The potential is there to finish up 6-2 or perhaps 7-1. That's one of the things the NCAA Tournament selection committee likes to look at, a strong finish to the regular season.

Why will the Hawkeyes get to 9-9 or better in the Big Ten this year? They avoid two games against some of the conference heavyweights. Iowa will play Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State only once this year.

Why will the Hawkeyes not finish as well as we think in the Big Ten? I think a lot of fans are counting on a sweep of Northwestern, Penn State, and Nebraska. While Nebraska has only been in the Big Ten for one year, they came into Carver-Hawkeye last year and won by six. Also, Iowa hasn't had a home and home sweep of Northwestern and Penn State since 2003, so counting on that happening is setting yourself up for disappointment.

Prior to the season I predicted 11-2 or 10-3 in the non-conference for the Hawkeyes. I think they can get to 10-8 in the Big Ten this year and that would put them at 21-10 overall. My sense is that's the right side of the bubble simply because of the strength of the conference. It would be awfully hard to leave out a team that finishes over .500 in the toughest conference in the country.

One last note, Fran McCaffery has made the NCAA Tournament by his third season at every stop he has made as a head coach. This is year three in Iowa City.

We will see how it all plays out over the course of the next 18 games, but it sure is nice to be having this kind of a conversation about Iowa Basketball for the first time in many years.

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