May 9, 2013

Challenging hoops schedule

When Fran McCaffery says he's going to do something, you can pretty much believe he's going to get it done.

Upon his arrival in Iowa City, McCaffery promised Iowa fans that they would see a faster paced brand of basketball.

He delivered.

Iowa has gone from averaging 60 points per game in the 2009-10 season to 67 per game in McCaffery's first year, 73 per game in his second season, and 70 this past year.

He faced an uphill battle initially, but he said he would build a winning program.

The first year was a struggle, with Iowa winning 11 games. That jumped to 18 the following year and a return to post season play. His team won 25 games this year. They still have the NCAA Tournament hurdle to clear, but McCaffery has certainly put Iowa in great position to get there next season.

After facing some criticism this year for a soft non-conference schedule (that may or may not have cost Iowa and NCAA Tournament bid this year), McCaffery promised that the 2013-14 season would be different. The schedule would be tougher, at least in the non-conference portion.

He's set to deliver once again on a promise.

Before we look ahead, let's look back to March when Iowa's non-conference strength of schedule was probably an issue when it came to the NCAA Tournament. According to the official NCAA RPI numbers, the Hawkeyes non-conference strength of schedule was 313th out of 347 schools. That's not good and as a result, Iowa RPI on selection Sunday was 80.

I think we all understood McCaffery's reasoning for the softer schedule early on for this past season. Iowa was going to rely on several freshmen as significant contributors and as a result, they needed to be eased into college game. Add in the fact that the Big Ten was going to be the top RPI conference in the country and one would figure that if you do well in conference play, the numbers will improve. They did, but they didn't quite get to the level they needed to be.

That shouldn't be an issue in the 2013-14 season thanks to a couple of developments in the last week or so. First, Iowa was added to the field of the Battle for Atlantis, which will take place on Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas. The Hawkeyes were originally slated to play in the Great Alaskan Shootout at the same time against a decent field of opponents. Michigan State recently pulled out of the Battle for Atlantis to play in a Coaches vs. Cancer event and that left an opening for a Big Ten team in the Bahamas. Fran McCaffery jumped at the opportunity.

Joining Iowa in the Bahamas will be Kansas, Tennessee, Villanova, Xavier, Wake Forest, UTEP, and USC. While the pairings for the Battle for Atlantis have not yet been announced, Iowa should be seeded as one of the top three teams in the event, along with Kansas (the top seed) and Villanova.

On Wednesday the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference announced the pairings for the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which will take place December 3rd and 4th and will be televised once again by ESPN. Iowa will host Notre Dame on December 3rd and the Irish return one of the top backcourts in the country and will provide a great challenge for the Hawkeyes. It will also provide a couple of good storylines from the Iowa perspective with Fran McCaffery having been an assistant coach for the Irish and his wife was a former player and coach for Notre Dame.

That gives Iowa four games against good competition in the non-conference slate. The other known non-conference games include a trip to Iowa State, who should field a strong team once again next year, a meeting with Drake in Des Moines as part of the Big Four Challenge, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that Iowa will also face Nebraska-Omaha to open the season in November.

That means Iowa has filled up seven of their twelve non-conference games for next season and six of those are against non-cupcake squads. I wouldn't expect too many heavyweights to be added into the mix for the final five spots on the non-conference slate of games, but I also wouldn't expect to see teams with RPI's in the 300 in there either. Every school plays their share of cupcakes and there will be a few more on Iowa's schedule. Having said that, McCaffery promised a more demanding schedule for 2013-14 and he's certainly delivered once again.

Not only will the non-conference schedule be more challenging, but the Big Ten schedule should be more difficult as well. The Big Ten schedule operates on a two year rotation with regard to one time opponents in conference play and that rotation changes this year. The past two years Iowa faced Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Illinois once during the conference schedule. This year they will face those schools twice. Three of those schools are expected to be Top 15 teams next season.

The Hawkeyes will have a more seasoned and experienced squad returning and Fran McCaffery has set up a schedule that will provide many more tests along the way for a team that will be looking to contend for their first Big Ten regular season title since 1979.

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