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February 21, 2013

Inside the numbers

This week, I'm going to discuss something on the mind of a lot of Hawkeye fans: Iowa's NCAA Tournament resume. And why waste any time? Let's dive in.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Record:
17-9 (6-7 Big Ten)

Strength of Schedule: 74 (KenPom), 127 (ESPN.com)

Non-conference Strength of Schedule: 339 (KenPom), 324 (ESPN.com)

RPI: 79

Vs. RPI Top-50: 3-7

Quality wins: vs. Iowa State (RPI 46), vs. Wisconsin (RPI 28), vs Minnesota (15)

Bad losses: at Virginia Tech (RPI 160), at Purdue (RPI 124)

What we have here is obviously a very vanilla resume. Most outsiders and people who haven't followed the team would probably take a quick glance at it and dismiss them as a non-NCAA Tournament team. And that's a fair assessment, because it's hard to objectively look at Iowa's body of work and say it merits a look for the NCAA Tournament.

Obviously Iowa fans have seen what their team is capable of at times this year, and think (rightfully so) that the team is likely a lot better than its resume. That's fair too, but we have to remember the selection committee is looking at a bunch of teams for 37 at-large bids, the last 17 or so of which are still very fluid. While I don't necessarily agree with the rankings here, this is kind of a nice look at the "tiers" of teams vying for at-large bids.

Iowa's overall record is nothing to beam at and neither is its conference record at this point. A lot of discussions I've come across on Twitter and other places have fans saying something along the lines of 10 wins in the Big Ten guarantees a bid to the tournament, solely because of the strength of the Big Ten. While the strength of the Big Ten certainly helps - and I'd definitely like Iowa's chances for an at-large bid with 10 wins in conference - the strength of the conference is kind of irrelevant if said team doesn't actually defeat the teams that are the reason the conference is considered to be so strong. I know that sentence wasn't exactly Steinbeck-esque, so stay with me here.

The strength of a conference isn't given much weight by the selection committee. You may scoff at that suggestion, saying that a team in say, the Missouri Valley, with the same record as a team in the Big Ten will not be given the same consideration as a team in the Big Ten. Yes, that's absolutely true. But it's not based on the strength of the conferences, it's the strength of the resumes. The Big Ten team's resume is just going to be stronger than the other team in a small conference 95 times out of 100 because their conference gave them more opportunities for quality wins.

Playing in a tough conference is great, but if a team doesn't beat some of the top teams in that conference, it doesn't count for much. For instance, I think Iowa would have a much better chance of an NCAA bid if it finished 9-9 in conference play, but those three wins included a win at Indiana. Obviously that's banking on a pretty lofty goal, but the Hawkeyes should feel much more secure if that scenario were to play out versus say a 10-8 finish with a loss to Indiana.

For more on that, here's a great read from Comcast Philadelphia's David Jones on what the NCAA Tournament selection committee really considers during the selection process.

As far as RPI goes, 79 is nowhere near where it needs to be for Iowa fans to feel comfortable come selection Sunday. Fortunately, that number will improve with a game remaining at Indiana (RPI No. 9) and at home against Illinois (RPI No. 27).

Two of Iowa's three quality wins to date appear as though they should still be in good standing come season's end. The ironic thing is the win over the team with the highest RPI - Minnesota at No. 15 - could end up being the least impressive by the time the regular season wraps up. Quite simply put, the Golden Gophers are falling apart. They've lost eight of 11, and two of those wins during that span were to Nebraska and Iowa.

It may be difficult for Hawkeye fans, but they might want to find it in themselves to root for a strong finish for Minnesota. The Gophers have games remaining against Indiana, Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue, and it seems reasonable to expect at least a 2-2 mark during that stretch, even considering the state of struggle the team is currently in. If the Gophers do that, they should be in based on a solid non-conference body of work and two really nice conference wins against Michigan State and at Illinois.

Something really hurting Iowa right now is its loss at Virginia Tech. The Hokies' RPI is currently hovering at 160. To put in perspective just how bad that is, that's one spot higher than a 14-9 South Alabama team. Virginia Tech is 11-14 with a strength of schedule that ranks 84th, and they're getting waxed in ACC play in a down year in the conference with a 2-10 league record. The only way this loss because significantly less damaging is if the Hokies do something crazy, like beat Duke twice and knock off Miami. Neither of those things is happening. On the bright side, Iowa's defense sure has come along way since giving up 95 points to Virginia Tech, eh?

Something else plaguing the Hawkeyes - and with virtually no potential for change - is their extremely weak non-conference slate. Consider that there are 345 teams in Division-I basketball, then consider that KenPom currently ranks Iowa's non-conference strength of schedule as 339. Iowa went 11-2 in non-conference play, but five of those wins came against teams with RPI ratings of 300 or higher. Only two were against RPI top-100 teams (No. 46 Iowa State and No. 73 Northern Iowa).

And obviously, how could we forget the occasions on which Iowa came oh-so-close to knocking off a big time opponent? The Hawkeyes have seven loses against RPI top-50 teams, and excluding a 12-point loss to Wichita State and the 28-point walloping at Michigan, the other five losses were by an average of 4.6 points. Flip the losses, say, against Michigan State and at Wisconsin into wins, and you're looking at a team that would boast a very strong NCAA resume. Sometimes the difference is mere points, though.

I realize this take may come off as slightly pessimistic, but don't get me wrong - I like Iowa's chances to get to the NCAA Tournament considering its remaining schedule and the way the team has played of late. Crazy results could happen on the way to the finish, too, altering the Hawkeyes' tournament fate for better or worse - say a huge upset win at Indiana which would almost make Iowa a lock assuming a decent finish, or an unexpected slide and poor finish, which would completely derail the team's hopes.

Now, consider we're still over three weeks away from Selection Sunday, and all this analysis may seem a little silly. And it is. But it's fun, and part of what makes college basketball so great. Surely it's nice for Hawkeye fans to be able to even rationally discuss the possibility of an NCAA berth after a rough few seasons. We'll find out for sure in a matter of just over 20 days if that possibility becomes a reality.

You can follow Jordan Garretson on Twitter here.


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