Commentary: Iowa’s non-conference schedule needs to improve


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In the latest RPI ranking, the Iowa soccer team (8-3, 3-2) came in at No. 84, 16 spots back of its début ranking of No. 68. The same RPI ratings have Illinois (9-3, 4-2), a team that Iowa beat 2-0, ranked No. 28.

Part of that is because Illinois has played Big Ten top-dog Penn State — which the Hawkeyes will take on later this season — and part of that is because Illinois’ nonconference schedule was much stronger than the Hawkeyes’.

For reference, RPI is calculated on strength of schedule and a team’s wins. In practice, it is a bit more complex, but for all intents and purposes, that is the majority of the equation.

The Illini’s schedule handed them several very good teams in the form of Louisville (85 in RPI), Notre Dame (11), and Arizona State (27).

On the other hand, Iowa’s best nonconference opponents were Iowa State (146 in RPI) and Butler (170).

That is not a good combination of teams, and that was made even worse by Iowa’s playing three of the worst clubs in the nation — Illinois-Chicago (279), Colorado State (247), and Fresno State (309). The lowest RPI a team can attain is 332.

Two of those programs, Illinois-Chicago and Colorado State, have been playing competitive Division-I soccer for a combined total of three years.

As a byproduct, Iowa’s RPI — and by virtue of that — its NCAA tournament chances, are relatively low at the moment.

Since the program came into existence in 1997, the Hawkeyes have only played three ranked nonconference opponents in the regular season — then-No. 20 Wake Forest in 2000, then-No. 13 Dartmouth in 2002, and then-No. 23 Missouri in 2007. The team has banked on the fact that the Big Ten is a strong conference and that league strength of schedule will be enough to get them to the Big Dance.

It is not much of an argument that the Big Ten is one of the strongest conferences in the nation, but if Iowa wants to advance to perennial status in the NCAA Tournament, it needs to improve its strength of schedule and play the RPI game.

In fact, the Big Ten is strong enough that Michigan State (6-4-1, 0-4-1), is ranked No. 54 and still considered to be a solid team despite not yet registering a conference win.

If the Hawkeyes want to improve, they have to go searching for better teams to play.

That is not to say it will be easy to get other programs to let Iowa play them.

Finding teams to play and building schedules requires a lot of communication among schools.

However, if other Big Ten teams can find better teams to play, Iowa should be able to do this as well.

Barring another incredible run to the Big Ten Tournament championship that ends in a win, Iowa will look for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. If that’s the case, another team with a similar conference record but a better nonconference schedule could go dance while Iowa sits at home.

Hopefully for the Hawks, their cupcake nonconference schedule will not keep them out.

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