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Mulling the Hawkeyes’ postseason

BY DANNY PAYNE | FEBRUARY 27, 2015 5:00 AM

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Toward the end of Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery’s press conference following his team’s 68-60 win over Illinois Wednesday, a reporter asked him what that win meant in the grand scheme of things.

McCaffery’s answer was simple, to the point, and somewhat coach-speaky.

“It’s one game,” he said before the reporter finished the question.

Ultimately, yes, he’s right. Iowa still has four guaranteed games left on its schedule — three in the regular season and at least one in the Big Ten Tournament — but the team’s three-game winning streak has done wonders for its chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

After coming into a matchup with Minnesota in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 12 with the nation’s 36th-best RPI, Iowa lost that game, followed by another three days later to Northwestern, which, at that point, marked the Wildcats’ second league victory of the season. Shortly thereafter, the Hawkeyes fell 20 spots to No. 56 in RPI.

After the win over the Fighting Illini, Iowa opened Thursday rated No. 52 in RPI. Perhaps it isn’t the jump Hawkeye fans would have liked after winning three-consecutive conference games for the first time all year, but they shouldn’t worry, because Iowa’s NCAA Tournament chances still look fairly solid.

First, take a look at the list of Iowa’s quality wins this season. The Hawkeyes have managed wins over then-No. 12 North Carolina and then-No. 18 Ohio State, both of which came on the road. Iowa’s third win over a ranked opponent came against then-No. 17 Maryland by 16 points at home. Quality wins against non-ranked teams include road victories at Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska, as well as another against Ohio State at home and, of course, Illinois.

After Thursday night’s games, those teams’ combined record is 123-78. It’s also important to note Ohio State, North Carolina, and Maryland are 62-22 combined. Sure, the Hawkeyes may have caught them on the right day, but a win over a ranked team is a win over a ranked team.

Yes, there are bad losses, such as Northwestern on the road — which hurts, but the Wildcats are riding a four-game winning streak, which makes it hurt a little less. Additionally, a 1-4 nonconference record against non-mid major schools, as well as No. 10 Northern Iowa, hurts as well. For reference, Iowa’s nonconference strength of schedule ranked seventh in the Big Ten.

Looking ahead to the conference tournament, Iowa’s road could be favorable, at least on paper.
If the season ended today (obviously, it doesn’t, but let’s say it does, for argument’s sake), Iowa would get the No. 5 seed, a first round bye, and play the winner of Penn State/Nebraska. Both of those teams are very beatable for Iowa. Should it win its first game, Iowa would play Michigan State.

At least one win in the Big Ten Tournament would be very helpful for the Hawks’ NCAA Tournament résumé, and if an additional one came against a team such as the Spartans, McCaffery’s squad would be a virtual lock to go dancing.

Again, it’s a little ways down the road, but things may shape up nicely for Iowa.

But above all, before the team arrives at the United Center in Chicago in a few weeks, it has to play three games. Iowa, the goal is simple: Don’t screw up.

Penn State, Indiana, and Northwestern are winnable to very winnable games. With each win comes a better spot in line for a ticket to the Big Dance. The Hawkeyes are close to having done enough to get in, and it’s their job not to blow it.

Follow @dannyapayne on Twitter for news, updates, and analysis about the Iowa men’s basketball team.


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