IOWA CITY, Iowa — If Iowa is not making plans for the NCAA tourney one week from today, a less than challenge-filled non-conference schedule may be to blame.
The Hawkeyes pack their bags for the Big Ten Tournament with a 20-11 record in addition to a 9-9 conference record and sole possession of sixth place in a league rated as the strongest in the country.
Coach Fran McCaffery believes his team has done enough to merit serious consideration for the Hawkeyes’ first NCAA berth since 2006, but there is one glaring wart on the resume of a team that has an RPI of 71.
As of Sunday, Iowa’s strength of schedule ranked 98th among 347 Division I programs and was a distant 12th among its Big Ten peers.
In part because of the overall strength of the conference, seven league teams rank in the top 16 nationally in schedule strength. Northwestern, the team Iowa plays in Thursday’s 8 p.m. Big Ten tourney opener at Chicago’s United Center, ranks 11th in the league, but the Wildcats have a schedule strength that ranks 64th.
Five of Iowa’s 11 non-conference victories are over teams that currently rank below 300 in the RPI and eight more – four out of conference and four in – are over opponents with RPIs of 160 or below.
McCaffery makes no apologizes for an early-season schedule that was designed to build confidence within a young team.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do,” McCaffery said. “We wanted to win games. We knew we had a tough road in Cancun. We knew we had the Iowa State/Northern Iowa week. A lot of people play rivalry games, they don’t usually play them back to back.”
McCaffery anticipated a few growing pains along the way, which he said Iowa encountered in wins over Gardner-Webb and Central Michigan.
“It’s great to say you’re going to play them all, but how much traveling are you doing? Are you getting your young guys ready? Number one component in RPI is wins, so we wanted to win,” McCaffery said.
Only Texas-Pan American among the five Iowa opponents with RPI numbers below 300 – Coppin State at 303, Texas-Pan American at 304, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at 321, Howard at 334 and South Carolina State at 343 – has won more than eight games this season.
Even the Virginia Tech team Iowa lost to 95-79 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge has stumbled in the regular season and currently has an RPI of 168.
McCaffery, who put together non-conference schedules that helped position his last three Siena teams for NCAA play, understands the uncertainty that can accompany non-conference scheduling.
“Now, you go back and say if we would have just played teams in the 150s instead of the 250s, would that really have made a difference? Maybe, but if you stumble against a 150, then you say, ‘Why did we do that?’ We’ve got games against Ohio State, Michigan State coming up,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery said the strength of the Big Ten provided the Hawkeyes with opportunities to improve its RPI number, one of the components the NCAA selection committee studies as it puts together its 68-team tourney field.
“We had opportunities to ratchet up our RPI, but we missed some opportunities to do that, too,” McCaffery said. “We beat some good teams, we also lost to some of those teams in close games.”
With more experience returning next season, McCaffery anticipates more challenges for a more veteran team before it begins Big Ten play.
“But a lot of times when you get better, people don’t want to play you,” he said. “That can be problematic. … I would say that we will spend more time thinking things through.”