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Iowa sophomore Kathleen Doyle talks about the Hawkeyes’ potential to finish the regular season strong.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — With four regular-season games remaining, it’s abundantly clear that Iowa has put itself firmly on the NCAA Tournament map. The Hawkeyes haven’t been dancing since the 2014-15 season, but that mini drought will seemingly end come Selection Monday.

Iowa (19-6, 7-5 Big Ten Conference) is currently slotted as a No. 9 seed in the latest bracketology from ESPN.com’s Charlie Creme. The Hawkeyes continue their favorable final stretch on Sunday at Northwestern, and Lisa Bluder’s squad could see a spike in NCAA Tournament seeding should it take care of business down the stretch.

“We’re really confident in what we can do with the rest of this Big Ten season and hopefully, into the NCAA Tournament,” sophomore guard Kathleen Doyle said this week. “Just got to keep it rolling.”

But just how high can the Hawkeyes rise? How heavily will the committee weigh injuries to Tania Davis and Makenzie Meyer, which left Iowa shorthanded for three of its losses? How dangerous can Bluder’s team be if given the right matchup in the tournament?

As the postseason inches closer, HawkCentral chatted with Creme about all these questions (and more) to gain a national perspective on the Hawkeyes. Here are the biggest takeaways from that conversation:

The ceiling

A lot of metrics are working in Iowa’s favor right now. NCAA.com has the Hawkeyes’ RPI at 20, and Jeff Sagarin has their strength of schedule at 31. Couple those items with Iowa’s three top-50 RPI wins — Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota — and no bad losses, and it’s easy to see why Creme likes where the Hawkeyes currently stand.

“All their numbers are good,” Creme said, “real good.”  

Continuing this final surge, though, could boost Iowa even more. The Hawkeyes have already won three straight for the first time since December and have games remaining against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Indiana.

That’s a much easier road than many of the teams currently seeded comparably to Iowa have. Of that group, only the Scarlet Knights have any shot at the NCAA Tournament.  

So if the Hawkeyes win out — or lose only to Rutgers — Creme could easily see Iowa rising up the bracket.

“In terms of looking ahead, I would fully expect them to, if not win out the rest of the season, only lose once,” Creme said. “And that’s going to put them at 11-5 or 10-6 in the conference. Even though there are some bad games in there, I would expect them to stay in that 30-range in the RPI. And with that and a 10-6, 11-5 Big Ten record, that probably gets them third or fourth in the league.

“That’s going to get them higher than a No. 9 (seed). I think the possibility exists that they could even zip right up and be more in the No. 6 (seed) range. I don’t think they’re going to get any higher than that, but I think that’s possible.”

There’s the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa is currently seventh in the conference standings heading into Sunday’s showdown, but the Hawkeyes are just 1.5 games back from fourth place. The top four teams will receive double byes. In addition to Iowa finishing the regular season strong, Creme said maintaining that six-seed ceiling would likely require the Hawkeyes advancing to the semifinals.

That would mean one or two wins in Indianapolis, depending on where Iowa finishes in the standings.

The injuries

Like any team, the Hawkeyes have had to fight through health setbacks. They lost Davis to a torn ACL in their win over Northern Iowa on Dec. 17, then had Meyer miss six games with a fractured left hand to start conference play. Three of the Hawkeyes’ six losses came in the stretch where both injuries overlapped.

None of the defeats were to inferior teams — at Maryland, versus Purdue and at Nebraska — but it raises the question whether the committee will look at the stretch differently given the Davis and Meyer absences.

Answer: Yes and no.    

“The Tania Davis injury won’t really matter because she’s not with them now. They’re looking at the team they have now,” Creme said. “But having Makenzie back — and the fact that she was out during some of those losses — is more of a factor.

“Those losses get measured a little bit differently because she’ll be part of the team as they go into the tournament. Davis will not be. That’s the team that Iowa has, so those injuries take on different meanings.”

Creme, though, has been impressed with the Hawkeyes’ resiliency. The ESPN.com bracketologist admitted he thought Iowa was “going to be in trouble” when Davis went down, but Bluder’s squad bounced right back with an upset over then-No. 19 Michigan three games later.

Creme knew then that Iowa wasn’t going anywhere.

“That surprised me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, OK. They kind of recovered. They figured it out. They’re still going to be viable here as we move forward.’”

What can happen come March

Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Hawkeyes will be in the NCAA Tournament one way or another. That fact generates a logical next question:

How far can they go?

As is the case for most teams seeded in that middle range, Creme said it’ll largely depend on matchups given Iowa’s fast-paced style. The Hawkeyes are averaging close to 80 points per game this season, boast one of the nation’s most dominant forwards in Megan Gustafson and have guards who can light it up from deep at times.

Iowa’s distinct style could thrive, or falter, depending on its tourney path.

“If they were to play a team with a couple of bigs,” Creme said, “and a team that is well-versed on post defense and able to double-team — and maybe that day, Iowa’s shooters aren’t able to fend that double team off of Gustafson — that could be a rough go.

“Or if it’s a team that rebounds really well — and Iowa struggles getting the ball off the glass and getting down the floor quickly like they like to — that could be an issue. But if it’s a team that’s similar sized or maybe not as equipped to double, they’re going to be able to score their points. We’ve entered an era where teams that can score automatically become dangerous.”

Although Iowa’s schedule has lightened up of late, Bluder has relentlessly preached that every game is essential heading into March. That may sound like routine coach speak, but Creme put into perspective why that mantra is so important.

This season, he believes there is decent separation between the top seven or eight teams in the country (your No. 1 and No. 2 seeds) and the next wave of squads (your No. 3 and No. 4 seeds).

In turn, if the Hawkeyes were to be seeded as a No. 8 or a No. 9, Creme doesn’t give Iowa much hope in making it out of the second round. But, should they finish strong, jump up to a No. 6 seed and land a favorable foe, Creme could see the Hawkeyes pulling an upset en route to the Sweet 16.

The difference between a No. 6 and a No. 9 could be one slip-up down the stretch.

“The best advice,” Creme said, “is to not stumble here against teams they would be expected to beat and take their best shot at getting as high a seed as possible. In some cases, the seed doesn’t matter to a team. But in this case, it could.”        

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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