Iowa's 2015-16 non-conference basketball schedule is still a work in progress, but coach Fran McCaffery has already come to this conclusion.
"The toughest we've ever had," McCaffery said.
That can be a good thing when "bubble" and "bracketology" return as buzzwords leading into the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Hawkeyes were on the right side of the bubble last season after playing a non-conference schedule that included respected opponents Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Texas, Syracuse and North Carolina. Iowa lost four of those five, but a victory over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C., was money in the bank.
"Lose them all, and you're not on the right side of the bubble," McCaffery said. "But after beating Carolina on the road, they never took us out. Never said, 'First four out, second four out.'"
The Hawkeyes were on the wrong side of the bubble in 2012-13. Iowa was 21-12, and sixth in the Big Ten at 9-9. Illinois and Minnesota went 8-10 and got NCAA bids. Iowa beat both those teams down the stretch, but got left at the curb. Why?
"Because our non-conference schedule wasn't good enough to carry us when we went 9-9," McCaffery said. "Going 9-9 and getting 20 wins, playing in the Big Ten, should get you in. But people said, 'Oh, their non-conference schedule wasn't good enough.'"
McCaffery has upgraded the non-conference schedule as his team has improved. He'll head into this season with four returning starters from a team that tied for third in the Big Ten at 12-6 and won an NCAA game for the first time in 14 years.
The Big Ten looks tougher than it was a season ago. So getting some traction in the non-conference portion of the schedule will be crucial.
Iowa plays at Iowa State and meets Drake in the Big Four Classic in Des Moines. The Hawkeyes will host Florida State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and play at Marquette in the inaugural Gavitt Tipoff Games (Big Ten versus Big East). And there's the Orlando Classic in November; Alabama, Dayton, Notre Dame, Wichita State, Xavier, Southern California and Monmouth are in the field. Pairings haven't been released.
"Iowa State is really good, Drake will be a lot better, and the field in Orlando is very good," McCaffery said. "Then you have the ACC and Big East games."
That leaves six non-conference dates. They will be home games, but Iowa will have one less date at Carver-Hawkeye Arena than usual. Many in-season tournaments include two games at home and two at a neutral site. Orlando is three games at a neutral site.
"The tradeoff is we get three TV games," McCaffery said.
Iowa talked to Alabama about a home-and-home series: this season in Iowa City, with a return game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2017-18. It didn't work out.
The Big Ten schedule will be trying on and off the floor. Iowa plays road games at the league's four eastern-most locales: Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. They Hawkeyes will roll up 10,062 round-trip miles to play nine league road games, compared to 6,970 in 2014-15.
McCaffery doesn't think those added miles increase the degree of difficulty.
"With charter flights, I don't think it's a big deal," he said.
What is a big deal is a non-conference schedule that could determine whether or not Iowa makes a third straight NCAA Tournament.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.