IOWA CITY, Ia. — ESPN’s latest women’s bracketology slots five Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament: Maryland and Ohio State (duh), Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern. Iowa is the sixth Big Ten team listed, sitting in the “Next Four Out” category.
Five Big Ten teams danced last year, with Purdue and its 20-11 record getting the final ticket. In 2014-15, it was seven teams, with 21-10 Nebraska as the last. In 2013-14, five teams, 23-10 Michigan State the last. In 2012-13, six teams, 20-12 Iowa the last. And 2011-12, seven teams, 20-12 Michigan the last.
Translation: If you finish in the top five of the Big Ten, you’re normally safe. If you don't finish in the top five, you’d better hit that 20-win mark.
Right now Iowa is sitting at 10-6 overall and 1-2 in conference play. It doesn’t boast any season-defining win that could steal an at-large berth, even with fewer than 20 wins. It has three opportunities for that against Maryland (twice) and Ohio State.
After its 71-58 loss at Penn State, its RPI sits at 70 — eighth-best in the Big Ten. In addition to hitting 20 wins, that RPI needs to drop below 50 by season’s end.
For the purposes of this breakdown, let’s assume the Hawkeyes get one win in the Big Ten tournament but don’t win it all. That means they would need to get to 19 wins by the end of the regular season to join the 20-win club when the selection committee draws up the NCAA Tournament.
So, Iowa would need to go 9-4 over its final 13 games. It would finish 10-6 in the Big Ten (10 Big Ten wins are traditionally enough for an at-large) and it'd be 20-11 after the conference tourney. Possible? Yes. Difficult? Double yes.
Let’s take a look …
Jan. 11 vs. Illinois (7-9, 2-1, 186 RPI)
The Hawkeyes spent their mulligan in a shocking 70-65 loss in Champaign in their conference play opener. Illinois ranks in the conference’s bottom five of pretty much every meaningful stat. Iowa can’t lose twice to the Illini, especially at home.
Jan. 14 vs. Maryland (15-1, 3-0, 31 RPI)
This is one of those season-defining win opportunities. A no-lose situation, really. If Iowa wins, its RPI skyrockets and its NCAA tourney chances increase drastically. If it loses, no harm.
Jan. 17 at Rutgers (5-12, 2-2, 144 RPI)
Iowa cannot lose to Rutgers, who will likely finish the season last or second to last. This game is on the road, where the Hawkeyes play like the C+ version of their home selves. They’ve got to figure it out enough to not lose this one.
Jan. 21 vs. Minnesota (10-7, 1-3, 32 RPI)
Finally, a game against a fellow middle-tier team in the Big Ten. If we’re thinking Iowa won’t win any of its three games against Ohio State and Maryland, then it can lose one remaining game to another of the eight middle-tier teams (Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue and Penn State). Not this one, though. The Hawkeyes need to string together some wins to bolster their RPI.
Jan. 29 at Maryland
Another no-lose situation. A win here — and no collapse the rest of the way — might secure Iowa an at-large berth.
Feb. 2 vs. Rutgers
Rutgers. At home. This has to be a win.
Feb. 5 at Michigan (13-4, 2-1, 37 RPI), Feb. 9 vs. Michigan State (12-4, 2-1, 38 RPI)
The Hawkeyes can lose one of these. Michigan and Michigan State are those “next two” teams behind Ohio State and Maryland in the Big Ten. The top-of-the-middle tier, you could say. Two wins here would be great, but one loss isn’t inexcusable.
Feb. 12 at Ohio State (14-4, 4-0, 39 RPI)
Win? Wow. Lose? Barely a blip on Iowa’s RPI.
Feb. 16 vs. Northwestern (13-4, 2-2, 52, RPI), Feb. 19 at Purdue (11-6, 2-1, 118 RPI), Feb. 22 at Indiana (12-4, 2-1, 58 RPI)
The most important stretch of Iowa’s season. These three teams make up Iowa’s biggest competition for that No. 5 spot, and right now, the Hawkeyes sit at the bottom looking up. All three need to be wins here.
Feb. 26 vs. Wisconsin (5-11, 0-3, 181 RPI)
Major trap game alert: The Badgers aren’t great — sure — but they've proven they can put together a good game by beating Green Bay to close their nonconference slate. If everything for the Hawkeyes goes perfectly until this game, a loss could spoil it.
Bain covers Hawkeyes' basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.