Iowa basketball is firmly in the NCAA Tournament fold. Here's why.

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

CHICAGO — In a somber but steadfast Iowa men’s basketball locker room Friday, Ryan Kriener spoke the truth.

“Disappointed with the outcome of the game,” the Hawkeye junior center said after his team fell 74-53 to Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center. “But still excited there’s a really good chance we’re going to the NCAA (Tournament).

“Honestly when you look back at it, everyone picked us to finish 11th and have four or five wins in the Big Ten. So, to have an undefeated non-conference, 22 wins, it actually baffles me how people can bash us and say all the things they say about us when we had the type of turnaround we did.”

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Indeed, the Hawkeyes, at 22-11, are going dancing for the first time in three seasons. The victories they piled up from November-January still count. The five losses in their final six games merely dropped them from a potential 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament to an 8 or 9.

Sometime after 5 p.m. Sunday, Iowa’s players will learn their first-round opponent and destination.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wasn't happy with how his team finished the season, losing five of the final six games including Friday's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal to Michigan. But with a 22-11 record, his Hawkeyes will be selected Sunday for their first NCAA Tournament berth in three years.

Shelby Mast, NCAA brackets expert for USA Today, has the Hawkeyes as his third No. 8 seed, which he predicts would send them to Columbia, S.C., for a first-round matchup with 9 seed Baylor (19-13). A win there and top seed Duke would await.

“So there’s their punishment,” Mast joked Saturday.

For basketball fans wondering how a team struggling down the stretch could still be so comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field, Mast offers two explanations:

  • There is an abundance of flawed teams. And 68 of them are going to be selected. So why not Iowa, which finished sixth in what is considered the toughest conference in the nation?

Mast has Washington one spot below Iowa, and noted that he’s not overly excited about that Pac-12 school either. It’s one of those years.

“I’m looking for teams to put above (Iowa),” said Mast, who has been predicting brackets for 14 years and has a 98 percent success rate. “Not necessarily that I hate them, but I just don’t feel an 8 is right for them. They should be lower. But I can’t justify putting any of those teams that are lower than them ahead of them.

“Teams are seeded in places that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but then when I go compare resumes, that seems about right.”

Mast said VCU’s loss Friday dropped it to a 10 seed and kept teams like Iowa a notch or two ahead. His projected 8 and 9 seeds are Central Florida (23-8), Seton Hall (20-12), Iowa, Washington (26-7), Baylor, Mississippi (20-12), Minnesota (21-12) and Utah State (27-6). Those eight teams are virtually interchangeable.

  • The stretch run is no longer paramount. The tournament selection committee no longer looks at a team’s most recent games when deciding its fate. Every result is judged separately. So Iowa’s home wins over Michigan and Iowa State still carry a great deal of weight. Iowa went 11-0 against its non-conference slate, but that strength of schedule ranks 305th in the country, which Mast called “horrific.” But a November win over Oregon on a neutral court will become more meaningful if the Ducks won the Pac-12 Tournament title late Saturday. Victories against teams that make the NCAA Tournament are viewed favorably.

“It’s an entire resume,” Mast said. “Put all the games on a piece of paper, draw them out and whatever order, that’s your resume. It doesn’t matter when that happened.”

The only “bad” loss Iowa suffered was to Rutgers in its home finale. The Hawkeyes were 1-6 against Big Ten teams that were playing in Saturday’s tournament semifinals, for example, all “good” losses.

Iowa entered the Big Ten Tournament with a NET ranking of 43, moved up to 41 after dispatching Illinois on Thursday, then fell to 44 after the Michigan loss. So nothing that occurred in Chicago affected how the Hawkeyes are viewed by the selection committee.

Not that there was much room for Iowa to move up or down by that point. Mast has had the Hawkeyes firmly in the 8/9 conversation for weeks.

“Unless they just ran the table, but I don’t think anyone expected that,” Mast said. “They could have got up maybe to the 6 line if they’d won the whole thing. Or realistically a 7.”

That didn’t happen, of course. And so Iowa will almost certainly be an 8 or 9 seed when the draw is revealed. For better or worse.

But at least Kriener and the Hawkeyes are in, for the first time for most of the players. Only senior Nicholas Baer has previously played in an NCAA Tournament game.