Leistikow: Iowa, Big Ten face a perception problem ahead of Selection Sunday

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The current numbers indicate the Iowa basketball team should be left out of the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

The current eye test says maybe they should be in.

Those two statements seem to be consensus about Iowa as the final push to woo the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee begins.

“They’ve been the best team in our league here the last (few) weeks,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Monday. “They’re on a roll. I think the committee likes that.”

Added Tom Crean, whose Indiana team faces Iowa at 5:30 p.m Thursday in the Big Ten Conference Tournament: "We’re going to be playing one of the most dangerous teams — not only in the league, but in the country — with the way Iowa is playing."

The Hawkeyes are peaking, but is it too late?

They’ve won four straight games — including two on the road at top-40 RPI teams Maryland and Wisconsin — to enter this week’s tournament in Washington, D.C., with an 18-13 record.

Fran McCaffery's 18-13 Hawkeyes had a lot of ground to make up from some poor non-conference losses and the overall performance of the Big Ten Conference.

Their RPI has shot up from 119 to 72 in two weeks.

But despite all that good stuff, numerical history is stacked against Iowa. Not once in Selection Sunday history has a 72 RPI been good enough to be awarded an at-large berth; Syracuse has the record, with last year’s berth at a 71 RPI.

"What the committee does consider — I’m sure that they do — is improvement as the year goes on," 10th-year Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Iowa’s a great example. You’ve got a bunch of young guys, all trying to figure it out early. They’re going to have some good wins in the beginning, and they may drop a couple as they learn what college basketball is about.”

Beilein’s quote underscores a potential flaw in things like the RPI and other computerized tools used by the 10-person selection committee.

The computers use non-conference matchups in November and December as a key barometer — as they should, frankly — to assign strength to the nation’s conferences. But then it’s almost impossible to correctly measure whether the quality of the teams within a conference are improving in January, February and early March — when they are almost exclusively playing each other.

On the Big Ten coaches' teleconference Monday, the resounding feel was that teams like Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota have improved into some of the league's top teams.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has taken recent aim at perceived national slights to the Big Ten, which is rated the nation’s No. 4 conference by the ESPN’s BPI and No. 5 by (both evaluators for the selection committee).

It’s no wonder that the Big Ten didn’t have any teams listed when the committee released a pre-bracket on Feb. 11 of the top 16 seeds.

“We have not done a good job in promoting the Big Ten. You know, the ACC must have… Virginia loses a game, and it’s because everybody else is good,” Izzo said Saturday after his team lost to Maryland. “The Pac-(12), (ESPN's Bill) Walton is out there (calling it) the ‘Champions Conference.’ That’s our fault. That’s your fault. That’s my fault.”

On Monday, Izzo tamped down his comments a bit — but noted that, as the league's longest-tenured coach, “I just want to make sure everybody else gives us the same respect. Parity doesn’t mean poorer. Sometimes parity means we’re deeper top to bottom.”

Izzo hits on a point, though, that could potentially be hurting the chances of a team like Iowa:

If you’re a Hawkeye fan, think back to late November, when the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was held (and the ACC won the challenge for the first time since 2008 by a 9-5 score); you know the Hawkeyes were a messy product of freshmen and sophomores then — Jordan Bohannon was just getting his first college start in that game against Notre Dame.

The whole body of work counts — and it should count.

Yet the growing pains early might end up costing the Hawkeyes late. Despite winding up in a four-way Big Ten tie with a 10-8 league mark, the Hawkeyes are the only one of the four that isn’t viewed as solidly in the field by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS’ Jerry Palm and USA TODAY’s Shelby Mast.

Northwestern ranges from a No. 8 to 9 seed; Michigan is consistently a 9; Michigan State falls between 8 and 10. And Iowa is among the “First Four Out” for Lunardi, Mast and’s Stewart Mandel; Palm doesn’t mention the Hawkeyes.

"We’ve been very undersold during the season," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "I think this is a very good league. I think what you’re going to see is — once we get on the national stage — and the teams that have the opportunity to play when it’s all said and done are going to do very well."

If the so-called bracketologists are correct, it seems the Big Ten's seeding will be hurt across the board on Selection Sunday.

But we don't really know until the committee tells us what they know. Last year, Tulsa came from off every bracketology radar to get an at-large bid in the First Four. Syracuse was also a big surprise, and the Orange went from a No. 10 seed to the Final Four.

The metrics don't like Iowa. The team's best rating of the six tools used by the selection committee is a No. 62 by Sagarin. In comparison, Indiana (7-11 Big Ten record) is better than Iowa in four of the six metrics, including a No. 32 BPI to Iowa's No. 77 — and that's largely because Indiana has November wins against Kansas and North Carolina.

In other words, the computers don't tell the whole story.

The Hawkeyes' best chance to make the Big Dance is to either win two or more games in D.C. or hope the committee puts a lot of stock in how they've finished.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Big Ten Bracketology

The NCAA Selection committee uses six metrics to evaluate teams: the RPI,, Sagarin, LRMC, KPI and BPI. A look at where each of the Big Ten Conference’s top 10 teams stand in those ratings and where CBS’ Jerry Palm, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and USA TODAY’s Shelby Mast have each team bracketed as of Monday:

Purdue (25-6, 14-4)

Ratings: 18 RPI, 13 KenPom, 12 Sagarin, 11 LRMC, 16 KPI, 11 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 4 (CBS), No. 4 (ESPN), No. 4 (USAT)

Wisconsin (23-8, 12-6)

Ratings: 38 RPI, 22 KenPom, 17 Sagarin, 24 LRMC, 26 KPI, 20 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 6 (CBS), No. 6 (ESPN), No. 7 (USAT)

Maryland (24-7, 12-6)

Ratings: 25 RPI, 38 KenPom, 38 Sagarin, 38 LRMC, 19 KPI, 14 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 6 (CBS), No. 7 (ESPN), No. 6 (USAT)

Minnesota (23-8, 11-7)

Ratings: 20 RPI, 33 KenPom, 32 Sagarin, 31 LRMC, 15 KPI, 40 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 5 (CBS), No. 6 (ESPN), No. 5 (USAT)

Michigan State (18-13, 10-8)

Ratings: 48 RPI, 50 KenPom, 42 Sagarin, 44 LRMC, 42 KPI, 47 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 10 (CBS), No. 10 (ESPN), No. 8 (USAT)

Northwestern (21-10, 10-8)

Ratings: 54 RPI, 35 KenPom, 39 Sagarin, 32 LRMC, 40 KPI, 43 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 8 (CBS), No. 9 (ESPN), No. 9 (USAT)

Iowa (18-13, 10-8)

Ratings: 72 RPI, 65 KenPom, 62 Sagarin, 65 LRMC, 55 KPI, 77 BPI

Projected seeds: First Four Out (ESPN, USAT)

Michigan (20-11, 10-8)

Ratings: 47 RPI, 25 KenPom, 27 Sagarin, 25 LRMC, 35 KPI, 21 BPI

Projected seeds: No. 9 (CBS), No. 9 (ESPN), No. 9 (USAT)

Illinois (18-13, 8-10)

Ratings: 57 RPI, 68 KenPom, 67 Sagarin, 71 LRMC, 50 KPI, 63 BPI

Projected seeds: First Four Out (CBS, ESPN), No. 11 in Dayton (USAT)

Indiana (17-14, 7-11)

Ratings: 84 RPI, 46 KenPom, 31 Sagarin, 36 LRMC, 62 KPI, 32 BPI

Projected seeds: None