Leistikow: An Iowa Hawkeye fan's guide to the NCAA bubble

Chad Leistikow

Most Hawkeye basketball fans have justifiably let hope creep in about their team’s NCAA Tournament chances.

They understand it’s still a long shot today – but with two or three wins at the Big Ten Conference Tournament, it could be a near-certainty by Selection Sunday.

They also understand the more help they get in other conference tournaments, the better their chances.

That could mean a lot of scoreboard watching. Much more on that in a minute.

But for other results to matter, Iowa must likely first shatter it’s one-and-done trend at the Big Ten Tournament.

First-team all-conference guard Peter Jok is 0-3 there – in 2014 to No. 11 seed Northwestern, in 2015 to No. 13 Penn State and then in 2016 to No. 12 Illinois.

But Jok thinks there’s a different feel this year as the seventh-seeded Hawkeyes (18-13, 10-8) get set for 10th seed Indiana (17-14, 7-11) in a 5:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2-televised game from the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Forwards Tyler Cook and Nicholas Baer have been two of Iowa's best players down the stretch as they make an NCAA Tournament push.

“The last few years at the end of the season, we’ve been down and not playing well,” said Jok, who averages 20.2 points a game and had 29 in the tourney opener last year vs. Illinois before fouling out. “But it’s the opposite this year. We went through a lot of struggles, but at the end right now we’re clicking.”

If Iowa doesn’t win the whole tournament, it’ll be vying for one of 36 at-large berths (to go with 32 conference champions) for the 68-team NCAA field. And that’s what we’ll focus on here.

Probably 24 or 25 of those at-large berths are already written in permanent marker on the NCAA Selection Committee’s board. Best guess, there’s as many as 11 or 12 spots available for Iowa and other teams to fight over. But, remember, that number could shrink if there are surprise conference champions.

Below, I’ve listed the 17 teams I see vying for those 11-12 openings. Essentially, this a guide of teams for Iowa fans to watch and – in many cases – root against. Because this is such an inexact science, I’ve intentionally listed them in no particular order.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo finds his talented Spartans on the NCAA Tournament bubble this March.

Michigan State (RPI 49, KenPom 50): Maybe it’s the brand name, but I’m not sold on the Spartans being a tourney shoo-in. They have the same exact record as Iowa, and their only good non-conference win was against Wichita State (RPI 27) and have a bad loss at home vs. Northeastern (RPI 140). Pull for Wednesday’s Nebraska-Penn State winner to upend Sparty in Thursday’s game that precedes Iowa-Indiana.

Illinois (RPI 58, KenPom 68): Like Iowa, Illinois has played its way to the bubble with a late-February surge. USA TODAY’s Shelby Mast has the Illini in his “Last Four In.” A first-round Big Ten Tournament loss to solidly-in Michigan (RPI 46) in the 8-9 game would probably shove the Illini into the NIT. (As if Hawkeye fans needed any extra incentive to root against the Illini.)

VCU (RPI 23, KenPom 48): Most of the pundits have the Rams in. But the Atlantic-10 runners-up aren’t finishing strong and they have a very bad loss vs. Fordham (RPI 211) and its best non-conference win was against Middle Tennessee State (RPI 37). I think a first-round tourney loss to either George Mason or (again) Fordham could knock them into the First Four or entirely out.

Seton Hall (RPI 43, KenPom 54) and …

… Marquette (RPI 55, KenPom 28): I lumped these Big East foes together because they play each other Thursday in a 4-5 matchup in the conference tourney. Most bracketology has both teams in the field now, but if you’re a Hawkeye fan, root for Seton Hall. The Pirates beat the Hawkeyes, so the better they do, the better it is for Iowa’s computer ratings. Every little bit helps.

Xavier (RPI 33, KenPom 43): The Musketeers are on the “Last Four In” for ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, probably because they lost six of eight entering the Big East Tournament, with their only wins over lowly DePaul. An early exit in the tourney would punctuate a crumbling finish.

Providence (RPI 52, KenPom 53): Staying in the Big East, Providence is a lot like Iowa. It was middling most of the year, then got hot late (with six straight wins to finish the regular season 20-11). It has three bad losses and no great wins. It would help bubble teams if the Friars lost their Big East opener Thursday against solidly-in Creighton (RPI 29).

California (RPI 56, KenPom 55): The Bears entered the Pac-12 tournament with a 19-11 record, having lost five of their last six games. CBS’ Jerry Palm had them as a No. 12 seed entering their Wednesday game vs. Oregon State. Frankly, I don’t see any good wins. If they exit quickly in Las Vegas, they should be out.

Southern California (RPI 39, KenPom 61): The Trojans entered Wednesday’s late Pac-12 opener vs. Washington with a 23-8 record and count wins vs. UCLA (RPI 15) and SMU (RPI 18). Yet they were “Last Four In” by ESPN and USA TODAY as of Wednesday. I think USC should be in, but there seems to be some reservations.

Bryce Drew has Vanderbilt on the bubble in his first season in Nashville.

Vanderbilt (RPI 44, KenPom 40): Vanderbilt is 17-14, yet for some reason many pundits have them in the field. Assuming the Commodores lose at some point in the SEC Tournament (maybe in the quarterfinals to No. 2 seed Florida), they’d have to buck history. No 15-loss team has ever received an NCAA at-large bid. If Vandy loses Thursday’s 7-10 game vs. Texas A&M (RPI 87), I don’t see how it gets in.

Illinois State (RPI 31, KenPom 49): The Redbirds don’t have any more games before Selection Sunday, but Lunardi has them as “Last Four In” entering Wednesday on the strength of a 17-1 Missouri Valley Conference record. I don’t see it happening; they have zero good non-conference wins and one very bad loss to Murray State (RPI 230).

Georgia (RPI 53, KenPom 56): The Bulldogs could become a threat to take a bid if they beat Tennessee then Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. But their best player, Yante Maten, is injured and unlikely to play. USA TODAY is the most bullish on Georgia’s chances for now as a “First Four Out” team.

Rhode Island (RPI 42, KenPom 51): It’s surprising that the Rams are on the bubble; Palm even has them in as a No. 12 seed. Sure, they have one good non-conference win vs. Cincinnati (RPI 13) but losses to Fordham (RPI 211) and La Salle (RPI 124) should be deal-breakers. They become a bigger threat if they win their first two games in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, which would likely mean beating top seed Dayton (RPI 21).

Wake Forest (RPI 34, KenPom 30): The Demon Deacons have ridden the ACC’s coat-tails to strong computer ratings and then added a season-ending surge to strongly enter the conversation. They were in Lunardi’s “Last Four In” entering Wednesday night’s ACC Tournament game against Virginia Tech (RPI 45). Wake has one big win – at home vs. Louisville (RPI 3) – and none of its 12 losses have come to teams outside KenPom’s top 50. (Thursday UPDATE: Wake lost to Virginia Tech, and its RPI dipped to 40.)

Syracuse (RPI 79, KenPom 44): Don’t get me started on Syracuse. Lunardi is way too high on the Orange, even saying that Wednesday’s first-round loss to Miami (Fla.) in the ACC Tournament would not keep them out of the field. Palm is more in my camp; he had Syracuse in his “First Four Out” before Wednesday. Syracuse has FOUR losses outside the RPI top 100 (UConn, St. John’s, Boston College, Georgia Tech) and zero good non-conference wins. If they’re in, let the nation's whining begin. (Thursday UPDATE: Syracuse's RPI dropped to 84 after loss. But ESPN's Dick Vitale says the Orange are in anyway. OK.)

Kansas State (RPI 60, KenPom 32): Palm had the Wildcats among his “Last Four In” while Lunardi had them in the “First Four Out.” That probably means what happens at the Big 12 Tournament is important. Iowa fans can scoreboard-watch during the Indiana game Thursday and cheer for Baylor (RPI 6) to avenge an earlier-season loss to No. 6 seed K-State.

And lastly … Iowa (RPI 72, KenPom 67): The Hawkeyes have work to do, listed as “First Four Out” by Lunardi and Mast. (Thursday UPDATE: Mast now has them as "Last Four In.") They’re hot, which is a committee consideration, and if they can beat Indiana (RPI 81) and then Wisconsin (RPI 38) to reach the Big Ten semifinals for the first time since 2006, Iowa would have six wins over the RPI top 50 and 20 overall. It might still be in Dayton, but at least the Hawkeyes would be dancin’.

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.