Leistikow: A chat with Gary Barta on Iowa basketball's scheduling practices

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Gary Barta made this clear Monday: Iowa’s decision to pull out of the Hy-Vee Classic following the next college basketball season was nothing against Northern Iowa or Drake — in-state opponents that will no longer have a guaranteed spot on future Hawkeye schedules.

“The process used to be that we would automatically play them every year,” the Iowa athletics director said at the annual Polk County I-Club golf outing at the Wakonda Club. “What I’m saying is, because of all those changes that have occurred, I’m not able to automatically say that. I’m going to wait and see.”

When the news was released Thursday, Barta in a statement cited the move to a 20-game Big Ten Conference schedule (up from 18) as a driving force in re-evaluating how the Hawkeyes organize what is typically a 31-game regular-season schedule.

Gary Barta announced last week that the Hawkeyes were pulling out of the Hy-Vee Big Four Classic after this upcoming season.

Answering questions about it for the first time Monday, Barta was careful in what he said. He did not close the door on future meetings with UNI or Drake — and didn’t even discount the possibility that Iowa would return to the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls for a game someday. (“Never say never,” he said.)

That’s a similar stance to the one Iowa State has taken. Last week, Cyclones AD Jamie Pollard said Iowa State would be open to playing UNI or Drake, so long as the game takes place in Hilton Coliseum.

“In (2019-20), we don’t have them on the schedule,” Barta said. “And it’s not our intention to put them on the schedule. Beyond that, I don’t want to speculate.”

The demise of the Hy-Vee Classic — which, starting in 2012, brought the state’s Big Four programs together for a game each on a December Saturday in downtown Des Moines — brings up a larger discussion about how the Hawkeyes produce their non-conference schedule.

On that note, Barta made his priority very clear Monday.

“What pieces are needed to give us the best chance to get into the NCAA Tournament?” he said. “That’s what we’re going to evaluate every year.”

In other words, they’ll work in UNI and Drake only if it helps Iowa basketball.

These are businesses, not charities. Sure, it’d be cool for fans to see the Hawkeyes and Panthers play each other. But the big goal is the Big Dance, and that’s really what matters most.

Whether you side with Iowa and Barta or not, it’s important to understand how the basketball schedule comes together.

It goes like this:

Iowa has 20 Big Ten games annually and will continue to play Iowa State every year. (Barta re-iterated that Monday.) That’s 21.

There’s the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and the Gavitt Games against a Big East opponent (most years, including in 2019-20). That’s 23.

Iowa is committed to playing in one preseason tournament, like the 2K Classic this year that has the Hawkeyes playing four games (including two against quality opponents). That’s 27 out of 31 regular-season games.

From that point, Barta and coach Fran McCaffery plug the final four (or so) holes.

“When all that gets done, we know we’re going to have a heck of an RPI schedule. We know that,” Barta said. “Then we take a look at, 'How do we fill that in?'”

How that gets filled in is the point of contention.

The Hawkeyes have too often lately rounded out the schedule with rotten teams with RPIs of 300 or higher out of 351 Division I teams. Those games stink for two reasons: low entertainment value and your RPI takes a hit, even if you win.

Ask Nebraska how a weak non-conference schedule worked out last season. The Huskers went 13-5 in Big Ten play yet were left out of the NCAA Tournament, largely because of an out-of-conference schedule strength that put at 255.

Iowa played three opponents with 300-plus RPIs a year ago and — with two vacancies to fill — already has two on the books (Green Bay, Bryant) on the upcoming season schedule.

Barta hears the complaints that beating these tomato cans do nothing for the program.

“It does no good if we think we are hurting our chance to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Barta said. “But just about every program in America have those sprinkled in, very intentionally. That’s what we’ll evaluate every time we put a schedule together.”

Does he have a point?

Depends how you look at it.

He's right: Iowa's schedule should be strong with those 25 to 27 core games.

According to, Iowa’s non-conference strength of schedule in 2017-18 was 290th out of 351 Division I teams, yet its overall strength of schedule was still 49th. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm saw it a little differently, with Iowa’s schedule-strength ranking 203rd in non-conference, 70th overall.

Even taking the number (290), there were eight Power Six teams with worse non-conference schedules that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. That list included NCAA runner-up Michigan (301st) and Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan State (303rd).

So the real key is just like it's always been: Win a bunch of games, and the non-conference schedule doesn’t sting you.

Scheduling is way, way more complicated, frustrating and maybe dirtier than most of us realize. Handshake agreements can vanish in a heartbeat if a higher bid comes along. Schools have to agree on dates, travel, money. It’s one of the worst parts of a basketball coach’s (and athletic director’s) job.

But it’s still important.

My stance after all of this: Give Barta the benefit of the doubt.

He's gone on the record, saying that he's putting together a schedule that gives Iowa its best chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

If the Hawkeyes end up on the NCAA bubble ... and then get left out because of its out-of-conference schedule ... then he'll have to own a good share of the blame.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Iowa’s work-in-progress non-conference basketball schedule for 2018-19

Iowa has officially announced seven of its 11 non-conference games; two others (denoted with asterisks) have been reported but not confirmed by the UI. A look at the tentative lineup, with two dates to come, with last year’s record and NCAA RPI.

Thursday, Nov. 8: vs. Missouri-Kansas City (10-22, 261)
Sunday, Nov. 11: vs. Green Bay (13-20, 302)
Thursday, Nov. 15: vs. Oregon (23-13, 67), in New York City

Friday, Nov. 16: vs. Syracuse (23-14, 33) or UConn (14-18, 126), in New York City
Tuesday, Nov. 27: vs. Pittsburgh (8-24, 216)
Thursday, Dec. 6: vs. Iowa State (13-18, 142)
Sunday, Dec. 9: vs. Savannah State (15-17, 199)*
Saturday, Dec. 15: vs. Northern Iowa (16-16, 137), in Des Moines
Saturday, Dec. 29: vs. Bryant (3-28, 341)*