Leistikow: What's at stake for Hawkeyes in regular season's final week
IOWA CITY, Ia. — This Big Ten Conference basketball season has already been a wild one. First-place Maryland’s home loss to Michigan State on Saturday night has introduced the possibility of it getting even wilder as we head into the final week of the regular season.
If you’re a fan of the 18th-ranked Iowa basketball team, pay special attention to this final week scenario. (And yes, all these things need to happen.)
Tuesday: Home teams sweep. Penn State beats Michigan State, Rutgers beats Maryland and Iowa gets revenge on Purdue in an 8 p.m. senior-night tip-off. KenPom.com projects all three home teams to win, so this is hardly an outlandish first step.
Thursday: Illinois wins at Ohio State. Winning in Columbus is tough, sure, but the Illini have won four in a row and own a league-best five Big Ten road wins already (including at Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan and Penn State).
Saturday: Wisconsin loses at Indiana, which is 14-3 at Assembly Hall, to complete a 1-1 week (it hosts lowly Northwestern on Wednesday). That means the Badgers get to the clubhouse at 13-7 in Big Ten play. Penn State wins at Northwestern to also reach 13-7.
Sunday: Michigan State wins against Ohio State on Cassius Winston’s senior day to finish 13-7. Michigan wins at Maryland, dropping the Terps to 13-7 (KenPom predicts it as a four-point game). And Iowa wins at Illinois in the 6 p.m. finale, meaning both those teams finish 13-7, as well.
If all that happens, we’ll end the regular season with a six-way tie for first place in the Big Ten.
And the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament under that scenario is … your Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa would have the tiebreaker of best round-robin record against the other five tied teams (5-3, vs. Penn State's 4-3, Michigan State's 5-4, Wisconsin's 3-3, Maryland's 4-4 and Illinois' 2-6).
Told ya. Chaotic. And yes, the extreme outlier of what’s possible.
But even so, it illustrates that the Hawkeyes (currently 20-9 overall, 11-7 in the Big Ten and the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis) could be richly rewarded by winning their final two regular-season games.
Even though a No. 1 seed would be a real stretch, reaching double-bye status at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is within their control.
“Getting that double bye would be huge for us,” Iowa sophomore Joe Wieskamp said. “Every team in the Big Ten wants that. It’s a huge advantage, saving your legs a little bit and moving yourself that far into the tournament.”
The top four seeds in the 14-team league get a pass until the Friday quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The bottom four seeds start playing on Wednesday, with those winners playing the middle six seeds (Nos. 5-10) Thursday.
“A double bye is definitely huge,” Iowa senior Ryan Kriener said, “especially if you get that second-day upset and you’re playing a team that has tired legs.”
Kriener made a reference to last year’s Nebraska team, which won two games as the No. 13 seed before running out of gas in Chicago against fourth-seeded (and fresh) Wisconsin on Friday.
Iowa has not achieved a top-four Big Ten seed in any of Fran McCaffery’s first nine seasons, getting the No. 5 twice when his teams finished in a three-way tie for third (2015, 2016). In both cases, Iowa lost to its Thursday opponent (to No. 13 seed Penn State in 2015, to No. 12 seed Illinois in 2016).
That extra game is never a gimme, and it won’t be this year with such a deep Big Ten.
So how can Iowa get that extra rest?
In any realistic machination of outcomes in the final week, as long as Iowa goes 2-0 … it’ll be a top-four seed in Indy. If you buy into KenPom.com's win probabilities, there's a 28% chance that happens.
If Iowa goes 1-1 with a win vs. Purdue (15-14, 8-10) and loss at Illinois (20-9, 12-6), it'll be relegated to a Thursday game, probably as the No. 6 seed. KenPom math says that outcome has a 37% chance of occurring.
If Iowa goes 1-1 with a loss to Purdue and win at Illinois (15% chance), it still has a top-four shot but needs help (Michigan State winning at Penn State, Illinois losing at Ohio State).
If it goes 0-2 (20% chance), Iowa could fall to as low as a No. 8 seed but probably gets a No. 6 or 7.
Should Iowa end up in a Thursday game, it might be facing a Purdue or Indiana — opponents that have beaten the Hawkeyes by double digits. Avoiding such a scenario would be a real plus, not only for Iowa’s chances to make a title-winning run but to save its legs for the ensuing NCAA Tournament the following week.
No matter what happens with seeding, Luka Garza’s answer was pretty good on the topic.
The front-runner for Big Ten player of the year likes the way this Iowa team is coming together down the stretch, with CJ Fredrick healthy and bench players elevating their games.
“Obviously, we strive for that to put ourselves in a better position,” Garza said. “But I’ll take any seeding we can get. I think we can beat any team in this league.”
Even short-handed at times, Iowa has posted wins against Maryland, Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan — all teams that are ranked in this week’s AP Top 25.
Winning four games in four days is not impossible.
But everything sets up a little better if the Hawkeyes this week can play their way into a Friday in Indy.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.