Can No. 20 Iowa earn its way to Des Moines? Maybe. Here's how.

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The good news for the Iowa men’s basketball team is that it’s nearly a lock to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.

Better news would be for the No. 20 Hawkeyes to play their opening-round games in Des Moines.

It’s a longshot, but possible, according to USA Today NCAA bracket expert Shelby Mast. He gives Iowa about a 20 percent chance of making the short trip west to play in front of a favorable fan base in Wells Fargo Arena next month.

What has to happen?

It would help if the Hawkeyes, who dropped Indiana 77-72 Thursday, keep winning. That's obvious, of course. It would be even better if Michigan State kept losing and Wisconsin starts dropping a few games.

Here’s why:

The tournament selection committee favors geographical proximity when assigning top seeds to first-round sites. Des Moines is one of eight, and a likely destination for at least one Big Ten Conference school. If those schools are Michigan State (current NET ranking 9) and Wisconsin (12), for example, Iowa would be out of luck. A team cannot be placed in the same four-team pod as an opponent it has already faced twice in the season. There will be two pods assigned to Wells Fargo Arena.

If Big Ten schools Michigan (6) and Purdue (11) are being considered for Des Moines, Iowa has a slightly better chance of joining them. The Hawkeyes will meet the Wolverines and Boilermakers only once in the regular season. Playing them again in the Big Ten Tournament, however, would take those schools out of the running as potential podmates.

Coach Fran McCaffery (right) has his Iowa basketball team poised for an NCAA Tournament berth. Could the Hawkeyes open play in Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. It's a longshot, but there is a path.

What would be best for the Hawkeyes’ chances of staying in-state? They could get on a long winning streak and surpass any or all of those four rivals in the conference and NET standings. Or they could hope that teams such as Iowa State (13) and Marquette (21) improve their stock so much that they’re chosen for Des Moines ahead of Big Ten counterparts. That scenario would provide no impediment to placing Iowa at Wells Fargo Arena.


Mast’s current projected bracket, updated daily at bracketwag.com, has the Hawkeyes as a 5 seed playing their opening game in San Jose, California. Mast had Iowa as a 6 seed until a Feb. 1 victory over Michigan. He thinks it’s conceivable that the Hawkeyes could move up to a 4 with wins over Maryland and Wisconsin in the next month. But getting to a 3 would likely take winning the conference tournament.

Iowa is 18-5 with a NET ranking of 23. Mast thinks the Hawkeyes have already done enough to assure themselves of a spot in the NCAA field. They currently have five “Quadrant 1” wins after beating Indiana on the road (although wins at Northwestern and Penn State are only tenuously in that category). They have no bad losses. Every defeat came against a Big Ten team that is .500 or better in the toughest league in the nation. Mast is among those who believe at least nine Big Ten teams will be selected for the Big Dance.

But it’s a tough year for a Midwest-based team to try to get placed in a nearby pod without getting to the top 12 of the NET. The balance of power in college basketball is tilted heavily toward the East. Mast projects Virginia and Kentucky to both get sent to Columbus, Ohio, to start tournament play as 1 seeds. The domino effect of that could push both Michigan and Michigan State to Des Moines, the next closest destination. Mast has the Wolverines as a 2 seed and Spartans a 3 in separate pods at Wells Fargo Arena.

Bracketology: Gonzaga is No. 2, mid-majors in mix

After that, the dominoes keep falling, which may land the Hawkeyes way out west. Not that they’ll complain all that much. Their goal all along has been merely to make it into the field after two years of being left out.

“The way it’s working out is there’s going to be a lot of East Coast teams at the top, and so they’re going to take all those East Coast and Midwest spots. And that leaves California and Salt Lake City sites to whoever’s left,” Mast said.

“Five seeds get no say in where they go.”

Iowa’s NET ranking is unlikely to diminish, given the quality of its remaining schedule. But there also aren’t a lot of chances to earn marquee wins. A look at the road ahead for Iowa as it tries to build on an impressive resume:

vs. Northwestern, Sunday

(12-10, 3-8 Big Ten Conference, NET ranking 73 as of Friday afternoon)

Iowa earned its first road victory of the year against the Wildcats, a bottom-of-the-pack team in a strong league. A focused Hawkeye team should be able to make it a sweep.

at Rutgers, Feb. 16

(11-11, 4-8, 126)

The first of two meetings with a Scarlet Knights team that is improved this year, but still by far the lowest-rated Big Ten squad. The Hawkeyes haven’t played particularly well at the RAC, but probably have more than enough firepower to win this one unless they have an abnormally poor shooting night.

vs. Maryland, Feb. 19

(18-6, 9-4, 22)

This is one of two chances for the Hawkeyes to earn a significant regular-season win, joining home victories against Iowa State and Michigan as their most impressive. The Terrapins have an imposing front court anchored by 6-foot-10 Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, and they are 5-2 on the road this season. The Hawkeyes cannot afford the foul trouble that hampered Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener on Thursday in this one.

vs. Indiana, Feb. 22

(13-10, 4-8, 47)

Iowa simply outperformed the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall to grab an important third road win in league play. The Hawkeyes’ experience and poise shone through. But this game will have more meaning for an Indiana squad fighting to maintain its place in the NCAA field. Iowa is the better team, but it won’t be easy to get the sweep.

at Ohio State, Feb. 26

(15-7, 5-6, 37)

Iowa owns a home victory over the Buckeyes, stifling star Kaleb Wesson in the process. Adding a road victory over a solid Big Ten team is entirely within the realm of possibility. The Hawkeyes are playing well on the road since the calendar turned to January. Ohio State is a team without much of an identity this season. Iowa seems to have found one.

vs. Rutgers, March 2

(11-11, 4-8, 126)

The goal here is simply to avoid a first bad loss of the season for Iowa. This is the lone remaining “Quadrant 3” game on its schedule. This one is for NCAA seeding purposes only, as in: Don’t drop down.

at No. 19 Wisconsin, March 7

(17-6, 9-3, 12)

The Badgers handed Iowa one of its two home losses this season, in the late-November conference opener. That game seems so long ago. Both teams are playing better since then, but especially the Badgers, who are on a six-game winning streak. Wisconsin is doing it with a defense that stretches the boundaries of what is legal. Iowa can’t back down in this one, or it could get truly ugly. This would rank as the best road win of the season, and the second-best overall behind the vanquishing of the Wolverines.

at Nebraska, March 10

(13-10, 3-9, 36)

The Cornhuskers are in a six-loss free fall that hasn’t cost them yet in the NET rankings, thanks to a strong nonconference showing. But injuries seem to have caught up with a team lacking depth. And coach Tim Miles is on the hot seat as he tries in vain (so far) to get his team turned around. The Hawkeyes would love to sweep a team that embarrassed them a year ago in Lincoln. It seems like an easy task. It probably won’t be.

Big Ten Tournament

March 13-17, Chicago

Mast discounted the importance of the conference tournament for Iowa’s NCAA chances. The Hawkeyes will already be in and are unlikely to fall down a seed line unless they somehow lose in Chicago to a Penn State or Rutgers. Iowa is likely to be a 5-7 seed in Chicago. Certainly, the team and its fan base would love to exorcise past failures by winning at least two games in this tournament for the first time under coach Fran McCaffery. But they would need to win the whole thing, and beat a pair of elite teams along the way, to improve their NCAA seed by this point.