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Rick Heller breaks down Iowa's tough loss to Missouri Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — With 10 regular-season games remaining, the Hawkeyes can see the postseason lights up ahead. Iowa, hoping to make its third regional appearance in the last four years under Rick Heller, is planted right in the middle of the race.

As of Thursday, the Hawkeyes (26-15, 9-7 Big Ten) have an RPI of 51 and sit seventh in the conference standings after drawing the tough end of the Big Ten’s extremely unbalanced slate.

Iowa’s remaining games can be divided into two parts. The first section comes this weekend, when the Hawkeyes host No. 19 Oklahoma State (27-15-1) in what is easily their largest series of the year. This is Iowa’s final chance to add real substance to its resume, given what else remains on its schedule.

That’s the second part. The Hawkeyes end the season with three at Northwestern (224 RPI), a midweek at Western Illinois (285 RPI) and three at home versus Penn State (234 RPI). An easy stretch on paper, but one that offers zero margin for error.

So all that begs this question: What does Iowa need to do to make it back to the NCAA Tournament?

Two publications — Baseball American and D1Baseball.com — have been putting out regional projections each week since early April. Their latest both have the Hawkeyes squarely on the bubble — one on the right side, one on the wrong. Baseball America has Iowa as the first team out. D1Baseball has Heller’s squad as the second-to-last team in, heading to Arkansas as a No. 3 seed.

HawkCentral spoke with both publications this week — Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill and D1Baseball’s Aaron Fitt — to get a better gauge of where Iowa currently stands and what work it has left to do.

Iowa’s resume

Adding to the Hawkeyes’ RPI and spot in the conference standings, Iowa enters the weekend with a strength of schedule at 51, a nonconference strength of schedule at 243 and a 6-6 record against the top-50 RPI. The crux of Iowa’s resume exists in the Big Ten, where Heller’s squad owns series wins against Illinois (44 RPI), Ohio State (47 RPI) and Michigan (56 RPI) — as well as a split with Indiana (21 RPI).

Cahill: "They have some nice series wins. Because the Big Ten schedule is the way it is, I think some of their conference record and conference standing is — I don’t want to say excusable — but I guess understandable.

“But at the same time, they are seventh in the Big Ten. The RPI, while decent, isn’t blowing it away. The nonconference portion of the schedule wasn’t incredible. I guess all of that means that I feel like they still have work to do, and that’s been reflective of where we’ve had them the last few weeks.”

Fitt: “They’re still squarely on the bubble, and they’ve done a lot of really nice things. That’s why we’ve had them in (our projections) is some of the quality series wins on their resume are pretty impressive. Certainly Michigan, at Illinois and versus Ohio State and splitting a couple with Indiana, they’ve had a tough conference schedule — which not everybody does because of the unbalanced schedule. And they’ve handled it well. So that’s what we like about them.

“Now, the issue, of course, is the RPI. And really, it’s just a couple of weekends that have really weighed them down. You play three games against Evansville — they’re 7-28 (as far as the RPI is concerned). That first weekend, it turned out all three of those teams they played down there in Kissimmee (Toledo, Oakland and Old Dominion) have bad records. That’s 50 percent of the RPI formula — your opponent’s winning percentage — so those six games really, really hurt them.”

The Oklahoma State series

While Cahill and Fitt had slightly different opinions on whether this weekend is a true “must win” for Iowa, both strongly emphasized its importance. The Cowboys come to Iowa City with a 26 RPI and lead the Big 12 by three games.

Cahill: “This weekend is massive because it can take care of me talking about how the nonconference schedule is kind of boring — that it doesn’t really have a whole lot of adding power to the resume.

“… But I’m not even really thinking that they need to win (the series) this weekend, but getting swept this weekend would be a bad look considering what happened at UNLV. So avoiding that would be big. Winning the series would be huge. But I don’t think it’s a massive problem were they to lose the series this weekend. … It would definitely be advantageous to win this weekend — there’s no doubt about that — but I don’t know that it totally crushes them if they go 1-2.”  

Fitt: “I think because of what they have left after (the Oklahoma State series) — it’s one thing if they were just playing average teams around 100 in the RPI or something — but they’ve got seven games left against teams outside the top 200. And because of that, yeah, I think it probably is must-win for them this weekend.”

Down the stretch

Northwestern and Penn State are the Big Ten’s two worst teams, which should allow Iowa to improve its pedestrian conference record just in time for the Big Ten Tournament. But any major slip-up late will crush the Hawkeyes’ RPI, which is already going to drop just by playing those lowly squads.

Both Cahill and Fitt agreed Iowa’s margin for error is extremely tight.

Cahill: “It’d be much better if they won all six of them because at that point, you’re looking at 15 Big Ten wins. That’s probably going to get you up to fourth (in the conference standings) I would guess. You’re going to be in a much better position — no one is going to be able to look at it and say, ‘Well, they were on the bubble of the Big Ten Tournament.’ I trust that the committee looks further into that and understands that the Big Ten schedule is terribly unbalanced and that Iowa has taken the brunt of it this year. But that removes some of that doubt.

“There has to be a sweep in there, and it would be better if there were two sweeps. But there has to be at least one sweep. Just taking the field in those games is going to be an (RPI) problem.”

Fitt: “Say they go 5-1 in those couple of weekends, that would get them to 14-8 in the league. So they would be OK in the standings, but it’s just a matter of the RPI. Say they go 5-1 in those games, maybe they have to win a couple games in the conference tournament against good teams, just to try to boost that RPI up a little bit more. That might be how it plays out for them. They could be a team that’s right on the bubble heading into the conference tournament, just because of the RPI factor.

“It is a double-edged sword. Yeah, those games are going to hurt them in the RPI, but on the other hand, they’re just 9-7 in the league right now. They could use a surge up the standings, and those opponents are just what the doctor ordered for that. You get to 14 or 15 conference wins, I think it helps your case quite a bit.”

The RPI target range

Northern squads generally have a bit more RPI leeway than, say, ACC or SEC teams. The Hawkeyes’ dilemma is even if they improve their RPI with a strong showing versus Oklahoma State, that work could be negated even with wins down the stretch.    

Cahill: “You don’t necessarily have to be in the top 45 the way an SEC team probably does. If they’re in the top 50, that’s going to be looked at pretty favorably. If you fall out of the 50s with Iowa’s resume, I wouldn’t want to push that. Minnesota a couple years ago when they won the Big Ten regular season in 2016, I think they were like RPI 53 on Selection Monday — but they had won the Big Ten and got a No. 2 seed.

"So because Iowa’s probably not going to have that feather in their cap — and because they don’t have, at least right now, that big nonconference schedule — I think you’re looking at more like the top 50.”              

Fitt: It’s going to be hard to keep that RPI in the 50s, so they really need to finish strong. The RPI is going to slip — it’s inevitable. If you’re outside the top 60, even as a northern team, I don’t think you really have a chance. So it’s possible that they slip into the 60s and then have to do some work in the conference tournament. But that’s what they’re fighting right now is just the RPI.

“… Generally if you’re in that 40-50 range, you’re probably on the bubble — but probably on the good side of the bubble. It’s not definite. You’re still sweating a little bit, but you’re probably OK. In the 50-60 range, you’re on the bubble and still have a chance — but it’s not as good of a chance. You’re sweating a lot more.”

Bottom line

With three weeks and change until Selection Monday on May 28, Iowa sits squarely on the bubble with opportunities to cement an at-large case. But in a crowded Big Ten where as many as seven teams should feel like they have a regional shot,the wiggle room is slim.

It’s on the Hawkeyes to decide their fate.

Fitt: “The metrics (right now) probably wouldn’t get them in if they were in the SEC, but as a Big Ten team with those metrics that has actually played and beaten the good teams in the league, I think it could get them in. But it would be a borderline case that could go either way. That’s really what we’re looking at here.”

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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