How does Iowa return to the NCAA Tournament? Dissecting Hawkeyes' case with college baseball analysts.

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Almost an entire college baseball season was erased, another severely altered in scheduling and postseason prognostications. But here we are, three Big Ten weekends left until the NCAA Tournament, and Iowa is within regional reach once again. Rick Heller’s Hawkeyes have mastered the season turnaround.

Now comes changing the final outcome.

Recent postseason misses from this exact spot make this bid an important one for Iowa to secure. The Hawkeyes haven’t been dancing since their magical 2017 Big Ten Tournament title and regional upset over host Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic took away one postseason opportunity since then. Untimely scuffling against the league’s bottom removed two more.

So here Iowa (21-14) sits in fourth place — two games out of third, 2.5 games out of second, three games behind leader Indiana and tied with surging Maryland — with nine games remaining for the Hawkeyes. Iowa hosts Illinois (16-18) for three Friday through Sunday, then hits the road for series at Northwestern (May 21-23) and Michigan State (May 28-30). The Illini, Wildcats (12-16) and Spartans (13-22) are currently eighth, ninth and 11th in the Big Ten standings.

It’s set up nicely for Iowa to get this done.

Both Baseball America and D1Baseball have had the Hawkeyes in their field-of-64 projections for multiple weeks. After a brief time on the last-group-in line, Iowa is safely on the bubble’s right side — for now.

This week, HawkCentral spoke to two college baseball analysts — Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill and D1Baseball’s Aaron Fitt — to get a better idea of where Iowa sits coming down the stretch. Additionally, we’ll discuss how the RPI will (and won’t) impact the Big Ten and its conference-only schedule.

Iowa head coach Rick Heller (21) bumps fists with Matthew Sosa (31) while players huddle up between innings during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Penn State, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

What Iowa has done.

Now with a .600 winning percentage following a 4-8 start, the Hawkeyes have impressed Cahill and Fitt over the last several weeks. Iowa enters this final stretch having won six of its last seven series, with a chance to make it nine of 10 to end the year. The Hawkeyes are 17-6 over their last 23 games with six straight Friday wins.   

Although Iowa went a combined 4-8 against top-three Indiana (1-2), Michigan (1-3) and Nebraska (2-3), the Hawkeyes’ 3-1 record against fifth-place Maryland carries significant weight for Cahill and Fitt. That should give Iowa the nod over the Terrapins if it can’t crack the top three.

Cahill: Given that they're 21-14 now and not that far off of the leaders, who are inherently going to beat up on each other a little bit more because they're all scheduled to play each other, I just think that's a pretty good spot for Iowa to be in. They acquitted themselves fine against the best teams in the league. They didn't set the world on fire by any means, but they did OK. And the fact they're 3-1 against Maryland is important. That's a team they're going to be pretty close to in the league standings when it's all said and done, whether they catch those leaders or not. They've positioned themselves pretty well. Now they have to take care of business.. 

Fitt: I think they're in pretty good shape. The fact they're 3-1 against Maryland is very helpful because Maryland has played well lately and is in the hunt. The fact they're 3-1 at Rutgers, another team that was starting to make some noise. Held their own against Nebraska. They've done some good things

Iowa's Drew Irvine (12) cheers on teammates from the dugout during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Northwestern, Monday, April 26, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

What Iowa has left.

The flipside of a front-loaded schedule is a hypothetically easier closing stretch. Iowa certainly has that on paper.

Here’s what remains for the Big Ten’s top five.

  • Indiana (23-10): at Michigan (3), vs. Nebraska (2), vs. OSU (2), at Maryland (3)
  • Nebraska (23-11): vs. NW (3), at Indiana (2), vs. OSU (2), vs. Michigan (3)
  • Michigan (23-12): vs. Indiana (3), vs. Maryland (3), at Nebraska (3)
  • Iowa (21-14): vs. Illinois (3), at NW (3), at Michigan State (3)
  • Maryland (21-14): vs. Purdue (3), at Michigan (3), vs. Indiana (3)  

Plenty of winnable games, plenty of chances for upward movement if you’re Iowa. Fitt and Cahill both see Iowa as an NCAA Tournament lock if it finishes in the top three, and likely in as well if it stays in fourth above Maryland. The Hawkeyes winning their three remaining series should be enough to accomplish one of those.

Cahill: If they win those last three series, they should be OK. It would be good to stay with Maryland don't allow Maryland to separate from you would be useful if you're the Hawkeyes. But again, ... winning these last three series should be what it takes.   

Fitt: If you finish with a roughly .600 winning percentage in the league, that's an easy at-large bid for me. I don't think they even necessarily need to hit that mark, but if they do, they're a shoe-in.

Iowa head coach Rick Heller talks with reporters after a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Northwestern, Monday, April 26, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

What the RPI means (and shouldn’t mean) in 2021.

Both Cahill and Fitt admit there’s no concrete answer on exactly how the committee is going to view the Big Ten, which rendered the RPI mostly useless with its decision to not include non-conference games. With the RPI calculations all internalized, there’s no method to compare Big Ten teams accurately with the rest of the country. But can the committee truly help themselves from not looking at college baseball’s all-important metric?

Fitt: I wish I had the confidence to say "yes" for sure, but I don't know. We're guessing really. We'll see how much the committee is really paying attention here. With the Big Ten, there's no value. ... I just think the committee needs to be able to go deeper here. 

Cahill: What's probably going to happen is (the committee) won't be able to help themselves (in looking at the RPI), but that it's hopefully going to be just in the context of the Big Ten.   

Considering the scheduling extremes of what the top-five has left these last three weekends, the current RPI figures should look quite different at season’s end. Here are the numbers as of Thursday.

  • Iowa: 55
  • Ohio State: 58
  • Nebraska: 68
  • Rutgers: 81
  • Indiana: 84
  • Maryland: 88
  • Michigan: 103

At the top, Iowa is going to likely lose its RPI cushion with what it has left. And at the bottom, Michigan should climb if it can beat the tourney contenders left on its slate. So these figures admittedly don’t mean much, which should actually help ease some pressure for the Hawkeyes moving forward. 

Fitt: If you win (nine of your last 10 series), that's going to be pretty loud. That would put them in good shape.

Cahill: Whatever means of the eye test there are for Big Ten teams, that's probably going to be one of the most important metrics — (how you finish) and the standings most importantly. And then also, what are the regional advisory committee rankings going to look like? That's coaches evaluating teams and is set up to be an eye-test situation.    

Iowa's Austin Martin, left, talks with Iowa head coach Rick Heller during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Penn State, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

How does this end?

The job Heller has done in raising Iowa baseball standards is understood and appreciated throughout college baseball. But even Heller knows construction can’t stall for long. Another May full of postseason buzz can’t lead to another June on the couch.

Cahill: I think it is something they need to do. If you look at it, the top of this conference is becoming a little more crystalized from year to year. ... And you don't want to be caught outside of that. So if Iowa can keep putting some regional appearances together, that's the kind of thing that helps guard against that.  

Ultimately, though, Cahill and Fitt believe Iowa will snag a bid come Selection Monday.

Fitt: I like the veteran core. I like the pitching. Now, you never know in this league. All three of those series are still tests that can't be taken for granted. Ultimately if I'm going to bet one way or another, I'm going to bet on Iowa. But they have to make sure they keep their focus they bring every week.    

Cahill: It seems clear they're not as good as the three teams in front of them. The results seem to kind of bear that out. But it also seems like they've shown they're as good if not better than everyone else in the conference. And now, they'll have a chance to pad the record a little bit. 

Previously:Amid mid-season surge, Hawkeyes can't lose focus as postseason chatter intensifies

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