Why Iowa seems destined for Des Moines in NCAA Tournament

Chad Leistikow
  • USA TODAY bracketology has Iowa as a 2 seed in Des Moines
  • Selection Sunday will be March 13

It’s OK to get optimistic, Hawkeye fans, that your men’s basketball team will open the NCAA Tournament next month in downtown Des Moines.

In an interview with The Des Moines Register this week, the NCAA discussed multiple scenarios and outlined how the 10-member selection committee would evaluate and bracket the Hawkeyes and every other potential team in the 68-contestant field.

And even after Thursday’s 85-78 loss at Indiana, it’s still looking really good for an Iowa and Des Moines match.

The NCAA can’t say it that strongly yet, obviously, with much basketball to be played between now and Selection Sunday on March 13. To better grasp Iowa’s positioning, it helps to understand three key factors:

  • A primary principle in the NCAA’s bracket building is, “Teams will remain in or as close to their areas of natural interest as possible.”
  • Iowa State cannot play at Wells Fargo Arena, because it’s the host school. That’s important, because the Cyclones are a top-25 team and own a head-to-head win over Iowa.
  • The NCAA seeds teams Nos. 1 through 68. The first thing that happens in the bracketing stage is scattering the top 16 overall seeds -- Nos. 1-4 in each of four regions -- among the eight first- and second-round host sites.

That means two top-16 seeds per locations. And there are only three eligible schools in the top 25 of the latest USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll within 400 miles of Des Moines: No. 5 Iowa (114 miles), No. 6 Kansas (232) and No.  24 Wichita State (391).

“Obviously the better they perform, the higher they will be on the seed list,” said NCAA spokesman David Worlock, the Division I men’s basketball media coordinator. “And with that comes increased chances of getting sent closer to home.”

Iowa's path to the NCAA Final Four could begin in Des  Moines on March 17.

Location, location, location

Before any team is booked to a first-round site, it is assigned to one of four regions. This year, those are Philadelphia (East), Louisville, Ky. (South), Chicago (Midwest) and Anaheim, Calif. (West). The committee looks heavily at geography when assigning regions.

In a hypothetical Worlock offered up, Oklahoma was the No. 1 overall seed, followed by No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Xavier and No. 4 Iowa.

The committee would first assign Oklahoma to its “natural” region. In this case, Louisville (773 miles from Norman, Okla.) and Chicago (810 miles) are nearly equidistant, so the committee would then likely deem Chicago the most advantageous for the Sooners because it’s a major flight hub.

Villanova is next on the list, and it would take about two seconds for the committee to assign the Wildcats to nearby Philadelphia. That would put Xavier in Louisville and Iowa in Anaheim.

After that, the committee would assign regions to the four 2 seeds (Nos. 5-8 overall), then the 3s and the 4s.

In the example discussed with Worlock, the Nos. 5-8 overall spots were North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas and Oregon.

North Carolina is closest to Louisville; Virginia would then get Philadelphia. So, Kansas to Chicago, right? Wrong. One of the NCAA principles is, “each of the first four teams selected from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.”

Because fellow Big 12 Conference program Oklahoma was assigned the Chicago region, Kansas would have to head West to Anaheim, pushing Oregon to the Midwest.

How teams are seeded

There’s a detailed system of balloting procedures outlined on the NCAA’s website, but essentially what’s important to understand is that the top 16 seeds are given preferential treatment by the committee. But how are those top 16 picked? Evaluation is ongoing, so when the committee arrives at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on March 9 to begin the five-day process, each member will have a good idea of each prospective team’s resume.

There’s a misconception, Worlock said, that the NCAA RPI is the primary metric the committee uses when bracketing. The reality is, every Monday, each committee member receives a composite ranking of six rating systems -- NCAA RPI, KenPom, Sagarin, LRMC, KPI and BPI.

As of Friday morning, Iowa’s rankings in those, respectively, were 7, 3, 6, 6, 7 and 5.

“Obviously the RPI is the one the committee’s used over years for longer period of time,” Worlock said. “Other metrics have come along, and we’ve recognized the value in those metrics.”

So the biggest key for Iowa to get assigned to Des Moines, a host city for the men's tournament for the first time, is to stay in the top 16. A 4-seed is still the highest-rated team in each of 16 tournament “pods” -- mini four-team tournaments, essentially, that empty into the coveted Sweet 16.

Even if the Hawkeyes were to slide into a 4 seed, that would not preclude them from earning a very-close-to-home assignment -- provided another team didn’t jump in front of them.

“Not at all,” Worlock said. “What we try to do is not put one of the teams in the first four lines at a home-court disadvantage.”

NCAA tournament bracketology: Projecting the field of 68

Just keep winning

The way things are tracking, Iowa fans won’t have to worry about outside teams scooping up a Des Moines spot. The closest locations among 16 of the top consensus programs, keeping in mind that a maximum two top-16 teams can go to a site:

Villanova: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma City.

Maryland: Brooklyn.

Xavier: St. Louis, Mo.

Iowa: Des Moines.

Kansas: Des Moines.

Virginia: Raleigh, N.C.

North Carolina: Raleigh.

Michigan State: St. Louis.

West Virginia: Raleigh, Brooklyn, Providence, R.I. (in that order).

Miami (Fla.): Raleigh, but nothing’s close after that -- perhaps Denver, as a nonstop flight hub.

Oregon: Spokane, Wash.

Texas A&M: Oklahoma City.

Arizona: Denver.

Iowa State (ineligible for Des Moines): St. Louis, then Oklahoma City or Denver.

Purdue: St. Louis, then Des Moines.

Anything can happen. There are 10 humans in charge of seeding and bracketing, and each carries a different approach to how he or she votes. But the members are charged to follow the specific principles and procedures, the key ones we’ve outlined above. In mock selections made by 20 media members Thursday in Indianapolis, Iowa came out as the No. 3 overall seed. listed the Hawkeyes as the No. 1 overall seed earlier this week. The latest USA TODAY bracketology released Friday has Iowa as a 2 seed in Des Moines.

It’s clear that Iowa would have to tumble significantly to be derailed from its current spot on the inside track to Des Moines.


First Four (March 15-16): Dayton, Ohio (UD Arena)

First- and second-round games (March 17, 19): Providence, R.I. (Dunkin Donuts Center), Des Moines (Wells Fargo Arena), Raleigh, N.C. (PNC Arena), Denver, Colo. (Pepsi Center).

First- and second-round games (March 18, 20): Brooklyn, N.Y. (Barclays Center), St. Louis, Mo. (Scottrade Center), Oklahoma City (Chesapeake Energy Arena), Spokane, Wash. (Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena).

West Regional (March 24, 26): Anaheim, Calif. (Honda Center)

South Regional (March 24, 26): Louisville, Ky. (KFC YUM! Center)

Midwest Regional (March 25, 27): Chicago (United Center)

East Regional (March 25, 27): Philadelphia (Wells Fargo Center)

Final Four (April 2, 4): Houston (NRG Stadium)


The NCAA Selection Committee seeks to provide the closest proximity of site for first- and second-round games to the top 16 overall seeds, starting with No. 1. Here are the teams in the USA TODAY Coaches Top 25 closest to Des Moines (Notes: No. 15 Iowa State is not eligible to play NCAA Tournament games in Des Moines because it is the host school; Louisville, No. 13 in the AP poll, is also not eligible due to a postseason ban):

Iowa (No. 5) – 114 miles

Kansas (No. 6) – 232 miles

Wichita State (No. 24) – 391 miles

Purdue (No. 16) – 435 miles

Michigan State (No. 9) – 537 miles

Oklahoma (No. 3) – 561 miles

Xavier (No. 4) – 586 miles

Dayton (No. 17) – 589 miles

Kentucky (No. 21) – 667 miles


There are 10 members of the committee, which has been evaluating teams throughout the season and will convene March 9 in New York City to begin crafting the 68-team bracket:

Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma athletics director (chairman)

Joe Alleva, LSU athletics director

Janet Cone, UNC-Asheville athletics director

Tom Holmoe, BYU athletics director

Mark Hollis, Michigan State athletics director

Bernard Muir, Stanford athletics director

Bruce Rasmussen, Creighton athletics director

Peter Roby, Northeastern athletics director

Jim Schaus, Ohio athletics director

Kevin White, Duke athletics director