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Bracket analysis: The benchmark Iowa needs to be safe from the NCAA Tournament bubble

Danny Lawhon
Hawk Central

The countdown to Selection Sunday is never really off the radar. But now that conference play is at full throttle in college basketball, we can at least start bringing up the talk of bracket match-ups and seed lines again without getting laughed out of the room.

The two-month sprint to March 15, when the NCAA Tournament field of 68 will be revealed, has begun. And again this winter, we'll be posting weekly nitty-gritty updates focusing on Iowa's NCAA Tournament prospects.

Let's refresh all our memories and dive in.

Those pesky NET rankings

The tournament's selection committee uses its NCAA Evaluator Tool (NET rankings, for short) as a primary method of helping determine its teams (the 32 automatic qualifiers and the 36 at-large selections). The rankings were devised for the 2018-19 season and are unchanged for 2019-20.

The formula is a mish-mash of sheer results, strength of schedule, location of games, victory margin (capped at a double-digit win), and offensive and defensive efficiency.

A team's wins and losses are grouped into four quadrants, based on how their opponents are stacked in the NET.

  • Quadrant 1: Home wins against teams ranked 1-30; neutral-site wins against teams ranked 1-50; road wins against teams ranked 1-75.
  • Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Road 76-135.
  • Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Road 135-240.
  • Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Road 241-353.

Beyond simply winning games, the hope is that a team angling to boost its NCAA Tournament resume can stock up on as many Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 wins as possible, while avoiding those Quadrant 3 (and worse) defeats.

To even further delineate those cream-of-the-crop wins, the top two quadrants have their own tiers.

  • Quadrant 1A: Home 1-15, Neutral 1-25, Road 1-40
  • Quadrant 1B: Home 16-30, Neutral 26-50, Road 41-75
  • Quadrant 2A: Home 31-55, Neutral 51-75, Road 76-100
  • Quadrant 2B: Home 56-75, Neutral 76-100, Road 101-135

How the Hawkeyes are faring

Tuesday night's 75-62 win at Northwestern was essential for several reasons.

Iowa, which is ranked 24th in the latest USA TODAY Coaches' Poll and just outside the top 25 of The Associated Press, is now 12-5 overall and 3-3 in what appears to be a cannibalizing Big Ten Conference. They're at No. 31 in the most recent release of the NET rankings.

CJ Fredrick returned to the lineup after missing two games mending a stress reaction in his foot, logging 31 minutes and scoring 11 points. As has been well-documented, stress reactions can lead to stress fractures, so the freshman guard's health will be closely monitored. But the Hawkeyes having nine available scholarship players instead of eight, for however long, is a boon to their 2020 postseason chances.

And, although a victory at a team that's now 6-10 certainly isn't sexy, it keeps Iowa from blacking both of its eyes in the unsightly loss column. The Hawkeyes badly stumbled last week at Nebraska, which is outside of the NET top 150. One horrible defeat can be dismissed, particularly when you can turn around and lop off a top-20 team in Maryland in the same week; but two of those setbacks makes for something that catches selection committee members' eyes on the resume. And not in a good way.

There's continuing good news for Iowa on that front, though. Fran McCaffery's group will, barring a massive collapse by another team on its Big Ten schedule, only have one more pothole game remaining on its schedule: a return engagement with Fred Hoiberg's Cornhuskers, this time at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 8.

Otherwise, the schedule is ripe with opportunities. This scenario provides both dangers and safeguards that I'll get to in a moment.

►LEISTIKOW: Hawkeyes' efficiency stands out in Northwestern win

What last year told us, and what this year is telling us

A look at the first iteration of NET rankings can at least give a baseline on what thresholds Iowa might need to meet to both A) be safe from the bubble and B) try to move out of that death march of being a No. 7-10 seed, within which the Hawkeyes have landed each of the past three times they've made the Big Dance.

Iowa was 22-11 before NCAA play last March and were ranked 43rd in the final regular-season NET. The Hawkeyes made the tournament as a No. 10 seed.  The No. 11 seeds were punished with berths in the First Four. Nine (nine!) top-50 NET teams were snubbed, including five ranked higher than the Hawkeyes. Three of those five were from Power Five conferences.

So Iowa was always in the field, but they were close to that danger zone.

Why was that danger lurking? Well, Iowa's nonconference schedule was abysmally weak — 329th out of 353 Division I teams, according to the highly regarded Ken Pomeroy rankings system. Last year's NET ranking reflected as much, with Iowa playing a whopping 12 games against teams in Quadrants 3 and 4 (they went 11-1). The Hawkeyes scraped just enough Quadrant 1 and 2 wins (4-10 in Q1, and an almost-necessary 7-0 in Q2) together to assuage the committee.

There are no such worries this season. As it stands, Iowa is just 6-1 in Q3 and Q4 games this year (and again, has only the Nebraska rematch remaining in that category). That slimmer volume is what you want to see. Iowa's nonconference schedule strength is a much more respectable 78th this season, and is part of the reason why the Hawkeyes are 31st in the latest NET ranking in spite of their five losses. (Only three teams with five or more losses sit ahead of Iowa in the formula.)

Iowa's players are aware of that difference, too, as the meat grinder of the Big Ten ledger looms.

“I wouldn’t say our backs are on the wall yet. We set ourselves up in the nonconference. We had a really serious approach as a team in the nonconference, because we know those games really matter especially for tournament seeding, as was shown last year," senior Ryan Kriener told the Register's Chad Leistikow. "We really took care of our business early.”

Which is good, because business will be much more difficult to take care of from this point forward.

Of the Hawkeyes' 14 remaining games, a whopping 10 of them fall into the Q1 category (vs. Michigan, vs. Rutgers, vs. Wisconsin, at Maryland, at Purdue, at Indiana, at Minnesota, vs. Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Illinois). We've mentioned the Nebraska game as Q3. Quadrant 2 home tilts against Illinois, Penn State and Purdue round out the list.

Especially if there is roster depletion, Iowa's depth and talent will be severely tested. It would be a worthy achievement to split those 14 games.

So let's say they do so in this fashion:

  • Win the Nebraska game.
  • Take two out of three from the Quadrant 2 pool.
  • Go 4-6 against the Quadrant 1 gauntlet.

That'd be a 10-10 league record and 19-12 overall entering the Big Ten tournament. And on the surface, the numbers might make you nervous about the bubble. 

Look further, though, and Iowa would have seven Quadrant 1 victories under this scenario (it already has three), to go with a 5-2 Quadrant 2 mark. The overall body of work would supersede that of last year's, which still got the Hawkeyes into the tournament without the play-in game. Moreover, the Big Ten is far and away rated as the best conference according to KenPom. 

If all that wasn't enough, last year's selection committee went out of its way to select Minnesota and Ohio State for at-large bids last season, even though both were at No. 55 or worse in the NET. So the conference has cred.

What this crystallization also does is help provide further potential benchmarks for avoiding that 7-10-seed rut that the Hawkeyes have found. Win all those Quadrant 2 home games, and steal even just one more Quadrant 1 victory from that group (thus going 5-5 in that stretch and nabbing eight Q1 wins overall), then suddenly the Hawkeyes are 21-10, 12-8 in the best league in the country and boasting nearly two hands full of head-turning wins.

That'd look like the resume of a No. 6 seed. And that'd look like at the potential of pulling an upset to get out of the first March Madness weekend for the first time since 1999.

Where the Hawkeyes stand

NCAA NET: No. 31

Ken Pomeroy: No. 16, 20-11 projected overall record (11-9 Big Ten)

Jeff Sagarin: No. 19

ESPN BPI: No. 19

ESPN projection: South Region, No. 7 seed, vs. Texas Tech in Tampa, Florida

CBS Sports projection: South Region, No. 10 seed, vs. Colorado in Omaha, Nebraska

Bracketville projection (the nation's top-rated metric, according to the Bracket Matrix): West Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Saint Mary's in Tampa

And if you've read all this way ...

First, I appreciate that. It remains humbling to receive feedback on this work, and it's a labor of love that I enjoy geeking out about.

That said, there will come a point this season where these articles will become specific to HawkCentral/Des Moines Register subscribers. I'll be blunt: It's that subscription support that helps keep this work possible. You can subscribe to the Register here (which also includes HawkCentral). You can subscribe specifically to HawkCentral here.

Thanks for the extra three paragraphs of consideration. Let's all enjoy the basketball.

Danny Lawhon works across the Register’s sports department, from editing, social media and sports wagering to bowls, brackets and data dives. Reach him at dlawhon@registermedia.com or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.