Bracket analysis: How high could Iowa Hawkeyes climb in their NCAA Tournament seed?

Danny Lawhon
Hawk Central

Iowa was never going to win every game remaining on its men's basketball schedule. Let's get that notion out of the way.

The Big Ten Conference is too tough. College basketball this year is too balanced (or mediocre, depending on how you view it).

For a couple weeks, however, it appeared the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (15-6, 6-4 Big Ten) were on one of those momentum-building runs that catapults a good team into becoming a sneakily great one come March.

They turned aside Maryland at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after a mildly embarrassing loss to Nebraska. They survived their next road pothole against Northwestern. A trio of tough home games (Michigan, Rutgers, Wisconsin) all resulted in Iowa wins.

So sure, in that context, Thursday's 82-72 setback in a return game at Maryland to end a five-game win streak seems like letting some of the air out of the balloon. 

But the reality here is that Fran McCaffery's squad is fine. More than fine, in fact.

And no, I'm not just talking about "fine" through the lens of "will the Hawkeyes make the NCAA Tournament." Barring a sort of February collapse that wakes up the "Fran fade" conversation — in second halves of Big Ten slates the past five years, Iowa is a middling 24-22, for the record — Iowa is plenty insulated from the bubble.

This is "fine" in terms of angling for a top-five seed in the 68-team field.

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The schedule should only help

Two weeks ago, in my first dive into the numbers relative to this year's bracket scenarios, we discussed the minimum threshold Iowa needed to feel safe with 14 games remaining.

A split was fine, by that measure. Iowa is 3-1 so far since then, winning both of their Quadrant 2 games as far as the NET rankings are concerned (the Michigan and Wisconsin wins have dropped just below the Quadrant 1 threshold) and splitting their Q1 contests (Rutgers, at Maryland). Iowa's currently 5-4 in Q1 games on the season.

Iowa's remaining schedule is still rife with opportunities to shoot up even more from their current NET ranking of 21 as of Friday. The Nebraska rematch at Carver-Hawkeye on Feb. 8 remains the lone land mine (it's a Q4 game now, the kind you don't lose, no way, no how). The home finale against Purdue (March 3) is a Q2 affair.

Otherwise, every other game — a whopping eight — falls into the Q1 bucket. 

Daunting? Maybe. Good news? Absolutely, if you believe Iowa is a top-25 team, which two-thirds of this regular season has told us they are.

How high could they climb?

With that knowledge, let's start to project the range of records and seeds within which the Hawkeyes could wind up.

For this exercise, I'm not counting whomever Iowa could face in the Big Ten Conference tournament. I'm also assuming that there are no bad losses, so that means Iowa beats Nebraska. It'll be a simpler permutation, too, if Iowa wins the Purdue home game. The variance between Quadrant 1 records will be easier to follow.

The low road: Let's say Iowa goes merely 4-6 in the final stretch to finish 19-12 overall and 10-10 in the Big Ten. (This was our earlier minimum threshold to feel secure from the bubble). That'd include losing six of the eight remaining Quadrant 1 games under this scenario. Iowa would still, though, be 5-1 in Quadrant 2 games and scrape to a respectable 7-10 in those top-tier matchups.

For context, in 2019, the first year of the NET rankings system, seven Q1 victories would have been in the top 20 in the country in that category. All 20 of those teams made the tournament. Projected seed range: 8-9

The middle (analytics) road: Ken Pomeroy's rankings (which have Iowa currently ranked 15th) project Iowa going 6-4 the rest of the way, beating those two teams we discussed. That would put the Hawkeyes at 21-10 overall and 12-8 in the Big Ten. They'd be 9-8 in Q1 games. Only 15 teams in the country had nine or more Q1 victories last season. Projected seed range: 5-7

The high road: Achieve beyond a 6-4 finish, and Iowa can start to think about favorable first-week matchups in the bracket. A reasonable best-case scenario would be 8-2 (anything better, and we'll be hearing about McCaffery as conference coach of the year and a national finalist). The record vaults to 23-8, 14-6 in the league and an 11-6 Q1 mark. Only seven teams reached that level last season, and all were top-four tournament seeds.

Even if we hedge bets here and bump the numbers down to a 7-3 finish (22-9, 13-7) and a 10-7 Q1 record, only 12 teams achieved that level of NET rankings success, and all were top-five seeds in the tournament. Projected seed range: 3-high 5

Just for a baseline reference ...

In my view, and according to a couple of trusted experts we'll list below, Iowa is squarely in the No. 5 seed range if we drew up the brackets today. If you want to know what kinds of teams were No. 5 seeds in recent tournaments, here's what it took.

Note: The NCAA instituted the NET Rankings in 2019 and the quadrant system in 2018. It previously used the RPI.


  • Auburn (26-9 overall, NET 18, 5-7 in Quadrant 1 games)
  • Marquette (24-9, NET 28, 10-5 Q1)
  • Mississippi State (23-10 overall, NET 19, 8-7 Q1)
  • Wisconsin (23-10, NET 17, 10-8 Q1)


  • Clemson (23-9, RPI 11, 4-8 Q1)
  • Kentucky (24-10, RPI 10, 5-8 Q1)
  • Ohio State (24-8, RPI 20, 3-5 Q1)
  • West Virginia (24-10, RPI 27, 8-8 Q1)


  • Iowa State (22-10, RPI 21, 7-7 vs. teams ranked 1-50 in RPI)
  • Minnesota (24-9, RPI 20, 7-7 vs. 1-50)
  • Notre Dame (25-9, RPI 23, 7-8 vs. 1-50)
  • Virginia (22-10, RPI 18, 6-8 vs. 1-50)

The point? Iowa's resume is shaping up to be just as good as any of these teams' portfolios — if not significantly better.

What the experts say

*Rankings as of Friday

NCAA NET: No. 21

Ken Pomeroy: No. 15, 21-10 projected overall record (12-8 Big Ten)

Jeff Sagarin: No. 18

ESPN BPI: No. 18

ESPN projection: West Region, No. 5 seed, vs. Yale in Albany, New York

CBS Sports projection: East Region, No. 6 seed, vs.Mississippi State in Greensboro, North Carolina

Bracketville projection (the nation's top-rated metric, according to the Bracket Matrix): West Region, No. 5 seed, vs. Stephen F. Austin in Sacramento

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.

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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 or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.