No. 17 Iowa looks for road win at Minnesota, but remains 'virtual lock' for NCAA tourney
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The Iowa men’s basketball team is ranked 17th in the nation and is already a “virtual lock” to be in the NCAA Tournament.
That means losing road games in the ultra-competitive Big Ten Conference is not a damaging proposition. But winning one or more of the remaining three could provide the Hawkeyes with a big boost in their race to finish in the top four of the league — thus securing a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament — and possibly getting as high as a 4 seed in the NCAAs.
That’s what’s at stake at noon Sunday when Iowa (17-8, 8-6 Big Ten Conference) faces Minnesota (12-11, 6-7) at Williams Arena in a rivalry game to be broadcast on FS1.
The Hawkeyes have lost their past three games away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena by 10 points or more. In their last two, against Purdue (104-68) and Indiana (89-77), the Hawkeyes have been blistered from the 3-point arc (30-for-55), outmuscled on the glass when they did force missed shots (26 offensive rebounds allowed) and way too loose with the basketball (33 turnovers).
Those are the primary issues coach Fran McCaffery will try to address when his Hawkeyes face a Minnesota squad they handled easily in the first meeting, a 72-52 home win on Dec. 9.
And he’ll have to do it without starting shooting guard CJ Fredrick, who went out of Thursday’s loss at Indiana with a badly sprained ankle.
It’s the latest blow for an Iowa team that is already without starting power forward Jack Nunge (knee surgery) and senior point guard Jordan Bohannon (hip surgery).
Some Hawkeye fans see the sky falling.
Shelby Mast, an expert on the NCAA Tournament brackets whose work appears in USA Today, would tell them to stop looking up and instead look closer at Iowa’s resume.
“I’ve got them as a virtual lock,” Mast said Friday. “The (NCAA Tournament selection) committee mentioned them last weekend in the bracket reveal. They were the first 5 seed that the committee mentioned. Once you’re up that high, you usually don’t fall off too much.”
The committee revealed its top 16 teams for the first time last Saturday. While the Hawkeyes weren’t among those, they did get a shoutout on the TV show for being close to a top 4 seed, along with Kentucky and LSU.
Mast’s ears perked up when he heard that. He believes that’s very revealing for how well-regarded the Hawkeyes are by the people who matter the most. Iowa has amassed five “Quad 1” wins. Mast pointed to victories over Maryland, Texas Tech and Cincinnati as being especially significant. And the Hawkeyes have six games left against strong competition.
“The committee likes having wins against the teams that are in the tournament,” Mast said.
There are only two scenarios in which Mast believes Iowa would not be selected for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
“If you lose the rest of your games, you might be in danger, but I don’t think they’re going to,” he said.
“You win the ones that you’re supposed to and lose the ones that you probably should, and I think they’ll be OK.”
The Hawkeyes have regular-season games remaining at Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois; and at home vs. Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue. Iowa has not lost a league home game this season.
The wild card becomes the Fredrick injury. If the Hawkeyes struggle to win without him, and he is ruled out for the rest of the season, that could change the committee’s belief in the team.
“If he’s not available for the tournament, they get judged more closely on the games they played without him because that’s the team that would be entering the tournament,” Mast said. “If they win a couple of games and they don’t show that they’ve lost too much without him, then it’s not going to really matter. But if they take a nosedive, then they’re going to base everything on the full resume and then look a little closer at those games, and that will affect seeding.”
Mast has 11 Big Ten teams in his bracket, which he updates daily at bracketwag.com. The only three teams he left out are Northwestern, Nebraska and … Minnesota. But the Gophers are still in the hunt, which means a Hawkeye loss Sunday wouldn’t materially alter how they’re viewed.
Mast’s latest bracket lists the Hawkeyes as a 6 seed. He believes they can climb to a 4 with a strong finishing kick, particularly if that includes a win at Michigan State. Mast does not see the Hawkeyes falling below a 9 seed, and that would only happen if they start losing home games.
It’s true that Iowa is only 1-5 in league road games, the lone win coming at last-place Northwestern. But the Hawkeyes have triumphed at Syracuse and Iowa State. That 3-5 record “is not horrible, not something that’s going to kill them,” Mast said.
“The committee’s paying attention. They called them out. That’s big,” Mast said.
“I feel right now they’re pretty much a lock, but a realistic lock means you can lose all the rest of your games and still be in the tournament. I think they’ve done enough.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.