Bracket analysis: National experts, including ESPN's Lunardi and CBS' Palm, talk Iowa's seed range, Big Ten's clout

Danny Lawhon
Hawk Central

The Big Ten Conference has been puffing its chest out on a national scope for most of the men's college basketball season, and for good reason.

Although the top of the league doesn't contain a truly elite team peeking at the top of the polls and computer metrics, the conference is peaking in terms of depth at a level rarely seen in the Power Five conference era.

A 16-team Big East Conference ventured into the stratosphere with 11 squads (68.8%) reaching the NCAA Tournament back in 2011. But this year's Big Ten is threatening to at least poke its head among those clouds, with 10 of its 14 teams (71.4%) in Big Dance position according to multiple respected bracket projection experts.

Let's examine why.

The Big Ten's 'perfect storm'

To put a little more oomph behind the Big Ten's superiority this season than "the brackets say so," consider:

Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings project how could an "average" team in a league (one that is supposed to finish .500) would stack up when compared with an "average" team from another league. The Big Ten's composite is 1.78 points higher than the next-best league (the Big 12 Conference), a figure that ranks in the upper-third of differentials since Pomeroy debuted his metric in 2002 (sixth out of 19). The others:

  • 7.02, ACC, 2004
  • 3.79, Big 12, 2017
  • 3.73, Big Ten, 2013
  • 2.63, Big 12, 2015
  • 2.02, Pac 10, 2008

Another metric developed by Team Rankings places eight Big Ten teams among the top 40 in non-conference scheduling, most among Power Five leagues (and the Big East).

And the NCAA Evaluation Tool (the NET rankings) that is used as a primary tournament selection determinant places 10 Big Ten teams in its top 40 (Purdue is 37th). No other league has more than six. 

You could extend this exercise further — Jeff Sagarin has 10 Big Ten teams in his metric's top 33 — but you get the point. The league set itself up to succeed even before this year's 20-game schedule has created a massive logjam in the middle.

As of Thursday afternoon, Maryland held a two-game lead in the standings, with another six teams bunched with six or seven losses, including sixth-placed Iowa (19-9 overall, 10-7 Big Ten). In all, 10 teams are at .500 or better.

"They certainly did the job in the non-conference part of the season ... and in league play, they've had the perfect storm of the middle teams winning just enough to stay (in the bracket)," ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi told me Thursday. "Nobody (in reasonable consideration) has lost enough, with the possible exception of Minnesota, to be completely out of it. Normally, we've seen a little more separation, and that's more luck and random outcomes in 50-50 games over the course of the season.

"If you sat down and scripted it in October to have as many (Big Ten teams) look as good as possible, this would be about it."

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports' basketball bracket and football bowl projection expert, credits both the Big Ten's performance early in the season alongside other traditional powers' top-heavy nature in creating this circumstance.

"I don't recall having seen a single conference go this deep in having high-quality opposition (each game), he said.

And once that metric narrative has been established, notes USA TODAY bracketologist Shelby Mast, it becomes more difficult for teams to take a fall.

"You're at the point to where you could be losing two out of three, but if they're all against top-30 teams, you won't be seeing that much of a dip," he said.

The Hawkeyes' place at the table

So, a gold star for the Big Ten. But if that many teams are that tightly bunched and also ranked highly by the metrics tools, how the heck do you rank them?

That's been the next, and more headache-inducing, exercise for the folks who earn their notoriety by scrutinizing those seed lines.

Because the good teams are constantly trading punches, "it's hard to get a feel for how good (the league's upper tier) really is," Mast said.

"The challenge is going to be determining how good these teams really are," offered Palm.

No, that's not an echo.

Lunardi was putting his train on the same track, before explaining how he unties the knot. And it involves something he really doesn't like doing.

"I try to take the (selection) committee's approach, and that is to treat every team as an independent," he said. "So I'm not looking at Iowa versus Ohio State (18-9 overall, 8-8 Big Ten) as Iowa being a game and a half ahead of them in the league. I'm looking at them as two teams that played these schedules, and it just so happens that there are a lot of common opponents. The league designation doesn't matter to them.

"Personally, I think that's nuts and have said so loudly, and often. ... There are advantages that come from conference membership (in this scenario), and the current system provides no real disadvantages."

To Lunardi's point, he has the Hawkeyes as his No. 20 team (and the last No. 5 seed) on his current rankings curve as of Feb. 26, with the Buckeyes 21st. Palm had both squads as No. 5 seeds earlier this week, and Mast has Iowa as a No. 5 (playing Northern Iowa in the first round! In Omaha!) and Ohio State a No. 6.

It's not quite a guessing game, but it's muddy. And I say "muddy," and not something like "volatile," because the floor for the Hawkeyes, at this point, is simply not all that low.

Palm ultimately thinks Iowa will settle into the No. 6 range as a "bottom third of the top-25 type of team." Mast is a little more bullish, if only because the selection committee mentioned Iowa as among the teams in consideration for a top-four seed a couple of weeks back, "and you don't often get a bunch of new teams up there."

Even in a worst-case scenario of Iowa losing out, "you're looking at an 8 at worst, and probably still a 7," Mast said, "because they've done enough."

Lunardi sees an 8 seed in play in that unlikely doomsday scenario, too, but if the Big Ten has taught us anything, it's that the middle ground is the safest spot in the storm.

"By and large, I'd be betting on a 6," Lunardi said.

And one look at the Bracket Matrix (which takes dozens of regularly updated projections into account) place the Hawkeyes at a 5.92 seed average. Imagine that.

What the experts say

Rankings and projections as of Thursday afternoon

NCAA NET: No. 28

Ken Pomeroy: No. 22, 21-10 projected overall record (12-8 Big Ten)

Jeff Sagarin: No. 25

ESPN BPI: No. 26

ESPN projection: West Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Utah State in St. Louis

CBS Sports projection: South Region, No. 5 seed, vs. Play-in winner in Cleveland

USA TODAY Sports projection: Midwest Region, No. 5 seed, vs. Northern Iowa in Omaha, Nebraska

Bracketville projection (the nation's top-rated metric, according to the Bracket Matrix): South Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Utah State in Albany

Northern Iowa's nail-biting next weeks

The same sort of security can't be granted to the Missouri Valley Conference leaders. Northern Iowa (24-5, 13-4, 44 NET) has been lounging in the "others receiving votes" category of top-25 polls for much of the winter. For a while, conventional wisdom had that meaning an at-large NCAA berth was a safe bet, even if the Panthers didn't take care of business in the league's Arch Madness tournament in St. Louis.

But a pair of road losses in the past 10 days (acceptably to second-place Loyola and unacceptably to fifth-place Indiana State) have put Ben Jacobson's bunch right along the uncomfortable edge.

Look at the bracket projections now, and they'll all have Northern Iowa listed as the conference leader and automatic qualifier. Another loss between now and March 8, and it will be a nerve-racking wait until Selection Sunday.

Here's what each expert had to say about the Panthers:

Mast: UNI is a 12 seed that can't afford another loss before the conference title round. If the Panthers fall to Loyola in the final, that won't be damning. Anything else, and that will leave them to the fates.

Of note to Mast is Belmont's resume from 2019, in which the Bruins finished 26-5 and sneaked into the field as an at-large from the Ohio Valley Conference. Belmont finished 47th in the final NET, and went 5-3 against competition from Quadrants 1 and 2 in the NCAA system. Northern Iowa is 5-3 by those same measures this season.

"For these schools, sometimes it's not about the amount of wins, it's about what you do with the opportunities," he said.

Palm: "Tenuous" is the word that came up twice. He likes the win against Pac-12 contender Colorado, "but it's also lonely," he said. "The margin for error is small."

Conferences he'd watch for if Northern Iowa has to sweat it out: The Altantic-10 (Dayton), the Mountain West (San Diego State, Utah State) and the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga, BYU) need to avoid having any teams from outside the expected pools steal a precious bid.

Lunardi: The most direct of the three, Lunardi said that UNI would be among his last four teams in (and in the play-in round in Dayton) as of Thursday, if the Panthers weren't an automatic qualifier. The nature of the Panthers' other loss, if one were to occur, matters greatly.

"The problem with bubble teams from the Valley is that if they lose in St. Louis, you can keep them in, but there is an entire week of other teams potentially passing them, and they sit there unable to do anything," he said. "It's like a car that's out of gas and can only look in the rear-view mirror.

"That's not a happy place."

The moral? Don't leave a berth to chance. Otherwise, Northern Iowa will be a hot-button topic come Selection Sunday, one way or the other.

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.