Iowa senior center Ryan Kriener explains what the team will be doing in the days leading in to Thursday's Big Ten Tournament opener. Listen: Hawk Central
Come conference championship week, the breathless attention paid to the results of each game are usually saved for a select handful of teams that fall into groups.
One the one hand, you have the scant team or two who could move in or out of the top one or two seed lines and dictate the difficulty of their road to a Final Four, both in terms of possible opponents and the geographical distances they and their fans would travel (and no, it's not worth me diving down into the transportation what-ifs of the coronavirus rabbit hole).
On the other, you have the (usually) seven to 10 teams who are hovering around the precarious bubble, where a couple of wins could be the results to push them safely into the 68-team field and a bad loss could be the pointy pin that pops postseason plans.
But for many teams in the middle, league tournaments are little more than a boot camp in neutral-site, elimination basketball that somewhat prepares them for the controlled chaos of March Madness.
In most years, teams such as this season's 25th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (20-11, 11-9 Big Ten Conference) are playing out this short string before finding out their destination. As the far as the numbers are concerned, Fran McCaffery's bunch falls squarely into this category. But make no mistake: The nuances of this particularly logjammed Big Ten season carry their own seeding rules.
Moreover, in a tournament year perceived to be wide-open, it's all the more important to avoid a top-two seed and give oneself the best chance of reaching the second weekend, where all proverbial bets are off.
That's partly been the issue for Iowa teams of recent past, who have been slotted as No. 7 or 10 seeds each of the past three times they've qualified (2015, 2016, 2019) and have bumped their heads against the No. 2 seed ceiling.
The good news is that for much of this season, the Hawkeyes have fluttered in the No. 5 or No. 6 seed range in many projections. The reality of finishing the regular season losing three out of four is that such a seed line is a little more tenuous than it seems upon first blush. And these next few days could be more along the lines of protecting their territory than anything else.
So, what's really at stake for Iowa this week in Indianapolis? This is but one educated guess, yet let's dive in.
What the experts are saying
If you've been reading my musings in this space the past couple of winters, you'll know that I normally finish my topical analyses with this summary of both well-known and accurate bracketologists' thoughts on Iowa. Given what we're about to break down, though, it only makes sense to start here.
This time of year, the Bracket Matrix is a wonderful tool to see the forest for the trees. It's an average of all the recognized bracket prognosticators that places teams on a one-size-fits-all seed line. As of Wednesday morning, Iowa was at 6.28 and slotted as the second-highest No. 6 seed. Some other notable computer ratings and projections are below:
- NCAA NET: No. 34
- Ken Pomeroy: No. 23
- Jeff Sagarin: No. 30
- ESPN BPI: No. 27
- ESPN projection: Midwest Region, No. 6 seed, vs. UCLA in Greensboro, North Carolina
- CBS Sports projection: West Region, No. 7 seed, vs. Xavier in Sacramento, California
- USA TODAY Sports projection: East Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Wichita State in Greensboro
- Bracketville projection (the nation's top-rated metric, according to the Bracket Matrix): Midwest Region, No. 6 seed, vs. UCLA in Greensboro
It's no coincidence, in my view, that the four bracket projections I use each time I analyze the lay of the land, Iowa's seeding average comes out to 6.25. These projections are on par with the thinking of the rest of the country.
That the average has crept well into the No. 6 range, though, meaning that there is room to move down. That's important.
Also of note: There are six other Big Ten teams scrunched together in the middle-road seeding conversation. Their spots in the matrix ...
- Wisconsin (21-10), 4.52, No. 4 seed
- Ohio State (21-10), 4.83, No. 5 seed
- Michigan (19-12), 6.34, No. 6 seed
- Penn State (21-10), 6.37, No. 6 seed
- Illinois (21-10), 7.03, No. 7 seed
- Rutgers (20-11), 9.26, No. 9 seed
Iowa would be third among that group, but precariously so.
Lastly, it's worth pointing out that in normal circumstances, the committee will say that it doesn't look at conferences or names atop resumes when judging teams, only the resumes themselves. This year, though, take that with a mountain of salt, because this many Big Ten teams bunched this closely together necessitates that you're comparing conference performance when determining this hierarchy while also having to follow bracket rules.
So the jockeying being done in Indianapolis this week will matter.
Implications for each round
Now that we've set up the playing field, let's run through the Hawkeyes' potential progression through the tournament. Opponents' records will be shown at what they would be at the time of the matchup — in other words, counting the extra wins needed to advance that far in the bracket.
Thursday: Second round
Opponent: No. 12 Minnesota (15-16) or No. 13 Northwestern (9-22)
Win: This first round is simple. There's nothing to gain, only ground to lose. They'll stay on the No. 6 line.
Lose: Ground will indeed be ceded, in my view, with a bad loss to make it four out of five before the tournament. That means the dreaded No. 7 line that Iowa knows all too well. A plummet to a No. 8 seed is conceivable if the wrong dominoes fall, but highly unlikely.
Opponent: No. 4 Illinois (21-10)
Win: One would think that avenging last Sunday's loss to the Illini would be a feather in Iowa's cap. And from a mental standpoint, that's true. Objectively, though, this win doesn't really do much in the big bracket picture, simply because Iowa is perceived to be a higher seed among the group of prognosticators and also in the NCAA's NET ranking (Illinois is 39th). When I used the phrase "protecting their territory" earlier, this is the game I had in mind. This victory cements Iowa into no worse than the No. 6 line.
Lose: This is a tough call. A second loss to Illinois in the span of six days would stand to reason that Brad Underwood's bunch could jump Iowa in the pecking order. But does that mean Iowa drops a seed line, as well? Honestly, that depends on Iowa's closest counterparts have done (think Michigan and Penn State in-conference, and perhaps West Virginia of the Big 12 and Virginia of the ACC elsewhere) this week. My gut would say Iowa does drop to a No. 7. Barely. It's a razor's edge, however.
Opponent: No. 1 Wisconsin (22-10), No. 8 Rutgers (22-11) or No. 9 Michigan (21-12)
Win: Iowa fans should want Wisconsin to be the opponent here. That matchup maximizes the potential gain and minimizes the potential risk. Beat the Badgers, and that's three wins in three days in the last meaningful chance to impress the selection committee. That's worth a seed-line bump up to a No. 5, full stop. Beat Rutgers, and it's still somewhat of a so-what win, although the volume of victories may do enough to secure a bump up, anyway. Beat Michigan, and the bump up comes with making sure Michigan isn't leap-frogging you with its own deep run.
Lose: No matter the opponent, a loss here likely keeps Iowa in its current footing as a No. 6. If the loss is to Michigan, maybe you worry about the Wolverines jumping ahead in line, but probably not to the point where that's knocking Iowa down a seeding peg.
Opponent: One of seven teams from the bottom half of the bracket
Win: This is the level where you can resume your normal "conference tournaments don't matter that severely" protocol. Although Iowa winning four games in four days, no matter the opponent, would be impressive, it's a bit much to presume that the committee will have two separate permutations of the bracket at the ready for the last game of the day before the brackets are revealed. Plus, one must remember that the tournament is not just about your team. As of this writing, there will be four other conference championship games played on Sunday, including the SEC and American finals. The committee just doesn't have eight-fold brackets sitting around ready to release at a moment's notice. If it's Michigan State, maybe, maybe there's a route to Iowa as a No. 4 seed. But the most likely scenario is Iowa locks itself into a No. 5 after Saturday.
Lose: See above. It's honestly the same discussion, from where I sit.
So what'll it be?
There's one statement that sticks with me from what ESPN's Joe Lunardi told me about Iowa a couple of weeks ago. The words were simple: "By and large, I'd be betting on a 6."
And even though we've dissected the permutations for this week, it's tough not to think the same way.
By and large, bet on a No. 6 seed. ... Just don't lose on Thursday.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @DannyLawhon on Twitter.