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How high can Iowa climb in NCAA Tournament seeding? Let's take a look.

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — Luka Garza knows what’s at stake for his Iowa men’s basketball team in its final six regular-season games.

The all-American center returned to play his senior season with an eye on a championship, and he is always paying attention to what that path may look like.

The Hawkeyes’ next game is at 6 p.m. Thursday at Wisconsin (ESPN). That is the immediate focus for a team looking for a third consecutive victory.

Profile:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

But the bigger picture shows Iowa sitting in fourth place in the Big Ten Conference standings, with the Badgers a half-game back. The Hawkeyes desperately want to stay in that top four, which would give them a double-bye in the league tournament next month, something they’ve never been able to enjoy.

Looking farther ahead, Iowa was considered to be a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament when initial bracket projections were released last weekend. That’s not ideal, and Garza knows it. The good news for Iowa is there are four games looming that provide opportunities to rise to at least a 3 seed. Winning is always important, but no more so than now, because March has essentially arrived early for Iowa (15-6, 9-5 Big Ten).

Iowa center Luka Garza fulfilled a childhood dream when he played in his first NCAA Tournament in 2019. But that run ended with a second-round loss to Grant Williams (right) and Tennessee. Now a senior, Garza knows how important seeding will be for the Hawkeyes in order to get the best path to a possible Final Four. That is why games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan to finish the season are so vital for No. 14 Iowa.

“You want to have the higher seed in terms of who you play in the first round and who you play in the second round,” said Garza, pointing to his lone previous experience with March Madness.

Iowa slid to a 10 seed in 2019, taking down Cincinnati in the first round only to run into second-seeded Tennessee two days later, suffering an overtime loss.

From 2019:Hawkeyes earn 10 seed, game against Cincinnati, in NCAA Tournament draw

“You want to put yourselves in a position where you can play really good teams, but wait to play the best teams until the Sweet 16 or Elite 8. We obviously understand how important that is,” Garza continued. “It’s definitely exciting to be considered a 4 seed right now. We think there’s a lot of room for us to grow and catch other teams.”

Translated: It’s not that thrilling to be a 4 seed because it sets up a potential Sweet 16 matchup with a top seed like Gonzaga or Baylor. Also, three 13 seeds pulled off first-round upsets over 4 seeds in the previous two NCAA tournaments; it’s a potentially vulnerable spot for a favorite. The last 3 seed to lose an opening-round game was West Virginia in 2016.

For Iowa, the goals are simple and attainable: Finish in the top four of the league to position yourself for a run at the Big Ten tournament title, and climb at least to a 3 seed when the NCAA brackets are revealed in order to clear a more manageable path to the team’s first Final Four in 41 years.

Iowa is still looking for a “signature” win this winter. With two games against Wisconsin (15-7, 9-6), plus trips to Ohio State and Michigan, there are chances to get one. Three or four would be better yet for the Hawkeyes.

Here’s a closer look at what it would take for Iowa to climb, or fall, in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

Can the Hawkeyes still earn a 1 seed in March?

That’s highly unlikely, according to USA Today bracketologist Shelby Mast. He, too, has the Hawkeyes as a 4 seed in his latest projections (at bracketwag.com). He forecasts an opening-round game against Toledo, a potential second-round matchup with Missouri and then a dreaded rematch with No. 1 Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs beat the Hawkeyes in December in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was the first of three losses for Iowa against the teams seeded higher than them in the NCAA’s original bracket (Illinois and Ohio State are the others). Iowa’s best win, meanwhile, remains an early-January home takedown of Purdue, which ranks 27th in the latest NET rankings the NCAA relies upon. That’s not eye-opening.

Mast believes Iowa would have to win out in order to get a top seed. That means sweeping Wisconsin (19 in the NET), toppling Ohio State (6) and Michigan (3), then earning three wins in the Big Ten Tournament and a league title.

“They’d pretty much have to be flawless the rest of the way because of where they started out. Not that they’re not good enough, but the committee put them on the 4 line, and that’s a lot of teams to jump over to get back up to the 1 line,” Mast said. “So, realistically, it’s probably not doable.”

How about a 2 seed?

This is also a tall order for Iowa, Mast believes. He thinks if the Hawkeyes split with Wisconsin, they would still need to win the Big Ten Tournament in order to rise that far.

What’s working against Iowa is getting swept by Indiana, a decent team that Mast currently has as one of his last four into the NCAA field. But he said those losses, plus one at Minnesota, have likely cost the Hawkeyes an entire seed line.

So a 3 seed is Iowa’s ceiling?

That’s how Mast sees it. And he acknowledges how significant that is. Not only would it reduce (but, as any Iowa fan knows, not eliminate) the potential for a first-round upset. But it would potentially give Iowa one more game before it would have to face a Baylor or Gonzaga. That means one more chance for those teams to get upset by a quality team before the Elite 8.

Mast projected Iowa as a 2 seed before the season started. He said he’s a fan of Garza and believes the Hawkeyes are among the best teams in the nation. They’ve suffered a couple of losses he wouldn’t have expected, but he hasn’t changed his overall opinion.

“When I’ve seen them play, they’ve been good. They’re fun to watch,” Mast said.

Working in Iowa’s favor is that the selection committee is showing a great deal of respect for the Big Ten, which is the strongest conference in the country. Michigan and Ohio State were each 1 seeds in the initial bracket. If the Hawkeyes can beat either one of them, their stock would rise dramatically.

Could Iowa fall to a 6 seed?

This, too, is not a scenario Mast envisions. There is only one remaining game for Iowa that would be considered a harmful loss. That is at home vs. Nebraska, which is 142 in the NET. Even Penn State, which brings a losing record into Carver-Hawkeye Arena for a 4 p.m. Sunday game, sits at 38.

Mast believes Iowa would have to lose both of those and get bounced in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament in order to fall two whole seed lines. He thinks the Hawkeyes will end up with a 3, 4 or 5 seed at worst. There’s no essential difference between a 4 and a 5, since those teams would meet in the second round as long as they avoid upsets.

“The committee looks at the entire body of work, and they’ve done enough to be up there,” Mast said of the Hawkeyes warranting a top-4 seed, at a minimum.

Iowa sits at 7 in the latest NET rankings. The rest of the season comes down to simple math: Beat the teams higher than that (Michigan, Ohio State and perhaps Illinois in the conference tournament) and the Hawkeyes can move up to the coveted 3 seed; lose to the teams below them (Nebraska, Penn State, twice to Wisconsin) and risk a fall.

There’s no mystery. Garza is well aware.

“We know we’re grinding and working to put ourselves in the best position possible,” he said.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.