Leistikow: Why the metrics like Iowa basketball, for now, as NCAA Tournament team

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Through 17 games of the Iowa men’s basketball season, the metrics would say that this is an NCAA Tournament team.

Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes own a 13-4 record and stand No. 19 in the NET rankings, the “NCAA Evaluation Tool” used as guidance by the selection committee for the 68-team NCAA Tournament in March. The NET, for those that missed it, replaced the old “RPI” ahead of the 2020-21 season. It measures offensive/defensive efficiency, strength of schedule and win quality based on location and opponent.

Anyway, Iowa is also No. 19 in the KenPom.com ratings (also used by the committee) and one spot away from being included in the latest Associated Press top 25. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi pegged Iowa as a No. 7 NCAA seed in his Tuesday morning “bracketology” post.

Are the Hawkeyes worthy of such discussion?

More importantly, will they be come March?

As McCaffery unsurprisingly answered Tuesday during a Zoom call with Iowa media, “To be honest with you, it’s just crazy to look at that stuff right now. It’s senseless.”

And while that is totally accurate for the mentality of the Hawkeyes’ 12th-year coach, those of us on the outside don’t have to take a one-game-at-a-time approach. We can have fun examining what's ahead and what’s possible.

So, let’s do that here and evaluate why the metrics like Iowa and what land mines are ahead, starting with Wednesday’s game at Rutgers (7:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network).

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Iowa swiped a 77-75 win at Rutgers last season on Jan. 2, 2021. Here, current Scarlet Knight Ron Harper Jr. defends Iowa point guard Joe Toussaint.

The Hawkeyes have no 'bad losses.'

“Bad losses” are something you’ll hear TV announcers discuss in February and March as a team’s body of work is scrutinized for NCAA Tournament worthiness. So far, Iowa is benefiting from its only four losses coming against teams with top-20 NET rankings through Monday (No. 7 Purdue, No. 12 Illinois, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 20 Iowa State); and three of those games were on the road.

The fastest way to suffer a NET plummet is to lose to a team that ends up being ranked much lower. Iowa has avoided that. Despite being 0-4 in Quad 1 matchups (the toughest, according to the formula), Iowa is 13-0 in Quads 2-4.

Iowa is 4-0 in Quad 2 matchups, and what’s interesting is that all four are close to counting as Quad 1. Road games against top-75 teams are deemed Quad 1, and Iowa’s wins at Minnesota (No. 79) and Virginia (No. 95) aren’t Quad 1 now but could be eventually. Neutral-site wins against top-50 teams also count as Quad 1, and Utah State (No. 64) has slipped. Top-30 home wins are Quad 1, and ironically Iowa’s win against Indiana (No. 34) helped bump the Hoosiers into Quad 2 turf.

Only two of Iowa’s next nine games offer a Quad 1 opportunity, as it stands now: Jan. 27 vs. Purdue and Feb. 3 at Ohio State.

More:Iowa basketball nearly blows 23-point lead but hangs on to beat Minnesota

Going forward, almost no game will be easy.

The evidence mounts by the night in the Big Ten that anybody can beat anybody anywhere. Northwestern recently won at Michigan State. Minnesota won at Michigan. Rutgers knocked off then-No. 1 Purdue on Dec. 9.

“I said it last year, it’s the best league top to bottom and the best it’s been since I’ve been in it,” McCaffery said. “It might be better this year in terms of strength of teams, top to bottom — not knowing on any given day who’s going to beat whom.”

That’s why this week is interesting for the Hawkeyes. After two much-needed wins last week against Indiana and Minnesota to bring the Big Ten record to 3-3, they now face two opponents that outsiders might think should be more routine — at Rutgers (No. 116 in NET) and Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home date vs. Penn State (No. 87).

But the Hawkeyes are hardly a dominant outfit. We saw in Sunday’s 81-71 win at Minnesota that things got hairy at the end — a 23-point lead that whittled to three with a minute to go — before they hung on. Iowa owns KenPom's No. 3-ranked offensive efficiency nationally, but is 160th on defense. While Keegan Murray continues to play like a first-team all-American, this is a team that is still finding its way and looking for that first signature win.

“You’ve got to keep getting better. As the season goes on, teams scout you and try to take things away,” McCaffery said. “You’ve got to keep developing your roster so that you have enough players to absorb foul trouble or injury, short or long term."

Given where its NET stands now, an 11-9 final record in Big Ten play should put Iowa in the "safe" zone for the Big Dance. Going 2-0 this week would be a big help toward that target.

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Wednesday’s opponent, Rutgers, is under-ranked by the NET.

That’s a fact, and a big part of that is that fifth-year point guard Geo Baker missed 4½ games with a hamstring injury. He was injured in what became a ratings-killer home loss to Lafayette (No. 310 in KenPom) and missed subsequent losses to Massachusetts and Illinois.

Rutgers (9-6 overall) is 4-2 in Big Ten play. Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights are coming off an impressive 70-59 win at Maryland. In that game, Hawkeye nemesis Ron Harper Jr. went 5-for-5 from 3-point land in the second half and finished with a career-high 31 points. Sophomore Clifford Omoruyi (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) has emerged as an inside force following the transfer of Myles Johnson to UCLA. And then there’s Baker (11.2 points per game), who has been back on the floor as Rutgers has won five of its past six games.

“They beat the No. 1 team in the country. That (NET) formula, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it,” McCaffery said. “It would seem to me they should be a lot higher than (116th).”

Wednesday is an opportunity for Iowa to record a quality road win, even if the metrics suggest otherwise.

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.