Iowa women have 'got to win' big games for shot at NCAA Tournament

Matthew Bain
Iowa's Kathleen Doyle, left, and Notre Dame's Marina Mabry fight for a loose ball during their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — You'll hear the phrases "good wins" and "bad losses" thrown around a lot come late February and early March.

They're buzzwords for bracketologists predicting which teams will make the NCAA Tournament. It's simple logic: You want more good wins, fewer bad losses.

Iowa is 1-for-4 in good-win opportunities so far.

It lost a 66-64 heartbreaker against South Dakota State, a regular in the Big Dance. It played tough against Pac-12 favorite No. 9 UCLA. It handled a James Madison squad seeking its fourth straight tourney berth. And it ran out of gas late against No. 1 Notre Dame on Wednesday.

Batting .250 isn’t good enough for a likely bubble team.

“If you win, it helps you. If you lose, I don’t think it makes a difference,” head coach Lisa Bluder said of playing close against opponents like Notre Dame. “You lost.”

Iowa women takeaways: Great middle, bad bookends, points left off the board

Bluder’s right that those losses don’t help. But they don't hurt, either.

Let’s discuss the three greatest (worst) letters in college basketball: R-P-I.

A team’s RPI, or its Rating Percentage Index, is part of an all-Division I ranking system that’s supposed to be void of human error. Reporters or coaches don’t vote. It’s all done via computer calculation.

Strength of schedule comprises 75 percent of a team's RPI. Then the final 25 percent is based on the team’s winning percentage.

According to RealTime RPI, Iowa’s loss to Notre Dame actually bumped its RPI up one spot from 95 to 94. The Irish are the top team in RPI. SDSU is 33 and UCLA is 20. Iowa’s five wins have come against North Dakota (298), Oral Roberts (213), Hampton (121), James Madison (194) and Massachusetts (193). RPI rates all 349 D-I teams.

The ranking system will get more watertight as teams keep playing. For instance, Ohio State is 72 right now; that'll change soon. But it's huge for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. If you’ve got a top-40 RPI, you’re a solid at-large berth candidate.

Last year, the Hawkeyes were one of the “first four out” of the NCAA Tournament. Purdue, Missouri, Princeton and St. Bonaventure were the “first four in.”

Iowa had an RPI of 58. Missouri was 45, Princeton was 36, St. Bonaventure was 34 and Purdue was 67. Selection clearly isn't all based on RPI, or Iowa wouldn’t have missed its first Big Dance since 2007.

Those "good wins" and "bad losses" factor in, too.

Let's look at Purdue's NCAA Tournament resume from last year. To return to the tourney, Iowa would probably have to be that last Big Ten team in, like Purdue was.

The 2015-16 Boilermakers finished their nonconference slate 9-2. They picked up a meaningful win against No. 22 Louisville and lost a good game to No. 13 Stanford. They also had a bad loss against Boston College, which finished 2-14 in the ACC.

Best-case scenario, the Hawkeyes finish nonconference at 10-3 with solid wins against James Madison and Drake, and no bad losses.

Purdue did fine in Big Ten play. Nothing too special. It beat No. 16 Northwestern, but it didn’t register any more big wins and lost five straight in early February. Including the Big Ten Tournament, Purdue finished the season 20-11 and 10-8 in regular season conference play.

Iowa missed out on a season-defining win in nonconference. Louisville was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year, so that win for Purdue was massive. But the Hawkeyes will have plenty of chances for that type of win in the Big Ten.

They play No. 5 Maryland twice and they travel to Columbus in February to play No. 10 Ohio State.

“You’ve got to win,” Bluder said after losing to Notre Dame. “You’ve got to win some to make it impressive.”

The other option would've been to play an easier nonconference schedule and ride that momentum through a tough conference season. That's what Missouri did last year.

The Tigers had one good win against St. Mary's before SEC play, but they were undefeated and ranked 20th in the country. Then they picked up another good win against No. 22 Florida, and that's about it. Their 21-8 overall record sure looked nice, though.

Iowa didn't actually schedule UCLA or Notre Dame. It entered the Cancun Challenge not knowing its opponents. Same story with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Through random luck, Iowa drew two perennial powerhouses.

Bain covers Hawkeyes basketball for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.