It was pretty easy to figure out why the Iowa basketball team didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year. The Hawkeyes’ 20-12 overall record at the time the selections were made was good enough and their 9-9 mark in the rugged Big Ten was adequate. But a poor RPI and weak strength of schedule cost them.
At the Hawkeyes' media day last month, head coach Fran McCaffery said he thought that issue had been addressed with this season’s non-conference schedule, but it’s really hard to see that.
The Hawkeyes do play Iowa State, which made the NCAA tournament last year, and they have a Big Ten-ACC Shootout matchup with Notre Dame, which lost to Indiana State on Sunday. They face Xavier in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas and could face powerhouse Kansas if they get to the championship game.
Other than that, it’s slim pickings. The only other non-conference opponent that had a winning record last season is Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which went 16-14. Drake was 15-17, Nebraska-Omaha 11-20, UNC Wilmington 10-20, Penn 9-22, Fairleigh-Dickinson 7-24 and Maryland-Eastern Shore 2-26. Abilene Christian, which is making its debut in Division I this season, was 12-14 as a D-II program.
We’ve already seen how weak some of those teams are. Nebraska-Omaha looked better than advertised and UNC Wilmington was so-so. Abilene Christian should have stayed in Division II and perhaps Maryland-Eastern Shore should join them there.
Nevertheless, the schedule will be tougher because of the rotation of Big Ten opponents. In the Big Ten, teams play seven teams twice and the other four teams just once. Last year, the Hawkeyes only had to play Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Illinois once. Those teams finished second, third, fourth and seventh in the standings. The Spartans currently are ranked No. 1 and the Wolverines and Buckeyes are in the top 15.
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This year’s one-plays: Indiana, Purdue, Nebraska and Penn State.
Just by playing Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois twice each, the schedule has gotten much tougher. And the only meeting with defending regular season champion Indiana is on the road, on Feb. 18.
“There's your opportunities,’’ McCaffery admitted back on media day. “You want to get in, you've got to go beat some people. We're playing a lot of teams in the top 10 twice. We've got a tremendous amount of opportunities to take care of business.’’