Fran McCaffery, Sherman Dillard

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts in front of assistant coach Sherman Dillard, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Nebraska, Saturday, March 9, 2013, in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa won 74-60. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Charlie Neibergall

IOWA CITY — If Iowa is not making plans for the NCAA Tournament one week from today, a less than challenge-filled nonconference schedule might be to blame.

The Hawkeyes pack their bags for the Big Ten Tournament with a 20-11 record in addition to a

9-9 conference record and sole possession of sixth place in a league rated as the strongest in the country.

Coach Fran McCaffery believes his team has done enough to merit serious consideration for the Hawkeyes’ first NCAA berth since 2006, but there is one glaring wart on the resume of a team with an RPI of 71.

As of Sunday, Iowa’s strength of schedule ranked 98th among 347 Division-I programs and was a distant 12th among its Big Ten peers.

In part because of the overall strength of the conference, seven league teams rank in the top 16 nationally in schedule strength. Northwestern, the team Iowa plays in Thursday’s 8 p.m. Big Ten tourney opener at Chicago’s United Center, ranks 11th in the league, but the Wildcats have a schedule of strength that ranks 64th.

Five of Iowa’s 11 nonconference victories are over teams that currently rank below 300 in the RPI and eight more — four out of conference and four in — are over opponents with RPIs of 160 or below.

McCaffery makes no apologies for an early-season schedule that was designed to build confidence within a young team.

“We did exactly what we wanted to do,” McCaffery said. “We wanted to win games. We knew we had a tough road in Cancun. We knew we had the Iowa State/Northern Iowa week. A lot of people play rivalry games, they don’t usually play them back to back.”

McCaffery anticipated a few growing pains along the way, which he said Iowa encountered in wins over Gardner-Webb and Central Michigan.

“It’s great to say you’re going to play them all, but how much traveling are you doing? Are you getting your young guys ready? No. 1 component in RPI is wins, so we wanted to win,” McCaffery said.

Among the five Iowa opponents with RPI numbers below 300, only Texas-Pan American has won more than eight games this season.

Even the Virginia Tech team Iowa lost to 95-79 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge has stumbled in the regular season and currently has an RPI of 168.

McCaffery, who put together nonconference schedules which helped position his last three Siena teams for NCAA play, understands the uncertainty that can accompany scheduling.

“Now, you go back and say if we would have just played teams in the 150s instead of the 250s, would that really have made a difference? Maybe, but if you stumble against a 150, then you say, ‘Why did we do that?’ We’ve got games against Ohio State, Michigan State coming up,” McCaffery said.

McCaffery said the strength of the Big Ten provided the Hawkeyes with opportunities to improve their RPI number, one of the components the NCAA selection committee studies as it puts together the 68-team tourney field.

“We had opportunities to ratchet up our RPI, but we missed some opportunities to do that, too,” McCaffery said. “We beat some good teams, we also lost to some of those teams in close games.”

With more experience returning next season, McCaffery anticipates more challenges for a more veteran team before it begins Big Ten play.

“But a lot of times when you get better, people don’t want to play you,” he said. “That can be problematic. … I would say that we will spend more time thinking things through.”

By the numbers

As of Sunday, Iowa had an RPI rank of 71. Here are the current rankings of Iowa’s 2012-13 basketball opponents:

Michigan State 5, Michigan 8, Indiana 10, Ohio State 14, Minnesota 24, Wichita State 34, Illinois 40, Wisconsin 42, Iowa State 46, Northern Iowa 86, Nebraska 101, Purdue 115, Northwestern 165, Virginia Tech 168, Western Kentucky 174, Penn State 180, Gardner-Webb 197, South Dakota 234, Central Michigan 258, Coppin State 303, Texas-Pan American 304, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 321, Howard 334, South Carolina State 343