EVANSTON, Ill. — They’re all big at this point for Iowa. But Thursday night’s game is really big.
That’s something rarely said for Iowa basketball in recent years, especially in mid-February. But Iowa has a puncher’s chance of earning a postseason berth, and Thursday’s bash at Northwestern could mean everything if the Hawkeyes still have NCAA Tournament hopes.
Iowa (13-11, 5-6 Big Ten) has won its last two games. A win at Northwestern (14-8, 4-6) would give the Hawkeyes three straight Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007. That’s also the last year Iowa posted a winning league record.
While it’s a stretch to label any game “must-win” in mid-February, this one looms large for Iowa. Northwestern, which has beaten Iowa six of seven at Welsh-Ryan Arena, ranks ninth nationally in strength-of-schedule and 36th in RPI — a measurement based on wins, losses and strength-of-schedule that often determines NCAA Tournament invitations.
Iowa, on the other hand, posts the league’s lowest strength-of-schedule ranking at 73, and second-lowest RPI at 128. A win moves the Hawkeyes up the RPI charts and the fringe of NCAA discussion. A loss … well, you know.
It’s different for Northwestern.
“I think you have an idea as far as RPI, because especially with the Big Ten you’re playing against good teams, so it won’t change that much because even losses — you lose to Ohio State — that’s not going to kill you RPI-wise,” Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody said. “At the end of the day, you still have to have the wins; RPI doesn’t mean that much. I think if you go .500 in conference this year you have a good chance.”
That’s likely not the case for Iowa. Of 11 different major-conference bubble teams that qualified for the NCAA last year, the weakest RPI was 67 and the lowest strength-of-schedule was 87. The average wins were 19.8 and losses were 12.5. Six major-conference teams that finished .500 or better in league play failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth and all had an RPI ranked 58 or weaker.
Iowa has some impressive wins this year, beating Michigan (RPI 15), Wisconsin (31) and Minnesota twice (49). But Iowa also has three losses considered “bad” by RealTimeRPI.com — Campbell (164), Clemson (183) and Nebraska (110) — and those are keeping Iowa from approaching the NCAA Tournament bubble talk right now.
“I think it shows you exactly what we’re capable of,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think in some ways it defines the frustration that we have at times, because there’s times when we haven’t played up to our capabilities.
“The challenge for us is becoming more consistent with what we’re doing. We’ve proven we can play with anybody. We’ve proven that we can play well for long periods of time.”
Iowa has seven league games — plus the Big Ten Tournament — left this season. It might take a 6-1 stretch or a deep Big Ten Tournament run to vault the Hawkeyes into NCAA consideration. As for the NIT, last year’s 11 major-conference at-large squads averaged a 19-12 record, but the average RPI (74) and strength-of-schedule (62) were considerably weaker than their NCAA counterparts.
Maybe it’s too early to talk about RPI, strength-of-schedule and the NCAA Tournament. But if Iowa doesn’t win Thursday, it might be too late.