Iowa's men's basketball team may not know how good it is by Christmas. But everyone will know plenty about the Hawkeyes within 10 days of the New Year's celebration.
The Hawkeyes face a challenging three-game set to open the 2012-13 Big Ten campaign. Iowa opens at home Dec. 31 against Indiana, which is ranked as the preseason No. 1 by ESPN.com. Iowa then travels to preseason No. 5 Michigan, which tied for the Big Ten title last year, before hosting another tri-champion, preseason No. 9 Michigan State. The teams were a combined 80-27 last year, and both Indiana and Michigan State reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Iowa had mixed results against the teams last year. The Hawkeyes split with Indiana and won 78-66 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa routed Michigan 75-59 in the teams' only meeting, which also was at Carver. The Hawkeyes twice were clubbed by Michigan State, losing by 34 in East Lansing and 17 in the Big Ten Tournament.
The early Big Ten schedule really doesn't get any easier. Iowa travels to Northwestern, which has won five straight over the Hawkeyes and four in a row at Evanston. Iowa then hosts Sweet Sixteen participant Wisconsin on the 20th anniversary of former player Chris Street's death. Iowa swept the Badgers last year but with the natural rivalry and recent tensions between the programs, anything is possible.
The Hawkeyes follow with a road trip to 2012 Final Four participant Ohio State, which has beaten Iowa a record seven straight times, then travel to 2012 NCAA third-round qualifier Purdue, which has won four straight against Iowa at home.
That's a basketball gauntlet run of epic proportions. Here is that portion of the schedule again:
If Iowa can win three of those games, it can get to the NCAA tournament. The remaining schedule is filled with challenges, of course, but nothing like the first seven games.
Iowa will not face Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State -- the league's three champions last year -- until at least the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa plays seven games in the back half against Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State and Nebraska, which combined for a 20-52 conference record last year. Iowa also plays Purdue and Northwestern a second time and those schools were 18-18 last year in Big Ten play and each lost a first-team all-Big Ten player (Purdue's Robbie Hummel, Northwestern's John Shurna).
The downside for Iowa is the Hawkeyes split games against Nebraska, Penn State and Illinois last year and swept Minnesota by a combined six points. Minnesota soared in the postseason and advanced to the NIT title game. The Gophers also return Trevor Mbakwe, who suffered a season-ending injury last year but led the Big Ten in rebounding in 2010-11. Iowa does play Illinois at home, which means the Hawkeyes have a chance (Iowa has lost 22 of its last 23 in Champaign).
Iowa does have return trips to Indiana and Wisconsin. Although the Hawkeyes have won at both locations recently (2011 at Indiana, 2011-12 season at Wisconsin), great teams can't count on winning at either location with regularity.
Here's Iowa's final 11 Big Ten games:
As for non-conference play, other than Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Virginia Tech and DePaul/Wichita State, Iowa's non-conference schedule is a borderline embarrassment. The other nine opponents hail from low-major conferences and combined for a 95-186 record last year. Western Kentucky, Iowa's first opponent in Cancun, Mexico, qualified for the NCAA tournament last year despite a losing record (16-19).
Iowa needs to win at least 12 of its 13 non-conference games. No excuses. A loss to either Iowa State or Northern Iowa is acceptable because both are likely NCAA tournament qualifiers. But Iowa's fan base won't accept losses to both instate rivals at this point in time. Even if Iowa plays Wichita State, which was 27-6 last year, in Cancun, a loss has no value because the Shockers replace five starters (albeit with several talented freshmen and transfers).
Here's Iowa's non-conference schedule:
Way, way, way too early analysis (not quite predictions)
Non-conference (12-1): Iowa loses to either Iowa State or Northern Iowa.
First 7 Big Ten games (3-4): Iowa upsets Indiana, loses to Michigan and Michigan State, beats Northwestern and Wisconsin, loses at Ohio State and Purdue.
Last 11 Big Ten games (8-3): Iowa beats Penn State then loses at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Iowa puts together a five-game Big Ten winning streak against Northwestern (home), Penn State (road), Minnesota (home), Nebraska (road) and Purdue (home). Iowa loses at Indiana, beats Illinois and Nebraska at home.
Postseason: Iowa's overall RPI is dangerously low because of non-conference play but 11 Big Ten regular-season wins help the Hawkeyes earn a No. 9 seed in NCAA tournament.