As January closes and February arrives, the road map to 68 NCAA tournament teams clears ever so slightly. We know the Big Ten is the nation’s best basketball league, and the Atlantic-10 and Mountain West are at least on par with their high-major contemporaries.
But, as in ever year, several teams will sit atop the tournament bubble and their supporters will tout their team’s league, wins and RPI strength. In the end these teams’ collapses in mid-January catch up with them on Selection Sunday.
Iowa likely is headed toward uncertain status come early March. The Hawkeyes are 13-7 overall and 2-5 in Big Ten play. Usually that spells doom for NCAA tournament hopes. But Iowa has an advantageous 11-game finish in league play with just three ranked opponents on the docket: No. 23 Minnesota (twice) and No. 3 Indiana. If Iowa reaches nine league wins, it has a chance. Ten means a tournament berth.
The Big Ten, which ranks No. 1 in strength of schedule and RPI, has a chance to send eight teams to the NCAA tournament. Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State are locks, and Minnesota should also advance barring a major collapse. Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois each also have opportunities to qualify. Illinois (15-6, 2-5) face the toughest schedule, but an 8-10 Big Ten finish should qualify the Illini. Wisconsin (14-7, 5-3) plays only four ranked opponents in its final 10 games.
So at this point, I project Iowa in the tournament. But a bad loss or a anything less than a 7-4 regular-season finish likely puts the Hawkeyes in the NIT for the second straight season.
NCAA TOURNAMENT (FINAL FOUR AT ATLANTA)
EAST REGIONAL — WASHINGTON, D.C.
WEST REGIONAL — LOS ANGELES
CENTRAL REGIONAL — INDIANAPOLIS
SOUTH REGIONAL — ARLINGTON, TEXAS