After examining spreadsheets all afternoon, I figure about 21 bubble teams right now have a chance at 10 at-large spots for the NCAA tournament.
Of course much of that can change if a team like Northern Iowa upsets Wichita State and Creighton to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title. Either Creighton or Wichita State would vault above the rest to earn an at-large spot and cut somebody out. Likewise, if one of the 21 teams win their conference tournament, they earn an automatic bid and the conference champion leapfrogs everyone for an at-large spot.
As for the teams in no order, here they are: Virginia, Cincinnati, LaSalle, Colorado, Oklahoma, Boise State, Iowa State, Temple, Villanova, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Southern Miss, Maryland, Baylor, Arizona State, Arkansas, Iowa, UMass and BYU. (I’ve elevated Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Butler and a few others off the bubble and into the tournament.)
It’s still a little early to make definite projections about any of the bubble teams. Virginia and Maryland meet on Sunday. La Salle plays St. Louis. Baylor plays Kansas. Kentucky and Tennessee play probable NCAA teams Florida and Missouri. Anything can happen in those games and, of course, conference tournament results will have a major bearing on the NCAA tournament landscape.
Today, let’s look at the differences between Iowa (19-11, 8-9 Big Ten) and Iowa State (19-10, 9-7 Big 12). The teams played against one another in early December with Iowa winning 80-71 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They have the same number of wins and they have the same record against top 100 teams (5-8). They also are 6-6 in their last 12 games.
Among the 21 bubble teams, Iowa State ranks ninth in RPI (53rd overal) while Iowa (76th overall) is 19th. The Big Ten boasts the top strength of schedule and ranks second behind the Mountain West in RPI. The Big 12 is fourth in strength of schedule and fifth in RPI.
Non-conference strength of schedule is the main reason why Iowa State’s RPI is better than Iowa. The Cyclones played five teams with at least 20 wins in non-conference play, while Iowa faced only two. Some of it is scheduling luck. Iowa State opened with Southern, which is 21-9 and also faced Florida Gulf Course (22-10). Southern was 17-14 last year and Florida Gulf Coast was 15-17. ISU lost to Cincinnati and UNLV and beat BYU among its other 20-win non-conference opponents. The only other opponent ISU faced with a winning record was Iowa.
Iowa is 1-1 against its 20-win non-conference opponents. The Hawkeyes beat Gardner-Webb (20-11) and lost to Wichita State (24-7). Along with Iowa State, Iowa played two other teams with winning records — Western Kentucky (16-15) and Northern Iowa (18-13). Iowa lost to enigmatic Virginia Tech (13-17), which beat both Iowa and Oklahoma State by double digits and feature the nation’s leading scorer in Erick Green.
Both Iowa and Iowa State played several bottom feeders, but Iowa’s schedule was worse. The Hawkeyes faced three of the MEAC’s four worst teams — Coppin State (7-23), Howard (7-23) and South Carolina State (5-23). Only Howard was unavoidable as part of the Cancun Challenge. Iowa also scheduled Texas A&M Corpus Christi (6-21) and South Dakota (10-19).
Iowa State played only one team with single-digit wins — UMKC (8-23). But the Cyclones also played Alabama A&M (10-19) and Nebraska-Omaha (11-20).
Iowa State faces NCAA tournament-bound Oklahoma State (22-6, 12-4 Big 12) Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum before finishing at West Virginia (13-16, 6-10) on Saturday. The Cyclones are locked into the 4-5 game against Oklahoma to open Big 12 Tournament play next week.
Iowa hosts Nebraska (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) on Saturday. The Hawkeyes can appear anywhere from the sixth through the ninth seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
If Iowa State can beat either Oklahoma State or Oklahoma along with West Virginia, it should get in. Iowa needs probably three wins (Nebraska, two Big Ten Tournament wins) to get deep into the conversation. Even that scenario is no guarantee.