IOWA CITY — Fans have howled and media has scoffed at Iowa’s non-conference basketball schedule, which included the likes of Abilene Christian, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Analytically, the schedule was much better than in several years, despite the derision. For the second consecutive season Iowa finished non-conference play 11-2, but it’s a much better 11-2 than last year. In 2012-13, Iowa’s 13 non-conference opponents’ average Ratings Performance Index (RPI) was 216. RPI measures a team’s wins, the opponents’ wins and the opponents’ opponents wins.
In 2012-13, only Wichita State (37), Iowa State (45) had an RPI better than 80. Iowa played seven opponents with an RPI worse than 240 and five were below 300.
This year, Iowa’s opponents have an average RPI of 152. Three opponents — Iowa State (7), Villanova (11), Drake (47) — have an RPI better than 80. Four Iowa opponents have an RPI worse than 240 and only one is below 300.
The Hawkeyes finished the 2012-13 season with a 9-9 Big Ten record, which normally would have guaranteed an NCAA berth. Instead Iowa was one of the final six teams bounced from consideration in part because of its RPI of 81 (and multiple road collapses). With its current RPI of 34, that rating will have no factor on the postseason.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery did try to upgrade his home schedule with at least one other high-major program but was rebuffed. It’s true Iowa faced multiple tomato cans at home. Maryland-Eastern Shore (2-7), Fairleigh Dickinson (3-10) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2-9) were horrid. Penn (2-7) was worse than expected, while Nebraska-Omaha (9-4) is much improved. UNC-Wilmington (6-7) has rebounded decently since a 43-point shellacking in Iowa City.
Iowa nearly had to play a non-Division I and apply for a waiver until locking up Abilene Christian (5-8) with a late, late fill-in as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis. It cost Iowa $100,000, $15,000 more than the going rate.
McCaffery’s non-conference scheduling philosophy includes a mix of rivalry games, high-major foes and opponents.
“You’re trying to get your team ready, and you want to challenge your team,” McCaffery said. “But you don’t want to challenge them necessarily for 13 wars, because you know you’ve got 18 coming up (in the Big Ten). But you need some wars, you need some battles. Obviously Iowa State and (the Big 4 Classic) are going to be two.
“Whenever you schedule, for us it’s typically the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Iowa State game, either the Drake or Northern Iowa game and whatever tournament we go to. There may be one other (tough game) depending on who’s good in a given year on our schedule. I think that’s a good way to prepare our team.”
Iowa’s non-conference opponents so far have compiled a 80-67 record. That includes unbeatens Villanova (11-0) and Iowa State (9-0). Nebraska-Omaha, Xavier (9-3) and Notre Dame (8-4) all have at least eight wins, while UTEP (7-5) and Drake (7-3) have seven wins. The problem for most fans is only two of those games — Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame — were at home, and they were the only two games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena within 25 points. It’s understandable that season-ticket holders might chirp about paying to see that many non-competitive early-season games.
But it’s also naive to think Iowa is the only school that schedules several home wins in non-conference play. Randomly selecting three other Big Ten teams — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State — shows Iowa has a comparable non-conference schedule. Of the four, Illinois played the best competition with opponents compiling a record of 91-60 (with one game to go). Indiana’s opponents are 80-74, while Ohio State’s opponents are 78-70.
Here’s how the teams rank in five measurements:
RPI — Ohio State (12-0) 14, Illinois (10-2) 21, Iowa (11-2) 34, Indiana (8-3) 93
Strength-of-Schedule — Illinois 66, Iowa 77, Ohio State 105, Indiana 145
Sagarin — Ohio State 4, Iowa 7, Illinois 44, Indiana 55
KenPom — Ohio State 2, Iowa 13, Indiana 48, Illinois 55
Margin-of-victory — Iowa 2 (23.2), Ohio State 5 (19.2), Indiana 15 (15.4), Illinois 50 (10.3)
When you consider the Big Ten’s rugged grind, a 9-9 league record should vault Iowa to the NCAA tournament, unlike last year. Either way, the team is prepared for the conference slate.
“We’ve been tested on the road, on a neutral floor, at home with Notre Dame,” Iowa junior Aaron White said. “I think this year more so than my first two years, this is probably our best schedule going into Big Ten season. We’ve been ready for the Big Ten my first two years so for sure we will be this year.”