NEW YORK — The excitement — or lack thereof — surrounding Iowa’s non-conference schedule this year is reflected in the fact that it starts with three teams ranked 327th or below on KenPom.com, and features Southern, Southern Utah and Northern Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
None exactly jump out as marquee matchups.
If there’s any consolation for Hawkeye fans, it’s that starting next year, the option for low-major matchups will be trimmed pretty significantly.
With the Big Ten’s announcement Thursday before basketball media day at Madison Square Garden that the league was moving to a 20-game schedule starting next season, Iowa essentially only has four games to fill in its schedule going forward.
There’s the yearly non-conference travel tournament. There’s the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. There’s the Gavitt Games. There’s the Iowa State game, which Coach Fran McCaffery said Monday wasn’t going to be affected by the change. Then there’s the Big Four Classic. In terms of quality games, Iowa especially won’t be wanting as the future unfolds.
“You start playing marquee games in November and December, it changes everything,” McCaffery said Thursday at Big Ten media day in New York. “So by playing two more league games, there’s so many positives there. I think, TV, once — great TV matchups, the fans want it. But ultimately, I think it helps your strength of schedule, your RPI, and I think it plays well with the committee.
“I think that’s true of the entire conference, not just for us. I think as a conference, we had to make that jump.”
Iowa, of course, was the first team out of last season’s NCAA Tournament, finishing 19-15 overall, ending its season against TCU in the NIT.
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So it makes sense why McCaffery wants more quality games and why he’d be so supportive of the change. The question then shifts to, if he’s supportive of that and wants the Hawkeyes’ resume to be bona fide in the eyes of the committee, why does the non-conference schedule look the way it does?
It’s not as easy as it seems, McCaffery said. It’s not quite the same as football, where there’s a specifically defined number of home games mandated by the administration. Money could be a factor, but McCaffery pointed to what he considered an obvious reason: logistics.
“What happens a lot of times is you take your league schedule, here’s where you play Iowa State, this is when we play our tournament and then we have the (Big Four Classic) and your two challenge games — where are your dates?” McCaffery said. “You’ve got to complete the puzzle. Who can play you on a date that makes sense, which is probably more critical. We probably only have three or four home game opportunities. Let’s plug them in where it makes sense. You’ve got finals week; you can’t play then. A lot of times that’s what it comes down to.”
McCaffery highlighted games like Colorado, to be held in Sioux Falls, S.D., as an example of things they’ll look at doing going forward to take advantage of opportunities at unique (and quality) games in non-conference.
Maybe that’s not the sexiest answer in the world, but reality often isn’t, either.
McCaffery’s players understand that, too. Nicholas Baer, Dom Uhl, Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook made the trip to New York and each said they liked the idea of going to a 20-game schedule.
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They all, in their own way, highlighted the same facts about RPI and strength of schedule in terms of the NCAA Tournament, and Baer pointed out the accepted thought process of, “when you play against better competition, it’s going to make you a better team.”
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It can be hard, when a game isn’t against a better team, to psych yourself up. That’s especially true for the fan base, and it’s evident in the atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when comparing a SWAC opponent to Michigan State. It’s also true for the players. Bohannon said they try to treat each opponent the same, but human nature can make that hard.
Going to the new schedule format removes two of those chances.
“Going to 20 games will help us RPI-wise, but at the same time we can’t care too much about that,” Bohannon said. “We try to take that single-game mentality for every game on the entire schedule, but I think (it’s) right that it’s hard for some games because they’re not Power 5 and whatnot. It’s easy to get involved in that and think the game doesn’t matter as much. But as you saw last year, we slipped up in some of those games and it cost us an NCAA bid.”
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