I'm picking Iowa to go to the NCAA men's basketball tournament

The fearless prediction here is 11-7 for Iowa in the robust Big Ten

Fran McCaffery and his Iowa basketball team. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
Fran McCaffery and his Iowa basketball team. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

We've seen it a hundred times, more or less. The Big Ten season is a whole different deal than the non-conference when it comes to men's basketball.

Just how good 11-2 Iowa really is will be evident in a hurry, starting Dec. 31 when the Hawkeyes host Indiana. Iowa then plays at Michigan, and comes home to meet Michigan State. There won't be a tougher three-game stretch on the Hawkeyes' entire schedule, unless they go deep into the NCAA tournament.

The Big Ten schedule will expose whatever weaknesses you have, and its puts you in situations you've rarely if ever faced in the season to date. Simply put, the opposition is better and the road venues are meaner. A lot better, a lot meaner.

So, whatever you think about the Hawkeyes now is likely to be changed within two weeks. Perhaps "modified" is a more fitting term.

All that said, I think Iowa is headed to the NCAAs for the first time since 2006.

The thinking I hear a lot is if the Hawkeyes go 9-9 in the Big Ten to take a 20-11 overall mark into the Big Ten tourney, they'll be in the NCAAs. And if they are 8-10, 19-12, it's iffy.

Maybe. I think they might get in at 8-10 in the conference given the league is expected to hold up as the nation's best. Which it almost surely will be.

Right now, Michigan is fourth in the Sagarin Ratings, Indiana fifth, Minnesota eighth, Ohio State 15th, Illinois 24th, Michigan State 26th and Iowa 37th. Of Iowa's nonconference foes, Wichita State is 19th and Iowa State 30th.

Last year, the at-large teams in the NCAAs with the worst overall records prior to the tourney were Colorado State at 20-11, Connecticut, South Florida and Texas at 20-13, and West Virginia at 19-13. Three of those five were in the Big East, last year's top conference. USF was 12-6 in the Big East, West Virginia 9-9, UConn 8-10. Texas was 9-9 in the Big 12. Colorado State was 8-6 in the Mountain West.

While Iowa's Big Ten schedule is no picnic, it isn't nearly as difficult as it could have been. The Hawkeyes play Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State just once, everyone else twice. Iowa doesn't play at Michigan State or Illinois. It has lost its last 17 games at Michigan State and its last 11 at Illinois.

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes get two games against Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue. If you took a poll of the league's teams today, those would be the bottom four. Northwestern suffered severe slippage with the recent loss of senior forward Drew Crawford to a torn labrum, and Penn State's team was gutted last month when all-league guard Tim Frazier ruptured an Achilles tendon.

That doesn't mean games at any or all of those places will be easy, but this season's Iowa team ought to be better-positioned to start picking off some of these road games.

Everything else, of course, will be scraps. But it's going to be difficult for a Minnesota or Wisconsin or Illinois to leave Carver-Hawkeye victorious. That may apply to anyone else on the home schedule, including Indiana.

All this said, I'm picking Iowa to go 11-7 to take a 22-9 record to Chicago for the Big Ten tourney. The eyeball test so far tells me this is a good Hawkeyes squad. Not perfect, not complete. But good, with plenty of room for growth in these upcoming 18 games.

There will be bumps. I think Iowa is better than Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern, for instance, but won't believe in a Hawkeyes win at either place until I see it. But I think this team wins at least three and maybe four or five road games, and will be a handful almost every time out in Carver-Hawkeye.

People may call on me to eat those words after Iowa has opened with Indiana and Michigan. But it's a long conference season, and class will tell. 

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