The theme to Wednesday morning's introductory edition of the 2013 Bubble Watch was confusion -- how the evaluative gap between the RPI and tempo-free metrics (not to mention the thousands of hours of games we've already watched this season) tends to create a divide between what people know about their team's ability and what they think they know about their team's résumé, and vice versa.
There is also the issue of knowing what the NCAA selection committee is actually looking for.
For example: Earlier this afternoon my buddy Tom, a die-hard Iowa fan, sent me a message on GChat that said simply, "Iowa's remaining schedule is favorable." He followed up with a reference to my appearance on ESPNU, which he occasionally likes to give me a hard time about: "So as an 'expert' … if they get to 20 wins are they in?"
Tom is a really knowledgeable basketball fan, but even he wasn't quite sure what exactly constitutes a good at-large NCAA tournament résumé. And his point illustrates why Iowa has an uphill battle to be the Big Ten's putative seventh NCAA tournament team this season.
Getting into the tournament isn't about any specific threshold of wins; the 20-win season marker is long since outdated. It's about a confluence of other criteria, including not only a team's RPI or strength of schedule, but its record against teams ranked in the RPI top 50, as well as nonconference strength of schedule, frequency of bad losses, "eye test," and so on. There is no guarantee Iowa could merely finish with a "good" record in the Big Ten -- let's say 9-9, which seems fair enough -- if their résumé was lacking in other ways.
Right now, it is . The computer numbers are rough: RPI of 84, SOS of 107, noncon SOS of 322. Iowa's best wins both came at home over Wisconsin and Iowa State, and because so many of their wins came below the RPI top 150 threshold, they're just 4-8 against teams ranked above it.
This is all very detective, of course. Iowa is ranked No. 37 in the country in KenPom's adjusted efficiency rankings, and No. 51 in BPI; they're not anywhere close to the 84th-best team in the country. But because they let close games against Indiana, Michigan State and (most recently) at Minnesota slip through their grasp, and lost at Purdue in overtime, their sheer wins and losses don't reflect the overall quality of the team. It's a classic case of that aforementioned evaluative gap. Iowa really isn't that bad.
That's why tonight's game against Wisconsin is so massive. Look: Beating Wisconsin at Wisconsin is really hard. But it's not impossible, and other than a home date against Minnesota on Feb. 17, it's the best chance Iowa has of scoring an impressive top-50 win. The remaining schedule looks like this:
Feb. 9 vs. Northwestern
Feb. 14 at Penn State
Feb. 17 vs. Minnesota
Feb. 21 at Nebraska
Feb. 27 vs. Purdue
Mar. 2 at Indiana
Mar. 5 vs. Illinois
Mar. 9 vs. Nebraska
If all you're interested in is compiling wins, then Tommy's right: The schedule is favorable. But if you dig into the nitty gritty of what those games mean for Iowa's NCAA tournament chances, what you instead get are a lot of RPI-killing land mines, and few real marquee opportunities.
Unless Iowa wants to put its NCAA tournament hopes on the line at Indiana in early March, or wait for that loaded Big Ten tournament to make a run, toppling the Badgers in Madison tonight would be an awfully good place to start.