Exactly one year ago, Iowa finished its Big Ten regular season 20-11 overall and 9-9 in league play. That record earned the Hawkeyes the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, where they faced No. 11-seed Northwestern. When they won -- and they did -- they moved on to face the No. 3 seed Michigan State.
Exactly one year later, there seems to have been a glitch in the matrix.
The Hawkeyes' 66-63 loss at Illinois on Saturday, the most disappointing of Iowa's five-losses-in-six-games slide, made the Hawkeyes 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. On Thursday, Iowa, the No. 6 seed, will play Northwestern, the No. 11 seed, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. If Iowa wins, they'll earn a matchup with -- you guessed it! -- No. 3-seed Michigan State.
No statistic could more accurately or hilariously sum up the frustration of Iowa's 2013-14 season than the above. For all of the promise of this season -- for as well as Iowa played for whole swaths of the calendar and for as thrilling and efficient as it often was -- it has, in the end, found itself exactly where it was one year ago. It's not really worth calculating the odds, so don't, but seriously: What are the odds?
The main difference between this season's team and last season's, of course, is that the 2013-14 version is not fighting desperately to earn even an outside shot at an NCAA tournament bid. Even if the Hawkeyes lose to Northwestern on Thursday -- which, given the Wildcats' injuries and nigh-on-historic offensive ineptitude, seems unlikely -- the Hawkeyes will still end up in the NCAA tournament.
Last season, Iowa's insanely bad nonconference schedule (No. 313 in the country) lent itself to an unbiddable (new word!) RPI (No. 78). This season, the Hawkeyes' RPI is in the top 40, and their overall strength of schedule is top 20. Nine of their 11 losses have come against the RPI top 50, seven against the Top 25 and none ranks as a truly bad defeat. There has been plenty of overreaction to Iowa's late-season slide; a reporter even asked coach Fran McCaffery on Saturday if he thought his team was in. (McCaffery told him he didn't know because he wasn't Joe Lunardi.) That's what people do in early March, but come on. Iowa is getting in the tournament.
Still, one need not be an Iowa native to empathize with his home state's particular brand of polite angst. A couple of weeks ago, the Hawkeyes were something like a No. 4 seed, and even then that seemed like a missed opportunity. On a per-possession basis, Iowa rated out as one of the best 10 teams in the country for most of the season. It should have been ranked higher, but its inability to close out wins against top opponents and the RPI's lack of interest in margin of victory, had created a gap between the team's actual performance and its likely seed.
Now the Hawkeyes are hovering down around a No. 8, if not worse, and it's hard to argue with the conclusion. On Feb. 21, Iowa's defense ranked among the best 30 in the country, per kenpom.com adjusted efficiency; now the Hawkeyes rank 105th. They've allowed 1.06 points per trip in conference play, which is a stunning number, given how good Iowa looked on that end of the floor for the first two months of the season. Only Michigan had a wider gap between its offense and its defense, but the Wolverines were so good offensively (1.17 points per possession), they went ahead and won the Big Ten title anyway. Iowa's defensive decline has been far less forgiving.
The question is not whether Iowa will go to the NCAA tournament. That's a done deal. The real questions are how low its seed might be and what sort of artificial ceiling that will set when they do finally limp their way into the tournament next week.
Until then, 20-11, 9-9 Iowa will find itself retracing last season's Big Ten tournament steps. No. 11 seed Northwestern. No. 3 seed Michigan State. It must feel like bad dream.