As expected, Iowa's name was not one of those listed when the field of 64 teams was announced for the 2018 NCAA Tournament earlier this week. Four other Big Ten teams (Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, and Ohio State) made the field, but Iowa was left out. Of course, we were pretty certain that was going to happen after Iowa flamed out in a 0-2 performance at the Big Ten Tournament last week. That left Iowa at 33-20 overall and after the weekend action played out, their RPI fell to 77th to end the regular season. That's far too low to merit at-large consideration. In fact, it looks now like Iowa probably needed to win the Big Ten Tournament (again) in order to make the NCAA Tournament. The three Big Ten teams that earned at-large bids -- Indiana, Purdue, and Ohio state -- had RPIs of 29, 31, and 37, respectively. Michigan was the other B1G team believed to be in contention for an at-large bid; they had an RPI of 58 and didn't seem to come close to making the NCAA Tournament. Iowa probably would have had an RPI in the 50s if they had made it as far as the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game.
This year's team wasn't too different than last year's team, with one notable exception: success in the postseason. A year ago Iowa went 34-19 in the regular season, including 15-9 against Big Ten opponents. This year Iowa went 33-18 in the regular season, including 13-9 against Big Ten opponents, with a pair of games canceled due to bad weather. But last year's team went 5-3 in the postseason, including a 4-1 mark in the Big Ten Tournament that led to the program's first Big Ten Tournament title. This year's team went 0-2 in the postseason, ending their season.
So what are our takeaways from this season?
1) Overachievers or underachievers?
How you feel about Iowa's season may be a matter of perspective and timing. On one hand, Iowa had a lot of holes to fill after losing their top two hitters (Jake Adams and Mason McCoy), one of whom as the Big Ten Player of the Year (Adams). They also lost their top reliever (Josh Martsching) and most of their starting rotation (Nick Gallagher, Ryan Erickson, C.J. Eldred, Drake Robison). Despite those question marks, Iowa manged to win 30+ games for a fifth straight year, made the Big Ten Tournament again (also for the fifth straight year), and seemed to be in good shape to make another appearance in the NCAA Tournament as late in the season as a few weeks ago.
On the other hand, Iowa was also picked to finish between third and fifth in the Big Ten by various outlets; they ended up finishing sixth. Expectations also aren't a fixed thing; they can be fluid, based on the progression of a season. After this team managed a difficult Big Ten schedule well and appeared to have their NCAA Tournament destiny in their hands earlier this month after winning back-to-back series over Michigan and Oklahoma State, hopes were raised and the potential ceiling for this season looked higher than it had in, say, February. Then it all fell apart in Iowa's final nine games, with a series loss to Northwestern and a painful appearance at the Big Ten Tournament.
So did Iowa overachieve or underachieve? Probably a little bit of both at times. It is impressive that they managed to achieve similar results despite losing Adams and McCoy on offense -- although it didn't hurt that they returned almost everyone but those two, so the cupboard wasn't quite bare. The more impressive rebuild/reload was probably on the mound, where Iowa returned only one pitcher who started last year (Cole McDonald, and he struggled a lot), but they managed to assemble a very impressive staff this year with Nick Allgeyer, Jack Dreyer, Brady Schanuel (at times!), and McDonald. On the other hand, the way Iowa finished the season definitely stings, especially when they had the potential for so much more. Heller has generated such consistently good results here that he's also raising the bar for expectations.
2) The offense was a lot like last year's offense...
As a team, Iowa hit .265/.397/.369 this year; a year ago, Iowa hit .284/.449/.377 at the plate. But the actual production wasn't too different: this year Iowa averaged 5.98 runs per game (317 total) and 8.9 hits per game (472 total). In 2017 Iowa averaged 6.16 runs per game (376 total) and 9.7 hits per game (594 total). Extra base hits were down a little -- 193 (3.16 per game) in 2017, 144 (2.72 per game) in 2018 -- but walks drawn were up slightly: 268 (4.39 per game) in 2017 versus 244 (4.6 per game) this year.
One key difference? Iowa didn't really replace Jake Adams and his record-breaking home run exploits. Iowa hit 71 home runs last year, led by Adams; this year they tallied 41 dingers. That 30-home run difference is almost exactly the same as Adams' total last year (29). Iowa's two best home run hitters after Adams last year were Robert Neustrom and Tyler Cropley. Neustrom hit nine home runs in 2017 but only upped that total to 11 this year. Cropley was a much better hitter all around (going from .268/.459/.371 to .342/.578/.449) and more than doubled his doubles (from 8 to 20), but his home run production was the same (nine apiece in 2017 and 2018). Iowa lost Mason McCoy and his five home runs last year, but Kyle Crowl, his main replacement at shortstop, blasted six homers this year. Iowa matched home run production well elsewhere, but there was no player (or combination of playerS) who was able to match Adams' home run prowess -- and his bevy of home runs were decisive in more than a few Iowa games last year.
Iowa's offense also slumped at the worst possible time in 2018; in hindsight, there were some warning signs in the struggles Iowa's bats had against Northwestern and Penn State, two of the Big Ten's worst teams this year, but those were only the precursor to Iowa's dreadful showing at the Big Ten Tournament, where the Iowa offense simply evaporated. In 2017, Iowa's offense scored at least five runs in 11 of their final 15 regular season games (8-3 in those games), as well as in three of five Big Ten Tournament games (3-0 in those games), and two of three NCAA Tournament games (1-1 in those games). They ended the year hitting well and that helped carry them to the NCAA Tournament. This year Iowa's bats evaporated at the most pivotal part of the season, sadly.
3) ...but the pitching was better
The pitching staff was one of Iowa's biggest question marks entering the season, but they got very good results there for the most part this season. Overall Iowa posted a 4.01 team ERA this year, down from 4.39 last year. They held opponents to a .251 overall batting average, an improvement from a .286 overall batting average last year. Six pitchers who threw at least 30 innings this year held batters to a .250 batting average or lower; last year just one pitcher did (Josh Martsching, Iowa's closer). This year Iowa gave up a few more walks (223, or 4.2 per game) than a year ago (227, or 3.7 per game), but they also threw more strikeouts -- 499, or 9.4 per game, versus 470, or 7.7 per game, in 2017. Iowa's pitchers were very good at making hitters swing and miss this year.
Cole McDonald was Iowa's only returning starter of note entering the season and he had struggled mightily in 2017 (2-4, 6.96 ERA, 42.2 IP, 39:22 K:BB ratio, .319 opponent BA). He turned into Iowa's second best pitcher in 2018, though: 3-2, 3.23 ERA, 55.2 IP, 52:17 K:BB ratio, .249 opponent BA. Iowa's best pitcher was Nick Allgeyer, who was a rock for Iowa all season despite being just a year removed from Tommy John surgery. He went 5-4 with a 2.41 ERA, 97.0 IP, 95:28 K:BB ratio, .235 opponent BA. Brady Schanuel, a highly-touted JUCO transfer, was expected to be one of Iowa's top options, but he was very inconsistent, showcasing both some unhittable stuff (which led to 65 strikeouts in 53 innings of work and an opponent BA of .246) and a maddening lack of control (43 walks in those same 53 innings, plus seven wild pitches, and six hit batters).
Two freshmen provided some reason for hope in the short and long term as well. Jack Dreyer came on strong at the end of the season (5-2, 3.69 ERA, 31.2 IP, 42:15 K:BB ratio, .224 opponent BA) and Trenton Wallace was starting to show some good flashes before an injury ended his season (1-0, 3.75 ERA, 24.0 IP, 27:9 K:BB, .269 opponent BA). Zach Daniels was Iowa's top reliever and he was mostly very good, going 6-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 45.2 innings of work, with a 49:23 K:BB ratio and .200 opponent BA, though he did have a few hiccups near the end of the campaign.
4) Scheduling and the RPI monkey
This point deserves a deeper dive and I'll try to do that soon, but in the meantime: Iowa needs to figure out what's holding it back in terms of RPI and try to adjust their schedule accordingly. As noted, Iowa went 33-20 this year and finished 77th in RPI. But the Big Ten teams that did get at-large bids this year had records that weren't too dissimilar. Indiana went 38-17 and finished 29th in RPI, Purdue went 37-19 and finished 31st in RPI, and Ohio State went 36-22 and finished 37th in RPI. Purdue boosted their numbers with a nice run in the Big Ten Tournament (they went 3-1 in Omaha), but neither Indiana (1-2) or Ohio State (2-2) added a lot of wins to their total in Omaha. They all had stronger RPIs entering the Big Ten Tournament than Iowa as well.
Obviously, just winning 3-4 more games would help matters, but Iowa needs to look at who they're scheduling and see if changes need to be made there. Look at who neighboring programs are scheduling and see if there are opportunities to improve things. RPI can be a tricky thing to master and "scheduling for success" can be difficult, but Iowa needs to examine what they're doing and make sure they're not holding themselves back at all, either. The last two seasons Iowa has found themselves needing to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament (definitely last year, probably this year), which isn't ideal. To become a program capable of making regular trips to the NCAA Tournament Iowa is going to need to be able to earn some at-large bids; it's just too hard to try and win the conference tournament all the time. They're very close to that point -- figuring out how to take that next step is the goal now.
5) Be Bold, Wear Gold
Finally, on a (slightly) less serious note, Iowa really needs to wear their gold unis more often. Not only are they an absolutely beautiful look with the black "script Iowa" really popping on the bright gold (yellow) jersey, but they were a heck of a good luck charm for Iowa. They were mainly worn on Sundays -- and Iowa went 10-2* in those games, including winning their last eight in a row. It's a simple equation: look good, play good. Iowa looked great in the gold unis and they also played very well in those games. I think we need to test this theory in 2019 by wearing the gold unis even more. Even if Iowa doesn't win more games, at least they'll look damn good.
* That includes the series finale against Penn State, an 8-4 win, which was technically on Saturday but since it was the third game of the weekend series, it was the traditional "Sunday game."