B1G Reset: It's a Three-Tier League

By RossWB on January 15, 2019 at 1:01 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It might not quite feel like it since it's mid-January, but we're actually at the one-third point of the Big Ten season. (Those two early December games really kind of throw everything off.) Most teams have played six league games, with one (Maryland) even playing seven. And at this point it seems like teams have settled into three groups: the title contenders, the messy middle class, and the dregs. Let's break down Iowa's schedule by looking at it through that prism. 

In order for Iowa to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, let's assume that if they go 10-10 in league play, they'll be in good shape. That should put them near the upper half of the league and 21-10 overall, in a year where the Big Ten's reputation should be pretty strong (it's the top-rated conference in the nation right now, per KenPom). Right now Iowa is 3-3 in league play, riding a three-game winning streak that's completely reset things for the Hawkeyes after an absolutely miserable start to Big Ten competition. 

NOTE: The percentage listed next to every upcoming game is the likelihood of winning that KenPom assigns Iowa (right now) for that game. 

TIER I: The Title Contenders (4 games)

Michigan 17-0 6-0 2/1 (37%) n/a
Michigan State 15-2 6-0 1/24 (29%) L, 90-68
Maryland 15-3 6-1 2/19 (56%) n/a

There's a little bit of a good news/bad news thing with Iowa's schedule against the teams that look like the contenders in the league this year. The good news is they only have to play four games against those teams and they've already played the toughest game of the bunch (@MSU). (We don't need to talk about what happened in that game.) Iowa's remaining games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Maryland are all at home, which ought to make them a bit easier to win (indeed, they're actually the KenPom favorite to upset the Terps right now when they play next month). A win over any of these teams would be a great addition to Iowa's resume come March.

The bad news is that only playing these teams a total of four times means they have somewhat limited opportunities to grab a potentially big win. I don't think Iowa "needs" to have a win in any of these games, but a win would be very welcome and it seems doable given that the remaining three games against these teams are in Iowa City. (It seems particularly doable if Iowa is able to play as well as they did against Ohio State.)

TIER II: The Middle Class (10 games)

Minnesota 13-3 3-2 n/a 1/27 (47%)
Purdue 10-6 3-2 n/a L, 86-70
Nebraska 13-4 3-3 W, 93-84 3/10 (25%)
Indiana 12-5 3-3 2/22 (62%) 2/7 (37%)
Wisconsin 11-6 3-3 L, 72-66 3/7 (28%)
Ohio State 12-4 2-3 W, 72-62 2/26 (35%)

The Middle Class is the biggest tier in the Big Ten this year, with seven teams (including Iowa) all bunched up between 3-2 and 2-3 this year. There will likely be some separation as the teams continue to play more games, but it's hard to guess which of these teams might be able to separate themselves from the pack.

Iowa plays 10 games (half their Big Ten schedule) against these teams, including home-and-away series with Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. They play Purdue and Minnesota on the road only. It's a bit unfortunate that they play more road games than home games against these teams (six versus four); worse, they've also already played three of their four home games against these teams (going 2-1 in those games). I think Iowa needs to go at least 5-5 against this group of teams this season (they're 2-2 against them now, so that means splitting their remaining six games). Given that five of their remaining six games against these teams are on the road, they're going to have to find a way to win in some hostile environments. Aside from last week's game in Evanston, the road has been very unkind to Iowa hoops over the last few seasons (Iowa is 1-12 in true road games since the start of the 2017-18 season), so they're going to need to figure out how to play better on the road against good opponents. 

TIER III: The Dregs (6 games)

Northwestern 10-7 1-5 2/10 (74%) W, 73-63
Rutgers 8-7 1-4 3/2 (83%) 2/16 (63%)
Illinois 4-12 0-5 1/20 (84%) n/a
Penn State 7-10 0-6 n/a 1/16 (51%)

You are what your record says you are and the records say these teams are... not good. Sorry, Northwestern. (Not sorry.) Iowa plays a total of six games against the teams in this grouping, including both of their games this week (@PSU on Wednesday, home vs Illinois on Sunday). Wins over these teams aren't going to provide a lot of value (at least on an individual basis), but losses would be damaging. Ideally, it would be good if Iowa can go 6-0 against these teams. Realistically, I expect a slip-up at some point and a 5-1 record against these teams that ought to be acceptable. Three of the five remaining games are at home, though; Iowa needs to defend their home court and win those games.

The games at Rutgers and Penn State both look like potential landmines. Iowa could be without the services of Tyler Cook against Penn State (although maybe not!) and that game has high letdown potential coming after the big home win against Ohio State and in the dreary confines of the Bryce Jordan Center (which often seems to lull Iowa to sleep a bit when they play there).  Iowa's guard should be up for the game at Rutgers, too, given that Iowa got absolutely flattened there last year -- and the Scarlet Knights already shocked Ohio State just last week. If Iowa loses more than one of their games against this grouping, then they'll likely need to pick up an extra win against a team in the Tier I or Tier II groupings to make up for it. 

If Iowa goes 5-1 against the Tier III teams and 5-5 against the Tier II squads, that gives them 10 Big Ten wins no matter what they do against the Tier I group. Again, I think a 10-10 record in the Big Ten will put Iowa in pretty decent standing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. If they're able to scratch out a few more wins (especially against a Tier I team), even better -- that will make their NCAA Tournament case even stronger. A very challenging stretch looms starting next week, when Iowa has home games against Michigan State and Michigan (with a tricky road trip to Minnesota in-between those big home games), followed by a road trip to Bloomington. Before those games, though, Iowa has the aforementioned games with Penn State and Illinois this week. Hopefully Iowa can take care of business in those games and keep the good vibes flowing from this current three-game winning streak and impressive performance against Ohio State. 

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