I think it's fair to say that there's only one postseason tournament in March that Iowa fans truly care about seeing the Hawkeyes perform in -- but the NCAA Tournament won't be the only tournament Iowa plays in this March. The Big Ten Tournament is still planned to take place this year, moving from Chicago to Indianapolis and taking place from March 10-14. The Big Ten Tournament has infamously not been very kind to Iowa for, uh, most of the last two decades. But this is also the best Iowa team in the last two decades, so if ever there was a time for them to perhaps shake off their Big Ten Tournament struggles... maybe this is it?
Here's how the Big Ten Tournament bracket looks at the moment, with two weeks left in the regular season:
Iowa is currently slotted as the #4 seed, which would grant them a double-bye in the tournament (no games on Wednesday or Thursday) and a spot in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa has never earned a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament since the league moved to that format beginning in 2015. Iowa's magic number to retain a top-four seed is three. Iowa wins and/or Purdue losses can reduce that number and when (if?) it hits zero, Iowa will have clinched a top-four seed.
So how's the race for a top-four seed shaking out? Here are the top six teams in the hunt for those precious double-byes and their remaining schedules:
|Michigan||16-1||11-1||Iowa (2/25), at Indiana (2/27), Illinois (3/2), Michigan State (3/4), at Michigan State (3/7)|
|Illinois||16-5||12-3||at Michigan State (2/23), Nebraska (2/25), at Wisconsin (2/27), at Michigan (3/2), at Ohio State (3/6)|
|Ohio State||18-5||12-5||at Michigan State (2/25), Iowa (2/28), Illinois (3/6)|
|Iowa||17-6||11-5||at Michigan (2/25), at Ohio State (2/28), Nebraska (3/4), Wisconsin (3/7)|
|Purdue||15-8||10-6||at Penn State (2/26), Wisconsin (3/2), Indiana (3/6)|
|Wisconsin||16-8||10-7||Illinois (2/27), at Purdue (3/2), at Iowa (3/7)|
Michigan will try to cram in five games over the final two weeks, but they're still going to play fewer than the originally scheduled 20 league games due to the lengthy COVID-related pause they took a few weeks ago. Illinois is also going to cram in five games, though that will enable them to hit 20 Big Ten games this season. Ohio State, Iowa, and Wiscosnin are also set to play 20 league games this season, while Purdue is set to play 19. Whether that's fair or not is largely irrelevant: the schedule is what it is and COVID disruptions were always likely this year. And, frankly, if Michigan beats all of their top challengers and finishes something like 16-1 or 15-2 in the Big Ten, it will be hard to argue that they're not fully deserving Big Ten champions, even if they played slightly fewer games than anyone else.
One thing that jumps out from those remaining games: the teams near the top of the league standings are set to play each other a lot over these next few weeks. Well done, Delanybot 9000. There are six scheduled games between the league's top six teams during this fortnight, with Michigan playing Iowa and Illinois, Iowa playing Michigan and Ohio State, and Illinois somehow playing Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin back-to-back-to-back. (Wisconsin and Purdue are also set to play in what is effectively an elimination game for a top-four seed, though Wisconsin's hopes there are pretty tenuous as it is.)
Having so many games among the Big Ten's top contenders means there's real potential for upheaval among the current standings -- or at least places 2-5. With a two-game lead on their nearest challenger (and head-to-head tiebreakers over Ohio State, Illinois, and Wisconsin), Michigan is going to be tough to catch for the Big Ten regular season title -- they'd probably need to lose to both Iowa and Illinois and even then Illinois would still have to run the table to keep pace with them. (I also think Wisconsin will have a tough time moving higher than sixth place, given the difficulty of their remaining schedule versus the difficulty of the remaining schedules for the teams already ahead of them.)
But second through fifth place seem very much in play over the next two weeks. Illinois is currently perched in second place, but their remaining schedule is brutal on many fronts. Four of their final five games are on the road. This week they're scheduled to play three games in just five days, starting tonight at Michigan State and ending Saturday at Wisconsin, which is a potentially draining stretch. And then they have to end the year with back-to-back road games against Michigan and Ohio State. Suffice to say, there could be a lot of potential losses looming for the Illini.
By contrast, Ohio State has just three games left to play and while they end the year with potentially challenging games against Iowa and Illinois, at least both games are at home. The Buckeyes seem well-positioned to land a top-three finish in the Big Ten.
The biggest threat to Iowa landing a top-four finish definitely looks like Purdue, who's just a game back and has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the current top-six, with just three games to go: a road trip to Penn State, followed by home games against Wisconsin and Indiana. That said, their position is far from ideal: at 10-6, they're already a game worse than Iowa in the loss column -- and they don't have the head-to-head tiebreaker against Iowa, thanks to the Hawkeyes' 70-55 win over the Boilermakers back in December. Purdue will need to run the table and hope for at least two more Iowa losses. That's certainly plausible, though, given their remaining slate and Iowa's back-to-back road trips to Michigan and Ohio State this week. So... gulp.
So what does Iowa need to do to lock up a top-four finish? Well, winning out would certainly do the trick, though that seems like a very tall order given those games this week against Michigan and Ohio State. As previously noted, their magic number is three, which means they need a combination of three wins (or Purdue losses) to secure a double-bye. If Purdue drops one of their final three games, Iowa is a virtual lock, assuming they can protect home court against Nebraska and Wisconsin next week. If Purdue wins out, though, Iowa will need to grab a split from their games with Michigan and Ohio State this week.
Can Iowa catch Illinois or Ohio State? Maybe, although that's complicated by the fact that Iowa doesn't hold head-to-head tiebreakers against either team (though they could earn a season split with the Buckeyes with a win on Sunday). What about a multi-team tie? In that case, the tiebreaker is record among the tied teams in games played against one another. (Purdue isn't going to be in play for any multi-team tiebreakers, due to only playing 19 games versus 20 games played for Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State; the winning percentages won't align.) So if Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State ended up in a three-way tie, you'd first look at their records against one another to try to break the ties. Right now that would look like this:
2-0 Ohio State
Even if Iowa beats Ohio State, there's no way they can do better than 1-2 in that scenario. But what if Ohio State beats Illinois again? Then you'd have something like this:
2-1 Ohio State
Ohio State wins the tiebreaker and becomes the top-seeded team among those three. But the Big Ten tiebreakers seem to say that head-to-head would not be used to settle the tie between Illinois and Iowa: "If a team or teams are separated from the group based on step a, seeding for remaining teams among the group is not determined by head-to-head record vs. the remaining teams, but rather by taking all remaining teams to next tie breaker."
So in that case you'd look at Illinois and Iowa's record against Michigan, then Ohio State, and so on. Right now neither team has played Michigan this season; a win over the Wolverines for either could be huge for tiebreaking purposes. At present both are also 0-1 against Ohio State, though both teams play the Buckeyes again over the next two weeks. And if the tiebreaker comes down to games versus Ohio State, Iowa would win the tiebreaker over Illinois due to a win over Ohio State (remember, this hypothetical presumes an Iowa win over Ohio State and another Illinois to the Buckeyes in the next two weeks; if either of those results don't happen, then this hypothetical can't come to pass).
So yeah: clear as mud, right? Our rooting interests over the next two weeks are pretty simple: we want Iowa to win (duh) and we want Purdue to lose. That nicely aligns with our standard rooting interests: we always want to see Iowa win and we pretty much always want to see Purdue lose! A split this week for Iowa in their two massive games against Michigan and Ohio State would be huge. Getting a win in one of those two games would leave Iowa in position to claim the first Big Ten Tournament double-bye of the Fran Era; lose both and things get a lot more precarious on the double-bye front. Go Hawks, get some (big) (B1G) wins.