With only six weeks remaining before Iowa squares off in an exhibition game on November 4 against the mighty Hawks (not to be mistaken as Hawkeyes) of Quincy University, it seems only necessary to do a six-part series in honor of their start. Each week, I will feature one major question facing the Iowa Hawkeye Basketball team and break them down extensively. Welcome back college basketball, welcome back.
Check, Ch-ch-ch-check, check, check out the Hawkeyes out-of-conference schedule this year. Boy is it bad. And I don't mean bad in the sense that it's hard, or difficult, or dreadful. It's bad in terms of strength, depth and profoundness.
Do any of you know where Quincy, Howard, Gardner-Webb or Coppin State are located? I was 1-of-3, and that's only because I live in the same state as one of the four.
(Answers: Qunicy: Illinois, Howard: Washington D.C., Gardner-Webb: North Carolina, Coppin State: Maryland)
When you have those schools mixed in with perennial powerhouses such as Central Michigan (avenge our football team, men. AVENGE!), Virginia Tech, Texas A&M at Corpus Christi (that's the Islanders, not Aggies for those keeping track at home), South Dakota and South Carolina State, you have to realize as a program that you're already at a disadvantage when it comes to getting tournament love at the end of the season.
There isn't one team on the out-of-conference schedule that is being thought of as a promising NCAA Tournament team in most preseason outlooks. In all reality, Iowa wont entertain an opponent it shouldn't beat until New Years Eve; when Indiana rolls into Carver Hawkeye Arena to open up the Big Ten season.
That's a little nerve-racking to those of us that have honest dreams of acquiring quality seeding by those in charge of selections to the big dance. Big wins during the out-of-conference portion of a season can blanket a so-so in-conference record.
But still, that hasn't stopped Iowa from being projected by some experts as a preseason bubble team. I believe I'm speaking for the team and most Hawkeye fans by saying, we (yes, I'm on the team now) want to be better than a bubble team.
Does a bubble prediction directly correlate to the Hawkeyes SOS?
In one word: Absolutely.
For Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes to avoid being snubbed like their Big Ten brethren Northwestern last year, Iowa has to make their non Big Ten opponents bleed. I'm talking 300, "SPARTANS! AHOOOO! AHHHHOOOOO! AHHHHOOOO!" style.
Not to be overdramatic or anything, but Iowa needs to go undefeated during that stretch. Period.
The positivity and locker room swagger that would be generated from an undefeated non-conference schedule easily would carry into the Big Ten portion of the season; and the Hawks are going to need it, being that they are in legitimate danger of starting 0-3 in Big Ten play.
Fran is being humble and doesn't want to put pressure on his players to achieve that, though I know he knows they can.
If they don't, that's fine. I could stomach a loss at Virginia Tech during the ACC/Big Ten challenge (where Iowa is 0 for its last 5). I could even stomach a second-day loss to either DePaul or Wichita State (who was a No. 5 seed in last years tournament) in the Cancun Challenge.
But the Hawkeyes' NCAA Tournament dreams can't handle losing to both in-state rivals, Iowa State and UNI, again this year.
But before we get into that, let's pull an Emmett "Doc" Brown.
Had Iowa not laid eggs against Creighton (The Hawkeyes shot 36.2 percent from the field and gave up an abysmal 42 defensive rebounds and 11 offensive rebounds in that game) and the Campbell Fighting Freaking Camels (36.4 percent in this delightful matchup) and split with either Iowa State or UNI, Fran's bunch would have finished the regular season (including the Big Ten Tournament) with a record of 20-13 rather than 17-16.
Here is a list of teams that had comparable records to that 20-13 mark going into the tournament last season: Texas (20-13), St. Bonaventure (20-11), West Virginia (19-13), Purdue (21-12), Alabama (21-11), Florida (23-10), Colorado State (20-11), Xavier (21-12) and UCONN (20-13).
Texas? Someone please try to convince me how a hypothetical 20-13 Iowa team with wins over Iowa State, Creighton, Wisconsin (twice), Michigan, Indiana and Illinois doesn't get in over a 20-13 Texas team with wins over Iowa State (twice), Kansas State, Temple and North Carolina State.
It can't be done. I will not listen.
What I failed to mention is that the list above of equally qualified NCAA Tournament teams should contain one more member.
The Cyclones finished last years season with a 23-11 record (22-10 going into the tournament), having launched themselves into a national headline late in the season thanks in part to Royce White and his 13.4 points per game, as well as a 80-72 win over then-No. 10 Baylor. It was their marquee win and it stuck within the minds of the selection committee.
They ended up slotting Fred Hoiberg's team into the No. 8 seed in the South bracket. The Cyclones beat up on Uconn in their first matchup, only to fizzle out against soon-to-be national champion, Kentucky.
Good job, Good Effort, Cyclowns.
Iowa State's top three scorers from last year are gone in 2012-13. During last years matchup, those three scored 42 of the Cyclones 86 points and absolutely dominated the Hawkeyes from the opening tip.
Good thing Iowa spent so much time scouting the players of its biggest and most hated rival outside of the Big Ten.
No matter what is written on the white board this year, the Hawkeyes should have the upper hand. Hoiberg didn't bring in the most talented freshman into Ames (only Georges Niang is ranked inside ESPN's Top 100), and the only returning players that are noteworthy are Melvin Ejim and Chris Babb.
The Hawkeyes HAVE to win this game. Actually, they need to do more than just win this game. They need to blow them out. They need to go into that game thinking they are the Miami Heat and Iowa State is the Charlotte Bobcats.
I want such a margin between the two scores that Hoiberg actually contemplates, even for a millisecond, not bringing his guys back on the court after halftime.
Beating Iowa State? That's all fine and well. But it will mean nothing if Iowa can't come back eight days later and do the same thing to UNI.
Quick recap from 2011-12 for those that mentally blocked that game out from their minds like I did: Iowa lost by 20 points.
Yes, 20 POINTS to Northern Iowa.
Yes, those pesky Panthers laid into the Hawkeyes, who had already began the game without point guard Bryce Cartwright because of a hamstring issue. Then there was that little thing about Iowa being called for three consecutive technical fouls or something like that.
Once that happened, Iowa essentially laid down and cried while banging their hands and feet on the ground from that point forward.
That's when it happened. Iowa fell victim to a 20-2 run after those technical fouls were called. Twenty points to two points. That's more ugly than a Bubba Sparxxx video.
It didn't help that Iowa shot 1-12 from the outside and committed 25 fouls in that game. To be honest, those are the kind of stats you find at the local YMCA.
But wait, there is good news!
UNI is returning all but one player that played over 5 minutes a game in 2011-12 (OK, I was being sarcastic). That means Fran better come up with a better defensive game plan that prevents guard Anthony James from scoring 16 of his 18 total points in the second half.
Yet again, forgive me for being a homer, but Iowa shouldn't have lost that game last year. Remember, UNI was only up two points with 10 minutes left in the second half. If you wash out the technical fouls, this game pretty much goes down to the final minute of play.
I have every reason to believe Fran's younger but more talented roster would have prevailed, you know, if it wasn't for the zebras being what I can only assume UNI alumni.
Call it a revenge game. Call it a rivalry game. Call it a Rivalenge. Either way, Iowa cannot and should not lose this game on paper in 2012-13. Roy Devyn Marble and company should be way to athletic for UNI to hang and they need to take advantage of that right out of the stables.
Prediction: Hawkeyes beats Iowa State by eight and UNI by 50. Suck it, Panthers.
Long story short, if Iowa CAN beat both of these teams in back-to-back games, all the while limiting their out-of-conference loses to a maximum of two, the Hawkeyes should have more than enough quality wins to move from a bubble team to mortal lock.
That is, of course, banking on the fact that Iowa can make yet another jump in Big Ten play.
I'm not sure about all of you, but I'm already counting down to December 7 (ISU) and 15th (UNI). These two games very well could end up determining The Franimal House's postseason plans.