Hawks in Hunt

Despite a rough start to the conference season, brighter days might be ahead for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have a realistic chance to be in the discussion for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006 when March rolls around.

Iowa CITY, Iowa - Iowa looked like an NCAA bubble team coming into this season. The Hawkeyes have put themselves in a position where they'll need to finish the last month and a half of the campaign strong to get there.

A daunting early-Big Ten schedule has resulted in a 2-5 conference start heading into Thursday's matchup with Penn State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (7 p.m., ESPNU). Iowa has painted itself into a corner where its margin for error is about gone.

It's hard to say exactly how many wins the Hawkeyes will need to Dance for the first time since 2006. There are many variables, such as who their wins come against and what else happens around college basketball.

A good number to watch is reaching .500 in regular-season conference play. The list of schools making the NCAA field as an at-large selection with a losing mark is short.

So, if we go off of the premise that the odds would be stacked against the Hawkeyes in that situation, they'd need to win seven of their remaining 11 Big Ten regular-season contests to avoid being in that predicament. While a tall order to get on a roll like that in the country's toughest league, it's doable.

Iowa's five losses in the Big Ten have occurred against teams with a combined conference mark of 28-9 (.757 winning percentage). The remaining 11 regular-season games come against schools that have posted a cumulative record of 26-36 (.419).

If we dig a little deeper, six of Iowa's last 11 games are versus Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska, who are a combined 7-25 (.219). The Hawkeyes play the Nittany Lions and the Huskers (combined 2-15) home and away and the Illini and Wildcats each once in Iowa City.

Iowa still must travel to Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. If the Hawkeyes can steal one of those three contests, it would be a big resume builder for the NCAA selection committee. If they drop that trio, and they will be underdogs in all of them, that would allow them only one other setback to get to the magical 9-9 in league play.

For the sake of argument, let's say Iowa loses those three tough roadies and sweeps PSU, Nebraska, Northwestern and Illinois. That would give the Hawkeyes eight wins and eight losses.

If that scenario plays out, it would leave two swing games - at home against Purdue and Minnesota. Those likely will be very hard-fought contests but you have to like the Hawkeyes' chances to at least split them.

A 9-9 Iowa (20-11 overall) would be in the discussion for an NCAA berth heading into the Big Ten Tournament. There, the Hawkeyes would need to avoid a bad loss and possibly need a good win. The script we're laying out likely would have them lacking a victory against a Top 25 team this season.

One or more of the games we've discussed could go the other way in the wild and whacky Big Ten. Unknown variables like injuries, suspensions, etc. at Iowa or elsewhere might change the landscape.

The point being illustrated here is that despite losing five of its first seven conference games, Iowa stands a realistic chance of being on the NCAA Tournament bubble. That would be a welcome change for Hawkeye fans.

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