Riding the Bubble

Where Iowa stands in the NCAA Tournament picture is anybody's guess. The Hawkeyes can end all doubts about their first trip there since 2005-06 by winning the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago this week and earning the league's automatic bid.

The Iowa fan base wrings its collective hands waiting to find out if Sunday will bring an NCAA Tournament berth. While not the ideal position of having a spot sewn up, Hawkeye Nation will gladly take its position atop the metaphorical bubble.

Iowa hasn't participated in the Big Dance since the 2005-06 season. That ended in a crushing upset to Northwestern State. Since then, things have been mostly miserable.

Opinions vary on what Iowa (20-11 overall, 9-9 Big Ten) must accomplish at the Big Ten Tournament this week in Chicago to warrant inclusion in the NCAA Field. A win Thursday against Northwestern would seem to be a requirement. It likely would take a victory the next day versus No. 8 Michigan State to put the Hawkeyes in a favorable light for the selection committee.

CBS Analyst Doug Gottlieb feels the Hawkeyes already have done enough to get into the tournament. Iowa has a lot of work to do in the Windy City if you ask Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com. Naturally, Coach Fran McCaffery sides with Gottlieb.

"I think we deserve tremendous consideration," McCaffery said. "I definitely feel like we're one of the best 68 teams. I think to have gone through this league, clearly the best league in the country, and finished 9 and 9, I think you look at how we played in our losses, we had a double overtime loss, an overtime loss, we played Michigan State without our leading scorer, we won three out of four without our third leading scorer and our starting point guard. So we've accomplished a great deal."

Part of the unknown for Iowa lies in the uncertainty of what the committee uses as the criteria for picking teams. Is it the RPI, the strength of schedule, how the team finishes the season, road record, what members see with their own eyes or a combination of everything? If that's the case, what component is most valuable? It's anybody's guess.

The Hawkeyes are hoping the selectors weigh lightly the RPI. Iowa's sits in the mid-70s as of Tuesday. Air Force (70, 2004) and New Mexico (74, 1999) are the only teams in the last 20 years to earn at-large bids with RPIs north of 69.

Strength of schedule also could hurt Iowa. ESPN puts the Hawkeyes' slate at No. 127 nationally. Couple it with the RPI and you can see from where it is Palm is coming.

"I think winning two (in Chicago) is not going to hurt us," Iowa Senior Captain Eric May said. "Winning two would make things a lot more comfortable. We're in there to win it all. That's what coach said. The easy way to get to the (NCAA) Tournament is win four games in four days. That's the task we have ahead of us."

It starts with the Wildcats on Thursday (8 p.m. CT, ESPN2). The Hawkeyes own two wins over Northwestern this season. The school from Evanston lugs an eight-game losing streak into the event and it's lost 11 of its last 13.

"It's going to be tough," Iowa Junior Roy Devyn Marble said. "It's hard to beat a team three times. We have to make sure we prepare and sat focused."

A couple of areas on which to keep an eye in this match-up are turnovers and three-point shooting. Northwestern ranks ninth in the nation with only 10.7 giveaways a game. When they hit at least eight treys, the Wildcats are 9-4.

"I've known (Northwestern's) Bill Carmody for a long time," McCaffery said. "He's a tremendous coach; difficult style…We've guarded it this year better than we ever have. Offensively, we attacked the one-three-one (zone defense) better than we have. Last year, not so good. So we'll have to be ready for those two things."

Iowa is listed as a 9.5-point favorite against the Wildcats on Tuesday. If the Hawkeyes can dispatch of underdog Northwestern, it sets up their second meeting with Michigan State.

The Spartans escaped Iowa City with a 62-59 victory on Jan. 10. Marble missed the game with a foot injury.

Iowa is built to make a run at the conference tournament. The Hawkeyes are deep and don't lose much production, if any, when McCaffery dips into his bench.

"I definitely think it helps," the coach said. "You know, if you're in a seven-man rotation, for example, it's going to be hard. You're going to slow down in the course of four days.

"The other thing is, as teams prepare for us, no matter what game you look at, sometimes there's just different guys on the floor that are producing. It's not always the same two top scorers and the same four players doing the same things."

The Hawkeyes could get a boost if starting guard Mike Gesell can return from a foot injury that cost him the last four games of the regular season. The freshman is practicing this week for the first time since health issues sidelined him.

"He looked good," McCaffery said of Gesell's Monday workout. "Yeah, he looked good; probably did about 30 percent of the practice; see how he feels (Tuesday)."

The coach said what Gesell shows in practices this week will determine if he plays, and starts, against Northwestern on Thursday.

"It's a good possibility, though,' McCaffery said about having Gesell on the floor at tip-off.

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