Now that we're deep into Bubble Watch season, and awash in résumé data, we're beginning to discern some order from the chaotic mess that is a full college basketball season. And call me crazy ... but maybe the RPI isn't terrible?
That statement is hedged with a question mark because this is a gut feeling, and not a clear-eyed, data-driven survey; I'll get to that soon enough, I suppose. But in two weeks of deep Bubble Watch dives to date, I haven't noticed many obvious gaps between what the strange and outdated Ratings Percentage Index says teams are and what those team's actual reality-based performance tells us.
Usually, the gaps are many. Usually, we respond with snark. Oh, the snark we respond with. But this season, it feels as though there are fewer of these holes than in years past. The RPI is a portrait of self-imposed, signal-noise limitations, but maybe, just maybe, the tweaks the NCAA has made to their formula are genuine improvements. Or maybe things have worked out nicely? Or maybe I'm just crazy. (That last one doesn't need a question mark.)
Unfortunately, "fewer" doesn't mean "none." This is where Iowa comes in.
According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metrics, the Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the 10 best teams in the country. They've employed the nation's fourth-most efficient offense to date and its 30th-best defense. In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes are averaging 1.13 points per possession and allowing 1.0. This aligns fairly nicely with what your eyes will tell you when you watch Iowa play. The Hawkeyes are not a flawless team by any stretch of the imagination -- they can go whole stretches where their up-and-down style causes them to forfeit their defensive core, for example -- but they are a very good one. Top 10? Maybe. Top 15? Almost certainly.
The problem, of course, is that the metrics the men's basketball committee uses to select and seed its marquee competition see things differently. The Hawkeyes rank 30th in the RPI. Most bracket projections, including our own Joe Lunardi's, slot Iowa as a No. 5 seed. That's not terrible, of course, but it feels a little low, given how good Iowa has been for most of this season and how many of its losses have come in tight games against top competition. The RPI agrees on that front -- Iowa's lowest-ranking RPI loss was the Jan. 28 home defeat to No. 19 Michigan State -- because, again, there are fewer gaps. But because the Hawkeyes played a couple too many uber-low RPI squads in the nonconference (No. 348 Maryland-Eastern Shore, No. 340 Abilene Christian, yikes), and because the RPI totally ignores margin of victory, the facts of Iowa's actual performance risk getting lost in the mix. Overtime in the Bahamas to Villanova. By three points on the road at Iowa State. By two at home to the Spartans, thanks to Russell Byrd. By four at Wisconsin after Fran McCaffery was ejected. These are four of Iowa's six losses, and sure, some of this is self-imposed. But some of it is luck.
This is why Saturday's return game against Wisconsin in Iowa City is so very important. McCaffery's team is at no real risk of missing out on the tournament at this point. But a loss, close or not, would solidify its seed ceiling, and make its last four regular-season games -- at Minnesota, versus Purdue, at Michigan State, versus Illinois -- as much a matter of seed maintenance as anything else.
No one wants to be a No. 5 seed. Iowa's close losses and the RPI's quirks have put them there, in spite of the thousands of possessions that tell us they deserve higher. Can the Hawkeyes close the gap?