One remaining opponent could have the biggest say in whether Iowa reaches the NCAA men's basketball tournament for the first time in seven years.
Iowa (17-9, 6-7) plays NU (12-14, 3-10) twice in its final five regular-season games — Thursday in Lincoln, if the snow isn't too deep, and March 9 in Iowa City.
A scenario in which the Hawkeyes don't sweep the Huskers and still make the NCAA tourney as an at-large team is difficult to imagine.
Iowa has inserted itself into the NCAA bubble conversation with a three-game winning streak, its first of that length in the Big Ten in six seasons.
“We're playing better,” U of I coach Fran McCaffery said. “We've got a lot of individuals contributing to what we're doing. This is the time of year when teams tend to tire and feel pressure.”
The Hawkeyes try to avoid that by using 10 players regularly, including starting freshman point guard Mike Gesell from South Sioux City, Neb.
“And fortunately for us (Roy Devyn) Marble has been on fire the past three games,” McCaffery said. “If he's playing like that, we're a much different team.”
Marble, a junior guard, has scored 15, 22 and 21 points in the winning streak. Compare that to the two, zero and eight points he had in the prior three games. His season average is 13.6 points.
So how does McCaffery, in his third season at Iowa but in his 30th as a college coach, approach NCAA tournament talk with his team?
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“You don't want to pretend like it's not out there,” he said. “They turn on the TV and that's all everybody is talking about.
“So we address it. But what I try to do is simplify it. I'm a firm believer that you can't look one, two, three, four, five, six games down the road. We are literally in control of our own destiny. If we take care of business, we'll have enough wins and get in.”
The number of wins to get in is subject to debate.
The consensus has been that an 8-10 record in Big Ten play would guarantee most conference teams a bid. But Iowa isn't most conference teams.
The Hawkeyes, with an NCAA RPI of 80, are paying a high price for a really low nonconference strength of schedule.
Kenpom.com ranks it 339th nationally out of 347 teams. Iowa played RPI No. 342 South Carolina State, No. 331 Howard, No. 318 Texas-Pan American, No. 328 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and No. 302 Coppin State.
That slate has dropped Iowa's overall schedule strength, according to kenpom.com, to 71st nationally. For comparison, Nebraska's is 11th.
Husker coach Tim Miles said Monday he wouldn't mind spoiling Iowa's fun.
“It's our neighbor,” he said. “Anytime you've got a neighbor game, it feels like a rivalry game. We play each other twice here, and depending on what the conference season holds, we could easily see them in the first game of the conference tournament.”
Iowa is fortunate to have crept into NCAA consideration after so many close losses. Five of its seven Big Ten setbacks have been by four points or less, with two in overtime.
The Hawkeyes likely will be favored in four of their final five games. It would behoove them to win four and get to 10-8 in the league, then add a first-round win in the Big Ten tournament March 14 in Chicago for insurance.
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