Race for Big Ten’s double-bye heats up

A double-bye in the Big Ten tournament is within Iowa’s reach – a win against Rutgers would be a step in the right direction.


Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery watches the game during the men’s basketball game against Western Carolina at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, December 18, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Catamounts 78-60.

Adam Hensley, Pregame Editor

Three games remain for the No. 22 Iowa basketball team, and with just four games separating the top six teams, the race for the Big Ten Tournament seeding is at full throttle.

And as Iowa hosts Rutgers on Saturday, the Hawkeyes are in a prime position to fight for a double-bye in the tournament. The top-four seeds in the Big Ten won’t begin tournament play until March 15. No. 6 Michigan State, No. 14 Purdue, No. 9 Michigan, and No. 17 Maryland hold those spots — for now.

The Terrapins — the fourth and final unit in that position — have a 12-6 conference record. No. 19 Wisconsin (11-6 Big Ten record) and Iowa (10-7) are right in the mix for an extra break in Chicago.

For Iowa, it’s simple: win out.

It starts with Rutgers on Saturday, but that’s easier said than done.

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery will not coach the Hawkeyes on Saturday or on the road against Wisconsin on March 7; he’s serving a two-game suspension issued by the Athletics Department following his profanity-laced outburst at an official after the 20-point loss to Ohio State on Tuesday.

“Andrew [Francis] is the Rutgers scout, so he’ll technically be the head coach for that game,” McCaffery said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Kirk [Speraw] is the Wisconsin scout, so he’ll be the lead guy on that one.”

Francis was McCaffery’s first hiring as a Hawkeye, and prior to joining the program, he served as one of McCaffery’s assistants at Siena from 2007-10.

Speraw has head-coach experience at the Division 1 level, heading Central Florida for 17 seasons. He played for Lute Olson as a Hawkeye in the late-70s and later was a grad assistant.

Regardless of who is at the helm, the Hawkeyes will have their hands full containing an aggressive Rutgers team. The Scarlet Knights rank 37th in the country with 346 offensive rebounds this season — an average of 12.8 offensive boards per game.

Offensively, Rutgers employs a well-rounded scoring attack. Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker each score slightly more than 13 points per game. Montez Mathis ranks third with 9, and Ron Harper Jr. and Peter Kiss each average roughly 6-7 points per contest. 

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Baker appeared to be a hero for the Scarlet Knights in the first meeting with the Hawkeyes (Feb. 16 in Piscataway), draining a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left. Iowa’s Joe Wieskamp stole his thunder, however, banking in a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer.

That Hawkeye win was the second game in a three-game stretch in which the outcome went down to the final possession, but since then, things have been up-and-down for Iowa.

The 76-70 overtime win against Indiana seemed to be a major momentum-builder, but then Iowa dropped its next game in blowout fashion to Ohio State.

Still, though, the Hawkeyes are right in the mix for that coveted double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. Beating Rutgers, taking down Wisconsin in Madison, and winning on the road against Nebraska would certainly help Iowa’s chances of sneaking into that position, but it’ll need some help from other teams.

Maryland has two games left on its schedule, and they aren’t easy wins by any means, especially considering how the Terrapins lost by 17 to Penn State on Wednesday. Maryland will host Michigan on March 3 and then close its regular season at home against Minnesota on March 8.

Sitting 1.5 games ahead of the Hawkeyes and holding the tiebreaker, the Terrapins need to lose both games. Wisconsin has three games remaining — Penn State, Iowa, and Ohio State. A Hawkeye loss to the Badgers would essentially eliminate Iowa from the four-spot race.