By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Every major college athletic director has a to-do list, or a list of specific goals, and what sits atop Gary Barta’s list should seem obvious at this stage.
That would be getting Fran McCaffery and the Iowa men’s basketball team back in the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence that included a stunning fall to 4-14 in the Big Ten and 14-19 last season.
And with that goal, comes a need to manage the nonconference schedule because the Iowa needs all the help it can get as a member of the deep and rugged Big Ten Conference.
Iowa needs a certain number of sure-wins against nonconference opponents in order to have more wiggle room and more margin for error in conference play.
“We’ll continue to do what we’ve always done; what’s going to give us the best chance to compete for a championship in the Big Ten and get the highest seed we can in the NCAA (Tournament),” Barta said to reporters prior to the start of Iowa’s 77-54 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday in the final Big Four Classic.
The 22nd-second ranked Hawkeyes are currently in a stretch of what should be four consecutive sure-wins against overmatched nonconference opponents.
It started with Saturday’s drubbing of Northern Iowa in the final Big Four Classic in Des Moines and will continue with Tuesday’s game against 3-9 Western Carolina at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa (8-2) will then close out the nonconference portion of the schedule with home games against Savannah State next Saturday and against Bryant on Dec. 29 before resuming Big Ten play at Purdue on Jan. 3.
Barring a gigantic upset, Iowa will finish 11-0 in nonconference play, marking the first time since the 1986-87 season that Iowa has finished undefeated against nonconference opponents.
The 1986-87 squad would go on to finish 30-5 and fall just one win short of making the NCAA Final Four. But it also didn’t start 0-2 in conference play, as is the case with the current Iowa team.
It is easy to forget as Iowa racks up these nonconference wins that it already has lost two Big Ten games to Wisconsin at home and at Michigan State.
So in a way, Iowa already is digging itself out of hole and the only way to do that is to win.
Iowa’s next three games are duds from an entertainment, and from an interest standpoint, but they still would count as three wins. And that’s really all that matters to Barta at this stage.
He is willing to stop playing Northern Iowa and Drake despite their wishes to keep playing every year, preferably on a home-and-away basis.
And Barta has a convenient reason, or excuse, to stop playing them both with the Big Ten having expanded from 18 to 20 conference games.
“At the end of the day, the trigger was going to 20 Big Ten games,” Barta said. “If you watch what our student-athletes go through in Big Ten games versus other games, it is physical. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the number one team in the Big Ten or the team that is struggling the most in the Big Ten. So with twenty of those, it just changes how we prepare the rest of the schedule.”
Barta wants fans, and the media, to believe that the Big Ten expanding to 20 conference games is the main reason for discontinuing the home-and-away setup with Northern Iowa and Drake, when that’s really just part of the reason.
The biggest reason is that Iowa grew weary of being one of the few teams from a power five conference that played not just one, but two home-and-away series’ against mid-major programs from in state. Part of the reason that Iowa grew weary is due to the risk of losing in a hostile in-state environment, and because there is little to no reward for winning in that environment.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that Iowa’s last game at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls ended in a 20-point loss in 2011, and with McCaffery getting ejected.
That was the breaking point, or the last straw for McCaffery. He was finished playing in Cedar Falls and had the full support of Barta.
But, of course, it’s better from a public relations standpoint to blame it on the recent changes in nonconference scheduling, and that is basically what Barta did on Saturday.
“For all those years, we had a spot for both UNI and Drake, and we just lost two more,” Barta said. “We lost the Gavitt Games. We lost two more Big Ten games. So the inventory for other games has gone way down. So I’m doing what I feel is best for the University of Iowa.”
Barta said several times to reporters on Saturday that he was doing what is best for the University of Iowa, and that helps to explain why Iowa’s final three nonconference opponents should pose little to no threat.
Fans have to trust Barta’s approach and hope that compiling as many wins as possible will pay dividends with regard to postseason play.
Iowa showed on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena that it is vastly superior to Northern Iowa. But it’s reasonable to think that the game would’ve been more competitive if it had been played at the McLeod Center simply because the Panthers would’ve had home-court advantage.
But those days are gone, and unless Northern Iowa and Drake agree to play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena exclusively, nothing will change.
Barta is in his 13th year as Iowa’s Athletic Director, and he also worked for seven years in athletic administration for Northern Iowa.
So Barta can relate to both sides of this debate.
“If I’m at UNI, I’m disappointed. If I’m at Iowa, I understand UNI’s position,” Barta said. “And in fact, I was there once.
“But my job is to do what’s best for the University of Iowa. So what we’re doing, I believe, is what’s best for the University of Iowa.”
Barta’s job is to get Iowa back in the NCAA Tournament ASAP because his job security ultimately could depend on it.
If McCaffery fails to get Iowa back in the NCAA Tournament and is eventually dismissed, Barta likely would suffer the consequences because that would be the second men’s basketball coach to have failed after being hired by Barta, the other being Todd Lickliter.
Kirk Ferentz’s success with the Iowa football team matters more than anything in the big picture. But Barta didn’t hire Ferentz, so there is no pressure from that standpoint.
Barta hired McCaffery to replace Lickliter in 2010, and until last season, that decision had mostly paid dividends.
McCaffery inherited a mess and began cleaning immediately.
He had led Iowa to six consecutive postseason tournaments before last season’s decline, including three trips in a row to the NCAA Tournament from 2013-16.
And with his current team playing well, McCaffery has momentum on his side again, along with an athletic director who is determined to get Iowa back in the NCAA Tournament.
Fans need to remember that as they watch Tuesday's game against Western Carolina, which starts at 8 p.m. and will be televised by the Big Ten Network.
What the game lacks in appeal, it makes up for by being what is best for the University of Iowa, at least according to Barta.