Let’s say you’re one of those sports fans who doesn’t turn his or her attention to college basketball until after the Super Bowl. And all you know about Iowa and Indiana is that their records — both overall (19-4 and 19-5, respectively) and in Big Ten play (10-1 and 9-2) — are nearly identical.
Now let’s say you learn of the Hawkeyes’ soaring reputation on the national scene. They’ve reached as high as third in the weekly AP poll and currently sit at No. 4. Every bracketologist in the business has them projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Knowing all that, you’ve got to think Indiana has it pretty good, too, right? How bad can it be? A top 10 ranking? Seems likely. Maybe a No. 2 seed? Seems plausible.
Yet those who’ve followed the college hoops season understand there are substantial differences in how the Hawkeyes and the Hoosiers are regarded.
Let’s check in with five teams that, on the surface, would seem to be in terrific shape, yet are unranked and still have much to prove.
On the surface: See those sweet-looking overall and Big Ten records mentioned above.
A deeper look: The Hoosiers somehow have made it this far without having faced a single contender for the league title. There were multiple bad losses in Maui in November, and there’ve been no marquee non-conference victories. The RPI ranking — 53rdheading into Tuesday night’s action — is ugly. ESPN and CBS Sports currently have IU as an 8-seed.
On the surface: We’ve seen far worse than 18-6. Besides, we’re talking about the defending national champs. The Dookies could disappear on a fishing trip for the next month and still make it to the Big Dance.
A deeper look: The tourney won’t be an issue (current projected seed: in the 6-7 range), and the 7-4 mark in ACC play isn’t bad. But the Blue Devils recently lost four of five to fall out of the top 25 for the first time in over eight years, and their next three games — against Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville — clearly are losable. Only one win over a ranked opponent all season? That sure is un-Duke-like.
On the surface: The Zags are 19-5, in first place as always in the West Coast Conference and beelining toward their 18th straight NCAA tourney.
Deeper issues: Saint Mary’s is only a half-game behind the Zags and already has beaten them once. Mark Few’s team lacks quality wins, has a dangerous RPI ranking of 61 and pretty much better win Saturday’s non-conference game at 13th-ranked SMU. Of course, winning the WCC tourney would solve everything, too. CBS has the Zags as an 11-seed — that’s a tenuous position.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA
On the surface: Get a load of that natty 20-3 record. Are the Gamecocks big-time now?
Deeper issues: The non-conference schedule was almost unimaginably weak. A 15-0 start has given way to predictable struggles — and the schedule only gets tougher from here — but the Gamecocks are projected by both ESPN and CBS as a 7-seed. The RPI number (26) is solid. Still, it’s doubtful the tourney selection committee will be inclined to do this non-name-brand program any favors.
On the surface: Say hello to your SEC leader.
Deeper issues: The Tigers are only 15-8 overall after going 7-6 out of conference. The RPI number — 75 — isn’t going to cut it. With South Carolina and No. 15 Texas A&M up next, LSU has to get moving. ESPN and CBS both project the Tigers in the field, probably in part because everyone knows the powers-that-be are going to want freshman sensation and likely No. 1 NBA pick Ben Simmons on the March Madness stage.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
No. 4 Iowa at Indiana (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN): It gets realer-than-real now for the Hoosiers, whose Big Ten homestretch drive will be difficult. But this game — and a rematch with the Hawkeyes on March 1 in Iowa City — brings tremendous opportunity. Has senior Yogi Ferrell saved his best for last?
No. 6 Kansas at No. 3 Oklahoma (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., ESPN): Their first meeting produced the game of the year in college hoops — a three-overtime affair won 109-106 by the Jayhawks, with Sooners star Buddy Hield scoring 46 on an unforgettably good night. Indeed, we are ready for Act II.
No. 7 Virginia at Duke (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN): The Cavaliers have won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, and this is a rare chance for them to kick Duke while it’s down. The Blue Devils have won three straight, though, and sophomore guard Grayson Allen gets better and better.
Up: Notre Dame. Nothing wrong with back-to-back victories over North Carolina and at Clemson. It bears repeating: The Irish haven’t lost consecutive games since the 2013-14 season.
Down: No. 15 Texas A&M. The Aggies, with three defeats in their last four outings, have gone from potential No. 1 seed to potential middle-of-the-pack finisher in the SEC.
Up: Stony Brook. The Seawolves have won 16 in a row, the longest streak in the country. At 20-4 overall and 11-0 in America East play, they may still have to win their league tournament to reach the Big Dance for the first time in school history.
Down: Missouri. The humanity! Mizzou has dropped eight straight and is dead last in the SEC at 1-9. Kim Anderson’s records as Tigers coach: 17-38 overall and 4-24 in league play.
9.0: More evidence that Mike Brey does a great job in South Bend — his Notre Dame squad averages the fewest turnovers per game of any team in the country. Seriously, nine a game? That’s not going to get you beat, like, ever.
.446: That’s Illinois’ field-goal percentage from two-point range in Big Ten play, lowest in the conference. What happened to the Illini? Good defenses, and their own bad offense. John Groce’s team shot 50 percent from two — itself, not a very good number at all — in non-conference games, but there’s been no such thing as an easy bucket since. Second-leading scorer Kendrick Nunn has made 29.4 percent of his two-point attempts over the last six games.
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