Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Ivy League's RPI Problem

That simple formula, born in 1981, remains the most influential tool in college basketball today.

If you don't agree, just ask SMU or Utah. Each of those two teams came into Selection Sunday with a body of work that would have merited a seed in the 7-9 range, according to Vegas, which hopefully most will agree retains expert status in judging team quality.

Due to a pair of legitimately awful non-conference schedules, however, SMU became 2014's biggest snub, while Utah didn't really get serious consideration at all. Both the Mustangs and Utes would have been solid favorites over multiple at large teams (NC State, UMass and Colorado come to mind), but the poor scheduling dragged down their RPI, pushing SMU into the 50s and Utah all the way down to the 80s.

One might feel strongly that SMU and Utah deserved to be punished for their poor schedule strength. The problem is that the RPI isn't the best arbiter of such claims. SMU's non-conference strength of schedule ("NCSOS") checked in at 298th in Pomeroy and finished around 295th in the RPI's calculation. That area of Pomeroy's NCSOS ranking was littered with AAC teams, though. Cincinnati was just four spots ahead, and Louisville slotted in just a couple more away. In the eyes of the committee, the Bearcats and Cardinals looked nothing like SMU, as Cincinnati and Louisville had RPI NCSOS rankings of 95 and 149, respectively.

All three were deserving tournament teams, at least as far as the best available measures of team quality are concerned. Two of them played the RPI game, either knowingly or unknowingly, and sat solidly within the NCAA field, while the last was left to make a run in the NIT.

The dirty secret is that for most BCS teams, gaming or not gaming the RPI is merely the difference between being judged fairly or in a more positive light. For mid-major leagues like the Ivy, failing to consider the effects of the RPI invariably leads to a squad looking much worse than it otherwise would.