There is a lot of talk lately about the rivalry between the University of Washington and the Gonzaga University basketball teams.
The two teams ceased their rivalry in 2006 after some contentious events during the recruitment of forward Josh Heyvelt and Marcus Williams.
Not much is known why the Huskies decided to cancel the annual matchup. The fans of both schools love the annual game with the cross-state rival and it adds a little more animosity between the fan bases. In light of the benefits to the fans and to each school, does this game need to be played?
As a team in the West Coast Conference (WCC), Gonzaga needs to boost its RPI in its out-of-conference schedule. A yearly matchup with an upper-half PAC-10 team definitely bodes well for the Bulldogs.
The WCC will never have an RPI strong enough to send a second team to the tournament alone. If you look past the automatic bid to the WCC tournament champion, Gonzaga faces many challenges heading in to the NCAA tournament.
The RPI and strength of schedule (SOS) deficiency is why Gonzaga goes out of its way to schedule major out-of-conference games. An annual game with UW will just add to that strength of schedule.
The RPI and strength of schedules data since 1999 reveals some conflicting results. Gonzaga has ranked on average 58 spots higher (or .04524 RPI points) then the UW in RPI rankings since 1999. On the other hand, since 1999, the UW has ranked 63 SOS spots (.027 SOS points) higher than that of Gonzaga*.
So what does this mean? It means that while UW tends to play schedules with teams with better records from stronger conferences, but those teams have fewer quality-wins then the opponents of Gonzaga.
Gonzaga tends to play better teams with worse records then UW opponents. So a direct comparison is inconclusive so further analysis is necessary.
To get a definitive answer from this data you have to determine what the goal of the season is for each team. The goal of these teams is to earn the highest possible seed within the NCAA Tournament by winning as many games (especially key ones) during the season as possible.
With the goal in mind, which team has more incentive to schedule the other in this equation? Gonzaga almost always earns an automatic bid by way of winning the WCC conference.
Because they play in the WCC, even a conference win doesn't guarantee a top half seed. This is why RPI will always matter to Gonzaga. Although the NCAA tournament selection process is subjective, RPI and SOS are the largest mitigating factors in the process.
That being said, Gonzaga also will never play for a No. 1 seed when they play in the WCC. This means that they will always be playing for a higher seed. So adding another tournament team is needed to continue move to a higher seed.
Washington on the other hand has an inherent advantage—they play in the PAC-10. There usually is an east coast bias when it comes to the west coast teams but in the eyes of the selection committee the PAC-10 looks like the Big East when compared to the WCC.
Washington has the opportunity to play for a No. 1 seed and can achieve that by a great season and a PAC-10 tournament championship. The blueprint to achieve a No. 1 seed was laid in the 2004-2005 season when UW did just that.
The Caveat to the blueprint is that the RPI must at least be comparable to the other top half seeds. If UW decides to schedule a sleepwalk of a schedule then they will not receive a No. 1 seed even with a conference tournament championship.
The last factor that the selection committee looks at when determining the seeding is the human factors. A team that is riding a hot streak is more likely to get a higher seed than expected compared to a team falling at the end of the season. All things being equal the UW will always play much better opponents at the end of each season.
If both UW and GU are fighting for like seeds, UW will get the edge by playing a PAC-10 schedule and tournament at the end of the year. The strong competition in the PAC-10 prepares a team like UW for the Tournament better then the home stretch in the WCC. Gonzaga's recent trouble with lesser opponents in the tournament is another reason why they will always face an uphill battle going in to the NCAA tournament.
At the end of the day, Gonzaga just has more to lose by not playing a team in the PAC-10. There is a ceiling on the highest seed that they can achieve while playing in the WCC. Gonzaga is relagated to relying on their non confrence schedule to pad their resume while Washington can use their confrence scheule to build a strong resume all season.
Washington has more opportunities to achieve a top half seed and doing so with a lesser schedule then Gonzaga. The advantage of playing in the PAC-10 gives the UW an advantage that Gonzaga can not match in the WCC. Since 1999, UW has averaged a SOS rank of 47 while Gonzaga has averaged a rank of 110, the numbers do not lie.
- Further analysis in part II...
*Data Based on Ken Pomeroy Statistics