Many College Basketball Teams Wish the Selection Committee Still Used RPI

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 27, 2020

Auburn's Bruce Pearl and Samir Doughty
Auburn's Bruce Pearl and Samir DoughtyJulie Bennett/Associated Press

During the 2018 offseason, the NCAA made the switch from Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) as the primary sorting means for the NCAA men's basketball tournament selection committee, and it was immediately championed as an incredible decision.

We still don't fully know how the NET is calculatedwe've been told the factors considered, but no one knows how they're weightedhowever, anything is better than the archaic RPI, right?

Some would argue that scoring margin and efficiency are factored too heavily into the NET rankings, though everyone can probably agree they ought to be included in some capacity.

Not caring whether a team won by a single point at the buzzer or by a 40-point blowout was the fatal flaw of RPI, and the NET generally gives a much better indication of which teams are best at basketball as opposed to which athletic directors were best at putting together schedules that would curry favor with the RPI.

That said, not every fan is enamored with the NET, because they root for teams that would be in much better tournament positionor they root against teams that would be in much worse shapeif the selection committee still used RPI.

Using RPI and NET rankings from the start of play Wednesday, let's look at a few teams (and one entire conference) that long for the days of yore when RPI reigned supreme.

                 

Auburn Tigers (RPI: 5, NET: 27)

Auburn has a 24-4 record, five Quadrant 1 wins and a combined 12 victories against the top two quadrants, so it might be hard to fathom why the Tigers are all the way down at No. 27 in the NETa full 18 spots behind Florida State, which has marks of 24-4, five and 13, respectively. (It's even worse on KenPom.com, where Auburn is ranked No. 39.)

As far as the RPI is concerned, the Tigers belong in the mix for a No. 1 seed. They are instead teetering on the border between the No. 4 and No. 5 seed lines in the Bracket Matrix, reflecting the NET's lack of admiration for them.

Auburn can thank its mediocre margin of victory for that disparity.

The Tigers have won five overtime games (which count as one-point wins to the NET regardless of how wide the margin gets in the extra time) and have had three other Quadrant 3 contests (at South Alabama, vs. Iowa State, vs. Vanderbilt) decided by four points or fewer. Meanwhile, all four of their losses were by double digits against opponents that are, at best, on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Combine the year-to-date scoring margin of 8.0 points per game with the fact that all five of Auburn's Quadrant 1 wins have come against the bottom half of that group, and it's little wonder why the formerly 15-0 Tigers never got the respect that typically coincides with that type of start.

Auburn will get into the tournament comfortably, though. Others might not be so lucky. 

            

Cincinnati Bearcats (RPI: 26, NET: 54)

Cincinnati's Jarron Cumberland
Cincinnati's Jarron CumberlandJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

The ironic thing about Cincinnati's suffering under the NET this year is that this is the team I constantly brought up in previous seasons as most likely to try to "cheat" the scoring-margin system by destroying bad opponents.

In the first four games of the 2015-16 season, the Bearcats had an average winning margin of 42.3 points against dreadful competition. It was a similar story two years later when they played four of their first seven games at home against KenPom sub-300 opponents, winning those "contests" by 39.0 points.

They always seemed to be the primary team tricking KenPom's ratings into believing they were better than they actually were, and they somewhat proved it by repeatedly losing during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.

But this year, Cincinnati put together a much more formidable nonconference schedule, resulting in more losses and more close calls than usual. It only has two nonconference wins by more than 12 points, and it might miss the NCAA tournament because of it.

Even in AAC play, though, the NET is doing a disservice to Cincinnati. As ESPN's Mark Adams noted via Twitter on Monday, Cincinnati's 67-64 home win over Wichita State on Sunday resulted in a jump from 33 to 26 in the RPI and a drop from 53 to 54 in the NET.

The Bearcats also won their road game against the Shockers by just one point, defeated Houston by two and have played in seven overtime games, winning four and losing three. Two-thirds (18 of 27) of their games have been decided by single digits.

The four Quadrant 3 losses to Colgate, UCF, Bowling Green and Tulane are the main reason Cincinnati is smack dab on the bubble, but its affinity for playing in nail-biters isn't helping matters.

Two years ago, this 18-9 record against a top-15 strength of schedule and a spot just outside the RPI top 25 would have made the Bearcats a near-lock for the NCAA tournament. Ranking outside the top 50 in the NET might mean the NIT, though.

          

Furman Paladins (RPI: 42, NET: 78)
Akron Zips (RPI: 48, NET: 79)

As a rule of thumb, the NET has not been kind to the top mid-majors.

Northern Iowa's NET (46) is double its RPI (23). East Tennessee State's gap (39 vs. 29) isn't quite as wide, but that could be the difference between an at-large bid and a trip to the NIT if the Buccaneers falter in the SoCon tournament. Liberty (51 in NET; 58 in RPI) is the only one in the top 60 of either metric that's happy with the switch.

But the two mid-majors that are suffering the most are Furman and Akron.

Neither the 20-6 Paladins nor the 19-7 Zips have done anything that impressive. They have a combined record of 1-9 against the top two Quadrants, with Furman's home win over ETSU as the lone outlier in a sea of losses. That both rank in the RPI top 50 is a testament to why we needed a new metric.

Nevertheless, those two minimal-loss squads would have been in the at-large conversation two years ago. In all likelihood, the selection committee would have made note of their lack of quality wins and quickly moved on to other, more deserving candidates, but they would've at least received a cursory glance as top-50 teams.

Now that they're both ranked outside the top 75, though, it is surely "auto bid or bust." 

         

The Top 6 Teams in the Atlantic 10

Rhode Island's Fatts Russell
Rhode Island's Fatts RussellJulio Cortez/Associated Press

The A-10 is typically a lock for multiple bids. It sent at least three teams to the Big Dance 11 consecutive times from 2008 to 2018. And while it only got two teams in during the NET's debut year, two is still multiple bids.

That streak might end, though. Dayton is in the mix for a No. 1 seed, but Rhode Island and Richmond are the only other viable at-large candidates, and both are hovering around the bubble.

That would be a different story if we were still using RPI.

There are six teams in the A-10 with fewer than 10 losses, and all six have worse NET rankings than RPI rankings.

Dayton is No. 4, but it would've been No. 2 in the old system. Rhode Island (22 in RPI; 38 in NET), Richmond (32 and 50), Duquesne (77 and 95) and Saint Louis (49 and 72) are each roughly 20 spots worse in the NET than in RPI. And St. Bonaventure takes the cake with a bubble-worthy RPI rank of 69 and a never-going-to-be-remotely-considered 113th in the NET.

That sextet is a combined 121 spots worse in the NET, and there's no question it is having a negative impact on the conference's reputation.

For example, take Richmond's loss at St. Bonaventure this past weekend. It was interpreted by most as a possible at-large-bid-killing disaster, considering the Bonnies are well outside the top 100 in the NET. But as far as the RPI is concerned, that was merely a Quadrant 1 flesh wound.

The most likely culprit of this divide was a lack of quality nonconference wins.

Duquesne went 10-2 with neither a top-100 win nor a true road victory. Saint Louis is in the same boat, except it went 11-2 and did win one road game (at Boston College). St. Bonaventure had an impressive neutral-site victory over Rutgers, but it also had bad losses to Canisius, Siena and Ohio. And Richmond (lost to Radford) and Rhode Island (lost to Brown) didn't fare as well in the first seven weeks of the season as is expected from most at-large teams.

They each won at least eight nonconference games, but aside from Dayton, they didn't bring good resumes into league play. And since Dayton hasn't been willing to share the wealth at all, going 15-0 in A-10 games, the league's second and third tiers haven't gained traction.

        

The NET Lovers

Minnesota's Daniel Oturu
Minnesota's Daniel OturuHolly Hart/Associated Press

There's also a flip side to this coin. If Cincinnati, Rhode Island and Richmond would all be comfortably in the field while Akron, Furman and Saint Louis would at least be somewhere in the conversation as top-50 teams, which teams in (or close to) the projected field would be in significantly worse shape under the old system?

For starters, almost the entire Big Ten is thankful for the NET.

We can't seem to write off Purdue (NET No. 37) or Minnesota (No. 44), even though they are both sitting at .500 overall. But in the RPIwhere the Boilermakers are No. 96 and the Golden Gophers are No. 99they would've been dead and buried at least two weeks ago.

And those are just the big ones. Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State would each be 15-23 spots worse in the RPI.

Remember that note about the A-10's top six teams having a combined NET rank 121 spots lower than their RPI?

For the 14-team Big Ten, its combined NET rank is 323 spots higher.

The Big Ten has seven teams in the NET top 30, but it only has one team (Maryland) in the RPI top 30. That change would greatly hurt the conference as a whole because it would diminish the quantity of Quadrant 1 games.

In the NET, the top 12 teams in the Big Ten have a combined Q1 record of 68-92. Switch to RPI, and that plummets to 34-74. On a per-team basis, that's 4.3 fewer Quadrant 1 games and 2.8 fewer Quadrant 1 victories.

There would still be 10 Big Ten teams with a realistic chance for an at-large bid, but it would probably end up being a seven- or eight-bid league, at best.

We'll leave you with a few other non-B1G beneficiaries of the NET:

  • Texas Tech (NET No. 21; RPI No. 60) is looking good for a No. 8 seed, but the Red Raiders would have been squarely on the bubble two years ago with this resume.
  • Stanford (NET No. 31; RPI No. 64) is in the last-four-in/first-four-out range, but the Cardinal would barely even have an at-large pulse if RPI were the primary sorting metricwhich makes sense, since they only have one particularly noteworthy win (vs. Oregon) and a couple of embarrassing losses.
  • And while Auburn and Dayton would enter the No. 1-seed conversation if RPI were still our guide, Gonzaga (NET No. 3; RPI No. 14) and San Diego State (NET No. 5; RPI No. 11) would likely be battling for the last No. 2 seed instead of jostling for position on the No. 1 line.

By no means are we proposing that the RPI is a better metric or wishing it was back in our lives. In all of the above cases, the NET seems to be the better, more rational sorting tool. But hopefully you enjoyed this pseudo trip down memory lane in the never-ending quest to figure out who belongs in the NCAA tournament and where they should be seeded.

                                    

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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