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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
'Bag: RPI, bubble and the No. 1 debate

By Eamonn Brennan

Each Wednesday, your humble college basketball hoops blogger (er, me) will respond to your questions, comments and nonsensical rants in this here Hoopsbag. To submit a query, visit this pageby clicking the link under my name in the upper righthand corner of the blog. You can also e-mail me or send me your entries via Twitter or Facebook. Per the usual, we begin in video form.

Jeff Hullinger from Dublin, Ohio writes: Eamonn: I have no complaints about your excellent coverage of the bubble. My problem is with the committee, which continues to pay homage to the RPI when superior performance predictions are provided by Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. Why doesn't the NCAA recognize the inherent fallibility of RPI and go to Pomeroy, Sagarin or some combination thereof instead?

Eamonn Brennan writes: Good question, Jeff! The answer is ... well, I'm not exactly sure what the answer is, actually. A good place to start is the simple fact that the RPI is the NCAA's official "supplemental data" method, and any organization is going to tend to lean toward the formulas it creates. Throw in tradition, familiarity, understanding, and perhaps a bit of inflexibility -- the RPI has been around since 1981, after all -- and it's probably no surprise the committee is still clinging to the outdated formula.

So, just how much does the committee actually use RPI? The next few paragraphs come from the "NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship Principles and Procedures for Establishing the Bracket," a title so long you'd think a publishing house wrote it:
The RPI is one of many resources/tools available to the committee in the selection, seeding and bracketing process. Computer models cannot accurately evaluate qualitative factors such as games missed by key players or coaches, travel difficulties, the emotional effects of specific games, etc. [...]

Each committee member independently evaluates a vast amount of information during the process to make individual decisions. It is these qualitative, quantitative and subjective opinions -- developed after hours of personal observations, discussion with coaches, directors of athletics and commissioners, and review and comparison of various data -- that each individual ultimately will determine their vote on all issues related to selections, seeding and bracketing.

The individual components (i.e., win-loss record, opponents' record, opponent opponents' record, where the game is played) of the RPI in and of themselves, are important in the evaluation process.

In other words, the NCAA's official stance is that the Ratings Percentage Index is, as I wrote above, "supplemental data." According to the NCAA's own prescriptions, RPI shouldn't be determinative. Rather, it should be used to challenge or buttress perceptions about teams based on a whole host of other factors, including and up to the "eyeball test." In reality, as I observed at the mock bracket selection exercise last year, the RPI is all over the selection committee's information. Official NCAA nitty-gritty sheets are organized the same way Insider as the ones at ESPN.com are organized -- by columns based on top 50 wins, top 100 losses, and so on. There's no question the RPI is the NCAA's dominant statistical formula. That, as Jeff writes, is a bit of a problem.

The problem with this is not that the NCAA is using formulas to help select the tournament. It's that the committee is using the wrong formula. Ken Pomeroy's rankings are entirely more enlightening; they measure what teams do on a per-possession basis, and they adjust those results based on the competition a team faces. This is not only simpler and more intuitive than RPI, but it is a better predictor of future success, and KenPom's individual team sheets can tell you a good deal of information -- certainly more than the RPI -- about each team's strengths, weaknesses, and individual performances.

Pomeroy and Sagarin's rankings were listed in the mock committee's materials as "other sources of information" when I went to Indianapolis last year. This is both encouraging and frustrating. It's encouraging because the NCAA clearly seems to recognize the value of numbers. Not only that, but it's aware that tempo-free stats are out there, and that they're useful. Otherwise, why list them? But some evidence points to the simple fact that the committee doesn't glance at Pomeroy or Sagarin when it selects or seeds the bracket. The RPI is still king.

Why is this? I honestly don't know. We've established that a) the committee is perfectly willing to use numbers to create and supplement its perceptions, b) it believes that the best committee is one that combines all possible perspectives and sources of information and c) it is well aware of the Pomeroy/Sagarin ratings systems. Perhaps it's just a matter of time. Perhaps the committee just needs a few nudges in the right direction. Perhaps we'll get there soon. Let's hope so, anyway.


Greg from Los Angeles writes: I'm sure you've been hearing this more and more the past week, but it bears repeating with a logical argument: Michigan would certainly not have the worst resume on your list. RPI of 58, 6-7 in a top-two conference, No. 18-ranked schedule. They've won 5 of 6 which means they're actually going in the right direction.True, their best wins are at Clemson and at Michigan State, but they have to be ahead of both of those teams, which are on your list. I admit they wouldn't make the tourney today, but a 3-2 finish gets them to .500 in the conference and would include a couple more quality wins. It's not a long shot -- and that's the definition of the bubble, right? Keep up the good work.

Joe White from Lansing, Mich., writes: What is the justification for Michigan State over Michigan at this point? Or maybe more importantly, why are they not both on the "work left to do" list? I think they both deserve a spot. Definitely concerned after wins at the Breslin and at Penn State (who was killing everybody at home, even top 25'ers), that Michigan is nowhere to be found on your list. Same record as Illinois, better record than MSU with a win over them to boot, crazy SOS, good road wins, etc. How about this: If Michigan drops the Illini tonight in Champaign, you get 'em in the mix? Fair?

Dan from New York writes: Big Michigan hoops fan. I'm sure you've gotten a couple comments. Fan of your column. My goal for the Michigan season was to make it onto bubble watch throughout February so I could pretend we'd have a shot at making the field. Make my dreams come true!

Brennan: Michigan is getting closer and closer with every game they win, but the truth is that five-out-of-their-last-six mark Greg mentioned is essentially five wins over teams (Michigan State, Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana) on the bubble, in the NIT, or worse. The computer profile is decent, though that RPI could certainly use a boost. The overall record isn't sexy, but it's on par with what some bubble teams have. The only problem is quality wins. Michigan's two top 50 RPI wins have come at Michigan State and over Harvard. The Wolverines have lost their other seven top-50 RPI tests. That's why Wednesday night's game at Illinois is so huge. If Michigan gets a win at Illinois -- which is doable, considering the Illini's ongoing struggles -- then I think they can seriously enter the conversation.

In other words, Joe, you've got a deal. And Dan, you keep reaching for the stars, buddy. Dreams do come true!


Nick in Lincoln, Neb. writes: Fighting for my case, Nebraska has an equal chance to make the tournament as Oklahoma State in my eyes. Although not impressive in the non-conference schedule, they have still held their own in the big 12 (minus hiccups at baylor and TTU). What are your thoughts on them at this point?

Brennan: If Nebraska has as good a chance to make the tournament as Oklahoma State, that says less about the Huskers' chances of getting in than it does about the Cowboys' chances of missing out. Frankly, neither team is all that impressive, but Oklahoma State has a much better RPI, a better record against top teams, better nonconference results, and no loss as bad as Nebraska's Nov. 19 defeat against Davidson. We had Nebraska in the Bubble Watch for a while there, but the Huskers are a big time long-shot from here on out.


Bob in Moraga writes: Eamonn, I really enjoy your detailed analyses of the bubble. My question: Will St. Mary's ascend to the "should be in" Line if they beat San Diego and Utah State this week, and to "lock" status if they beat Gonzaga next Thursday?

Brennan writes: Both scenarios are probably a little optimistic. Let's just say this: If Saint Mary's wins all three games, they're in very solid, "should be in" territory going forward. I don't think the Gaels will ever be a "lock" -- that status is lofty and difficult to attain, especially for a team with so few opportunities for quality wins in the WCC -- but it would very difficult to imagine them missing out if things play out as you describe.


DJ in Cleveland writes: Even though I am a Buckeye fan (it's an Ohio thing), I live in Cleveland and follow Cleveland State basketball. WHERE IS THE LOVE? I know that they are 0-3 against RPI top 50 WV, Butler twice, but you can't ignore a 22-5 record. Two years ago a 23-11 CSU team got into the tournament (granted they won the Horizon Tournament), but they went in and shocked Wake Forest. In a year where everyone is talking about a soft bubble, where is the love? Why are they not even considered at-large contenders?

Brennan: DJ busting out the Black Eyed Peas! Trust me, I have love for the Vikings. Norris Cole is the kind of mid-major player that demands the NCAA tournament spotlight. And I think CSU could do some serious damage if they got in. Unfortunately, their decent RPI is belied by the fact that Cleveland State didn't win any of the big games it needed to this year. It lost two games to Butler. It fell short at West Virginia. It lost at Detroit (RPI: 153). Its only three top-100 RPI wins have came at home against St. Bonaventure, Kent State, and Valparaiso. Sorry, but there isn't anything on that record to recommend the Vikings, and the loss to Detroit probably means the Vikings won't be able to salvage their record before the season is over. In other words, get ready for the Horizon League tournament. It should be a doozy.


Chuck from South Bend, Ind., writes: Is Notre Dame underrated? The Irish don't always play exciting basketball -- controlling the tempo makes bad television -- and I think they suffer from a media bias on account of that. I understand my location reveals my current hometown and mutes some of my enthusiasm for the team, but ND's win resume is as good as anyone's in the country. They share the ball, shoot it well and have an experienced, savvy lineup.

Brennan: I don't disagree with any of that, except for the part about ND being underrated. It's hard for me to see Notre Dame as underrated when the Irish are nestled in the AP and ESPN/USA Today coaches' polls next to San Diego State, BYU, and Georgetown. Coaches, media, and everyone in between knows this team is good, and they have for a while now.


Sandy in Austin, Tex., writes: Kansas may have lost to Texas, but you keep forgetting that it was under rare circumstances. Thomas Robinson had just found out his mother had died suddenly and at a young age the night before. Most players were operating on one hour of sleep. Kansas was kicking Texas's butt until they ran out of gas. Kansas will not lose to Texas again this season, keep your eye on the Big 12 tournament championship, and please, before you keep making Texas out to be all that, please note the real reason why they won. Oh, and I guess you can also note that Texas struggled with Baylor on their home court.

Brennan: First, a little background: Sandy was far from the only Jayhawks fan to hit the inbox with a reminder that Texas won at Kansas the day after Robinson's mother tragically passed away. These emails are in response to Monday's Poll Thoughts, in which I questioned the reasons behind Kansas' jump to the No. 1 overall spot in both polls. I didn't note the Robinson situation in that post for a couple reasons. For one, I thought Kansas was a deserving No. 1 ... just not as deserving as Ohio State (and arguably less deserving than Texas). Two, it's really hard to know just how much of an effect outside situations have on games like that. You can take them into account, but it's impossible to quantify them, and at the end of the day you just have to go with what you see on the court.

What I saw on the court when Texas won at Kansas was Texas' stifling defense take over the game down the stretch. Does Kansas win a rematch? Maybe. But for Jayhawks fans convinced that home loss was a fluke, take note of exactly what Texas has done to conference opponents on the defense end this season. I'll let Basketball Prospectus's John Gasaway take it from here:

1.02: That’s the average number of points the Longhorns’ conference opponents are scoring on possessions where they do not commit a turnover (what I call an effective possession). In other words, if every team that played Texas was given a magic pill that would make it impossible for them to give the ball away, ever, those teams would still be scoring just 1.02 points per trip. That would make UT the second-best D in their league, behind Kansas. An imaginary Texas D with zero turnovers forced over 653 possessions would actually be better than 10 out of 11 real-world Big 12 defenses.

That. Is. Insane. If Texas keeps this up, they'll finish the regular season with one of the single most impressive defenses, like, ever. Which brings me back to my original point. Maybe Kansas beats Texas in a rematch. Kansas is very, very good. But Texas is pretty freaking good, too. Tragic circumstances or not, that's what we saw in Lawrence on Jan. 22, and that's worth keeping mind as these two duke it out for Big 12 superiority down the stretch.

Oh, and by the way, Ohio State should still be No. 1. Truth.


Tom from Twin Falls, Idaho, writes: YOU SUCK BRENNAN! I have no basis for the previous statement, I just have the urge every time I read the last paragraph of Bubble Watch. I am sure I am not the only one and I guess that makes this kinda lame, but there you go.

Brennan: Nope, not lame at all. Actually kind of awesome, in fact. Keep the questions and comments coming, kids. The 'Bag's office hours are always open.