Blog Entry

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

Posted on: February 18, 2012 1:30 pm
Edited on: February 18, 2012 1:52 pm
The room where it all went down Thursday and Friday. We were secluded in secrecy, soft drinks and statistics. (NCAA)

By Matt Norlander

No matter how emphatically and repeatedly the NCAA Selection Committee insists the RPI isn’t a major factor in picking and seeding 68 teams into the greatest sporting event the universe has ever known, that’s simply not the case. The RPI, as flawed a tool as any mainstream collective ranking metric we have in college basketball, still stenches up the process like burnt popcorn.

(If you’re still not sure why the RPI is built like a Popsicle-stick castle, I’ll promptly point you in the direction of this and this and this. Get to learnin'.)

I had the luxury and pleasure of attending the NCAA mock selection meetings in Indianapolis Thursday and Friday, at the Conrad Hilton. My hope was to file a couple of quick blog updates/entries during the process. That’s nearly impossible. We started at 1 p.m. on Thursday, worked until about 11, then were at it again at 8 a.m. Friday morning and went until 2:30, and then it was off to the airport. It was a beautiful, dream-come-true of a grind. So here I am, frothing to share with you the events of the past 48 hours. On Sunday, I'll have a piece on seeding and bracketing, my loves and laments.

By the way, here's the field of 68 we concluded on, as if the season ended Wednesday night. I'll have more on this in tomorrow's piece. The irrational responses -- some of them tongue-in-cheek -- on Twitter made the entire process worthwhile. If only Jay Bilas had backlashed at us, then it truly would have been a Selection Sunday simulation.

Off camera, NCAA director of media relations David Worlock spellbinds us with his humor and deflection of the issues. (NCAA)

Now, let’s return to the RPI. Here’s my thing. I don’t have an issue with it being in the tool belt. It’s probably always going to be something that factors in, and I’m just going to have to live with that like I live with the cowlicks that command my hairstyle. The RPI generally organizes teams in a reasonable way when it comes to clustered arrangement of the best-to-worst tiers of teams. That said, why can’t the RPI get treated like every other rankings system: equally? Right now, it’s not. Right now, as it's been for the past 30 years, despite semi-annual adjustments to the bare-bones formula (that's what makes it bad and manipulable),  the Ratings Percentage Index remains the favorite flavor to savor for picking the "best" teams into the field.

The NCAA allows (but from what I interpreted, does not heartily endorse) any Selection Committee member to use Sagarin, KenPom, LRMC, Massey or any type of ratings system (including — WHAT — the Coaches’ Poll? It’s true, unfortunately). Those systems are not brought up on the big screen, unless by request, which never happened at our mock.

I'm guessing its seldom a Pomeroy team page will get clicked to the projector screen this year, too, especially since it's now subscription-based, and that $20 annual fee might be a touch too much.  

The RPI is the peanut butter that keeps the primary data smudged together for the Selection Committee. It still permeates the process. And the NCAA still wants to deny that. The NCAA likes to say bringing up a team’s specific RPI ranking doesn’t often come up when debating two teams’ inclusion or seeding. While that’s true, from the outset, the organization, presentation and general data on a team is dressed up in an RPI shirt with an RPI hat and a cute pair of RPI gloves.

On a few occasions, NCAA tournament Poobah Greg Shaheen (who, along with 2012 Selection Committee chair Jeff Hathaway, was awesome) would say, “OK, how many times did you find yourself talking about RPI in the past 10 minutes?” or something to that effect. No one responded with:




"A halfway decent amount!"

But that's not the point, because, as if you're being hypnotized into a train of reason and deduction, the RPI is placed right in front of the committee members’ faces from the start of the process, and I sincerely doubt they deviate from the materials and data given to them by the NCAA and its computer sorting/ranking/bracketing/filterin
g system (which is a slick, impressive computer program). This year, the NCAA has made public for the first time its Nitty Gritty (yes, that’s a capital N and G) sheets. These sheets rank teams by RPI. Immediately, you’re sorting teams in accordance with a flawed system.  Within the Nitty Gritty you’ll see nine of the 16 columned categories are RPI-dictated.

It doesn’t stop there. On team sheets and in side-by-side comparisons, the only metric numbers available are RPI. It's very easy to use the data baked into the NCAA's team sheets and use that in addition to eye test discussion to draw conclusions. In such a scenario, which is one that occurred over and over and over at the mock, you're being unfair and myopic to the process. And more than inclusion to the field, you're jeopardizing fair and realistic seeding -- something, again, I'll get to in Sunday's post.

Why not rank teams with a median of four, five or six respected, mainstream rankings systems, such as the ones listed above? The reason the NCAA doesn't is because some of the systems account for future results, and they don't want any predictive measures entering into the process. I say: the RPI is only one net, and so you've got many holes. The more nets you throw on top of it, the more reasonable general conclusion you can come to, and so fewer and fewer holes are possible in the rankings system. Keep the Nitty Gritty, but tweak:

  • An average ranking tally from RPI, Sagarain, LRMC, KenPom, Massey, and maybe even the brand-new BPI. This will be your master ranking.
  • A neutral-court record. It's glaringly absent from the Nitty Gritty, yet it's part what the NCAA tournament is all about: winning games on neutral courts. 
  • Get rid of conference record. Those are on team sheets and are not paramount to the grand overview the Nitty Gritty aspires to be.
  • Instead of "Record against RPI 1-25, 1-50" etc., give a record against the conglomerate. More inclusion from all systems eliminates the RPI's influence over the Nitty Gritty and general impression committee members glean when absorbing all this information.

I’ve been talking in geek speak for a few grafs here, so let me stop for a second and emphasize that I are pretty much everyone else relied heavily on instinct and eye tests, too. That’s a large part of the discussion. Recalling when a team won or lost and what those circumstances came down to. Debating a team’s merit based on its body of work, its best wins and worst losses: all of those things were a backdrop to the shirts vs. skins question.

Beyond all else, right now, who do you take on a neutral court in a shirts against skins game. Go with your hunch if data is too overwhelming and inconclusive.

Another scenario/question the NCAA said gets brought up frequently during the real selection process: Which team would you rather face in the tournament if it started tomorrow? Whatever team looks more appealing, the other one should be the pick. I liked this. Pragmatism helps, and it's good to glance away from the computer screens and go eye to eye with others when breaking down the bracket.

During the process, my partner, Rush the Court founder and EIC Randy McClure (that's him in the indie-rock glasses in the photo above) found ourselves constantly discussing a team’s merit, but also referencing Pom, Sag, LRMC and the NCAA-organized team sheets. We compared rankings and looked for outliers in the process. It was meticulous. We were frequently the last ones to submit our votes for teams as we whittled down the field (this became fodder for Shaheen to tease us), and the reason was we wanted to be thorough.

From that, here’s my conclusion: I don’t think NCAA Selection Committee members are using all available, valuable tools when picking and seeding teams. I think it’s too much information; there’s too much discussion, and the ease of the NCAA team sheets and the debates that come with it are too easy to cling to/subconsciously rely on. You have to open separate web browsers and constantly click band and forth between rankings systems. Why do that when you’ve got basic — and flawed — data in front of you that’s brought up simply by asking, “Can we get a side-by-side of Cincinnati and Middle Tennessee State?”

The process is tedious, because it needs to be, but it's still not completely all-inclusive. We'll know the NCAA truly respects other rankings systems and isn't subjective to the RPI before all else when it takes the initiative to include other credible, established rankings systems into its team sheets, computer program and debates. 

I happily admit, though, for me, whenever it's too close to call, I'll always go back to shirts vs. skins. Who you got?


Since: Jan 26, 2012
Posted on: February 21, 2012 6:25 pm

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process


Thanks for this thorough insight into the selection process.  You've shone a bright light on the neanderthal-type lunacy of using the RPI and having it embedded into every metric that the NCAA provides.

Since: Jan 26, 2012
Posted on: February 21, 2012 6:20 pm

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

Are you arguing that only the championship matters?  So Butler and VCU are only first round tomato cans?

The RPI is just a number, but it's a very poor number when you have Sagarin, KenPom, BPI, Massey, LRMC, etc.  which are much better numbers.  Using the RPI is like using a sledgehammer for surgery.  It's a blunt instrument, not a precise tool.  The RPI is the 8-track tape in a digital 21st century.

Since: Jan 26, 2012
Posted on: February 21, 2012 5:40 pm

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

During the mock selection process, the NCAA will throw in things like "SEMO just beat Murray St in the OVC tournament" to let the media see how this affects the real committee.

Since: Oct 23, 2009
Posted on: February 19, 2012 8:50 pm

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

I do not root for them, but the 2005-06 Missouri State University basketball team had an RPI of 34th in Kenpom, and better than that in the NCAA official RPI, and yet they were rejected for the tournament.  I noticed that year as they do every year, that if a team is in a mid-major conference, the tournament committee scours its record to find a reason to keep it out; and at the same time if a team is in an important conference, the committee scours its record to find a reason to put it in the tournament.  Every year I enjoy watching the opening weekend to see how many unnecessary Big 10 and Big East teams lose and go home.  I have never been disappointed in that result.

Since: Nov 18, 2007
Posted on: February 19, 2012 12:35 pm

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

LMRC is the best ranking model.  Use it, with the eye test and you can pick a fine field.  RPI sucks, BPI sucks just as bad (but someone differently).

Since: Feb 8, 2012
Posted on: February 19, 2012 10:49 am

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

Ummm......ever heard of VCU......seems to me they were a last 4, played in Dayton, then made it to the Final Four.  But then they didn't win it all did they?

Since: Dec 15, 2006
Posted on: February 19, 2012 10:39 am

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

I should add that the best matchup for the Title would be KENTUCKY vs SYRACUSE.....BUT will they get SOFTER SEEDS to have a few EASIER games....OR get matchups with teams that can frustrate them...Both are GR8 teams and SYRACUSE is SO deep....but ITS ALL ABOUT THOSE WEEKEND MATCHUPS.

Since: Dec 15, 2006
Posted on: February 19, 2012 10:31 am

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

As a CUSE fan...and AFTER reading so many posts to a VERY verbose article...I MUST agree with the posters that say a team like DUKE gets teams that they CAN beat...based on their style of play.A team with a good shot like SYRACUSE MAY have a BUNCH of hurdles to get over while a team such as DUKE or KANSAS will have opponents that play  a style they can exploit.I believe that the committee has ALWAYS favored schools that are CBB only schools.A college that has ANOTHER sport they EXCEL in gets the short end of the stick in seeding by the selection committee.The deck was stacked AGAINST Syracuse in 2003 but who thought CARMELO ANTHONY & GERRY MACNAMARA could carry a team to play KANSAS and win when HAKIM WARRICK blocks a last second shot from the corner for the win.I give PROPS to the POSTERS on this one....COMMENTS were far better than the article itself..ALOT of people did their homework......GOLD STARS all around!!!!!

Since: Jan 4, 2010
Posted on: February 19, 2012 9:41 am

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

Say what you want to say, the best teams in America are UK, Syracuse, UNC. Mizzou, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Kansas in that order.  The tournament should be set so the first four teams end up in New Orleans.

Since: Dec 17, 2006
Posted on: February 19, 2012 12:52 am

RPI still hovers over, cloaks selection process

Can somebody explain to me how this "expert" media bracket includes Southeast Missouri State (14-13, 3rd place in Ohio Valley) as a 16 seed?  As the 3rd place team behind Murray State, nobody should be projecting them to win the Ohio Valley, and there's NO WAY they would get an at large bid???

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