UK Wildcat Basketball: RPI rant & re-defining 'must win'

If the 'Cats are to crash the Big Dance, leave nothing to chance. - USA TODAY Sports

With the Kentucky Wildcats precariously perched atop the NCAA tourney bubble, I take the chance to bash the RPI (and the import placed on it), and explain why the 'Cats can't afford to lose any of their next four games.

Rant & Roll

As much as I despise the Ratings Percentage Index (aka the RPI), unfortunately this season, the Kentucky Wildcats' NCAA tourney hopes are tied directly to the formula which proposes to accurately rank teams based on a) a team's schedule strength, and b) a team's opponents' strength of schedule, as well as c) a team's opponents' opponent's strength of schedule (go here for a full explanation of the RPI). In essence, 75 percent of a team's RPI is devised by ranking strength of schedule, a method so full of holes, limited time and space precludes me from fulling venting on its usage. So I'll let the system indict itself -- According to the RPI, even after being pummeled by Bama in the BCS title game, Notre Dame was the best college football team in the nation last year ... almost solely due to its strength of schedule.

In the RPI (in which no weight is given for margins of winning or losing), coming up short on the road against a strong team, winning at home, and against top 100 RPI squads, are the keys to raising a team's Index profile.

In other words, lose to good teams, while beating mediocre teams, and the RPI will deem one's favorite college basketball team top 20 worthy. Thankfully, the NCAA Selection Committee uses the RPI mainly as a supplement, not the beat-all, end-all for determining who gets in, and who's left out of the NCAA tourney. Why thankfully?

Because even in late January, after most of the college basketball world has played nearly 20 games -- an adequate number of contests in which to accurately rank teams -- the RPI is still, in my view, off base by a wide margin with its rankings (mostly due to the "credit" a squad receives for losing to a top RPI team). For example (records are against DI schools only):

  • Miami, Fla., while starting its ACC season impressively by going undefeated through six league games, including pulverizing the Duke Blue Devils by 27 points, are currently ranked by the RPI at No. 3 in the nation. The Hurricane losses at Florida Gulf Coast (12-8), and home to Indiana State (12-7), are, in a strange, twisted way, almost erased from the RPI's memory by a 19 point loss to RPI No. 4 Arizona.
  • New Mexico, a team that lost to South Dakota State and St. Louis (by 14), is ranked No. 7.
  • Butler, a team I like (mostly for beating Indiana), is rated the 10th best team in the nation, even though Brad Stevens' 'Dogs lost to an 11-8 Xavier squad as well as an Illinois team with a 2-5 Big Ten mark.
  • Minnesota, a team with a 3-4 record in the Big Ten, is ranked No. 11.
  • Belmont, that's right, Belmont, is ranked No. 14 in the RPI, although its best win is against Middle Tennessee. The 29 point pasting Belmont endured at the hands of Kansas, No. 2 in the RPI, actually works in Belmont's favor. Go figure.
  • Colorado, a team with six losses overall, and sporting a 4-4 record in the Pac 10, is rated the 21st best team in the nation. Not unlike Belmont, Kansas' drilling the Buffaloes by 36 (laughably) helps their RPI cause.
  • Oklahoma, a team with five losses, including a 25 point whitewash to Gonzaga, is ranked No. 22. Other, less-than-impressive Boomer Sooner losses include setbacks to Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas.
  • Colorado State, a 14-4 team that lost to Illinois-Chicago by nine, is ranked No. 23. Well, CSU did beat North Florida by 28. I guess that's something.
  • The Michigan Wolverines, the team I consider the best in the nation, is ranked No. 6 by the RPI. Close to reality for sure, but if there are five college basketball teams better than Michigan, I'm in desperate need of an optometrist appointment.

OK, enough railing against the RPI. Now, onto why Kentucky, based on its current No. 62 RPI ranking, is staring directly at a four game season in which the 'Cats cannot lose (even one game) if they harbor any reasonable hope of making this year's NCAA Tournament.

Re-defining 'must win'

In most any other Kentucky basketball season, the term 'must win' is bandied about by fans and media alike when discussing, oh, UK winning the SEC regular-season title, or possibly when one game impacts the 'Cats' chances of earning a No. 1 seed in the SEC or NCAA tourneys. Or when UK hooks up with Louisville. Or Duke. Or North Carolina. Or UCLA. Or Kansas.

Seldom, though, does talk of "must win" game[s] creep into Wildcat conversation when it comes to Kentucky's chances of participating in the NCAA tourney. But this season, a challenging season for everyone involved, from coaches and players to hardcore 'Cat fans, the name of the game has changed.

Instead of UK vying for a top seed in the Big Dance, unfortunate losses and the lack of a win over a top ten-type team, have conspired to render the 'Cats semi-desperate heading into February. And it's the immediate future, the next four Wildcat contests, which hold the answer to UK's Big Dance dreams (for the moment).

First up in UK's four (must win) game season are the Ole Miss Rebels in a late-night Super Tuesday match-up on ESPN. With Mississippi ranked No. 31 in the RPI, and Kentucky in dire need of a signature win, a victory over Andy Kennedy's club would represent UK's best triumph of the season -- The 'Cats' most favorable victories this year have come against Maryland, ranked No. 65 by the RPI, and Tennessee (79th). A win over the Rebels would additionally improve the Wildcats' record against the RPI top 100, which currently sits at an abysmal 2-7 (0-4 versus the RPI top 50).

Lose to Ole Miss, and Kentucky is put into a nearly untenable position, primarily because winning at Florida -- No. 5 in the RPI -- on February 12th would become yet another must win in order for the 'Cats to be a serious Big Dance contender (absent UK winning the SEC tourney).

After UK's showdown with the Rebels, the 'Cats travel to College Station, Texas for another meeting with one of this season's Wildcat villains, the Texas A&M Aggies, and its formerly unconscious shooting star, Elston Turner. A&M, with an RPI of 83, represents not an opportunity for UK, but rather, a game the 'Cats CANNOT afford to lose. Period. Not that the Wildcats would gain much RPI ground by beating A&M, but Kentucky is in no position to drop, even a teensy, tiny bit in the RPI, as the 'Cats fight to get into the top 50-to-55 range of the ratings index (where I think UK will need to be in order to receive an NCAA bid).

Sadly, the same refrain can be repeated about UK's two opponents after A&M, South Carolina (RPI 193) and Auburn (RPI 210). If UK were to lose to A&M, SC, or Auburn, turn out the lights because the 2013 hardwood party is most likely over, at least as far as the 'Cats playing in the NCAA tourney is concerned. Because Kentucky would have to run the tables the rest of the way, including beating Florida twice, winning at UT, beating Missouri, and winning at Arkansas, among other victories, to earn an invitation. Something that a team that (hypothetically) lost to A&M twice, SC, or Auburn, is highly unlikely to accomplish.

If Kentucky were to "get it" and "buy in" and "play a complete game," resulting in the 'Cats actually winning the next four games, then, probably take an "L" in Gainesville (no shame in that), the Wildcats would be sitting at 17-6 overall (8-3 in SEC), and would be in a much stronger position to legitimately vie for a Big Dance date down the stretch, RPI-wise.

After all, Kentucky is Kentucky. Wildcat tournament games are always heavily viewed, and 'Cat fans travel like no other. If at all reasonable, why wouldn't the selection committee want to find a way to include UK in this year's tournament for the title? Surely there would be no petty, agenda-driven votes of nay when UK's name is called.

Right?

This year, of all years, Kentucky simply must give the selection committee no option but to place the 'Cats in the Field of 68. And the Wildcats winning all of their must win games is the only way to ensure the committee's hands are permanently dye-cast in the thumbs up position when UK is tabled.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett

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