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NCAA Basketball Tournament 2016: It's not the Product, NCAA - It's the Process

The NCAA is doing a disservice to their member institution by using the RPI.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an annual rite of passage for Kentucky fans to complain about seeding — that is, unless UK is the #1 overall seed like last year — then nobody seems to mind. So that would make a great topic for a post, wouldn’t it? I think so.

However, I’m not really interested in complaining about Kentucky’s seed. To me, it just doesn’t matter that much — three or four, whatever. I could find a way to defend either seed, and one seed line is not a catastrophe for anyone. As far as the teams Kentucky gets to play, all I can say is that if you don’t want the chance to beat North Carolina and Indiana, there’s something profoundly wrong with you. And if you don’t think we can beat them, what kind of UK fan are you, anyway?

So no, I’m not mad about Kentucky’s seed, or it’s path through the bracket at all. I’m much more concerned about the state of the NCAA Tournament, and seeds 1 and 2 of the NIT. In other words, this is a back-door method to complain about the abject failure of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Committee to modernize it’s selection process.

If you watched any of the gobsmacking “explanations” from the committee talking heads last night, you found yourself hearing the same thing over and over again — “RPI [this]” and “RPI [that].” Last season we heard much less of that, and at least lip service to advanced metrics like those of Ken Pomeroy and ESPN’s BPI created by Dean Oliver, the author of Basketball on Paper which also formed the basis for Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. The biggest difference between them is how the two systems treat things like scoring margin, presence or absence of players, the treatment of road wins, and adjusts the ratings for opponent quality.

Having said all that stuff, the reality is that the BPI and Pomeroy ratings reflect the current “state of the art” in basketball statistical performance analysis. They tend to be fairly close to each other, although there can be significant variances introduced by the different treatments. Both are vastly superior to the RPI, and this has been pointed out for many years. Consider this unfortunately evergreen 2012 post by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan:

The RPI’s methodology (who you beat plus who your opponents beat plus who your opponents’ opponents beat) is really dumb. There are countless rankings systems that provide a much more realistic methodology, including the numbers generated and maintained by Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, Ken Massey, the big brains that built the LRMC and, most recently, the ESPN Analytics Group’s new Basketball Power Index, which is, after a mere week of existence, already five or six times better at evaluating bubble teams than is the RPI.

As much as the NCAA downplays the role of RPI in the committee’s selection and seeding process, Scott says it can’t help but be “subliminally impacted” by the metric, and he’s exactly right: Every “nitty gritty” page the NCAA uses, every fact and figure and list of top 50 wins and strength of schedule and noncon SOS and you name it is broken down based on RPI. You can’t sit in the selection room and not be affected by RPI. It underpins every consideration the committee makes, whether the committee always knows it or not.

There are other statistical systems, both well-known (Sagarin ratings) and lesser-known (LRMC) that are also inherently superior to the RPI by themselves, never mind in combination with the other systems.

This year, the NCAA didn’t even bother to pay lip service to the other stats systems, they simply ignored them altogether. How else can you explain Tulsa (heck, even the RPI can’t explain Tulsa), Colorado as an 8-seed with an inferior record to South Carolina (among other worthies) who didn’t make the field, or the bizarro-world nomination of Oregon as a top seed despite Michigan State’s (among others) vastly superior qualifications?

The answer is simple — you can’t, and the normally-reserved Joe Lunardi (at least when it comes to criticism of the Committee) couldn’t even manage to sit on his outrage this year.

For my part, I have never been loath to criticize the Ivory Tower of the NCAA selection committee, although I don’t doubt their work ethic — everyone in the know says they work hard and have nothing but the best of intentions. But what good is hard work and good intentions when they use an out-of-date tool that simply doesn’t provide the best basis for decision-making, then proceed to make virtually all their decisions based on it?

The NCAA invented the RPI, so I suppose “Not Invented Here” could be a major driving factor. But continuing to use this obsolete formula in spite of having better tools is like calculating the value of pi to the 2,500th decimal place with a pencil and paper when a smartphone could accomplish it more accurately in a tiny fraction of the time.

This is, quite frankly, stupidity. It’s like chopping down a large tree with a stone tomahawk when a chainsaw is available. I’m saying right here and now that by refusing to integrate better tools into their decision-making and discarding (or at least minimizing) the useless RPI, the NCAA is doing a significant, unfair and unethical disservice to their member universities, cheating them out of an honest decision on inclusion — never mind seeding. No matter how hard-working and well-intentioned these folks are, the comprehensive, fatuous absurdity of deliberately handicapping their decisions this way is infantile and incomprehensible.

I’m not arguing that every team must be included or excluded based on their record or what the metrics say. Take Florida, for example — failure to finish with a winning record in your own league is a perfectly valid reason to exclude them however great the metrics make them look. San Diego St. had a horrible loss to a very poor San Diego team and another bad loss at home to Grand Canyon in a slate that just didn’t have any room for losses like that. Again, that’s probably defensible, or at least debatable.

But how does Temple, with a Kenpom ranking of 84 get in? It’s not like they went on a huge run at the end of the year against top competition, or possess 7 or 8 quality wins. Syracuse won one game out of their last 6, managed a 20-13 record, have maybe 3 quality wins on the whole year, and still get in over South Carolina, Valparaiso, and others who did much better? Why?

Please note that I refuse to see conspiracies or impute malicious motives to the committee, although to be honest, it seems very hard to fathom how seat-of-the-pants one must operate by to a) continue to use inferior processes to select and seed the teams, and b) change the emphasis of the process every year. One could be excused for arguing that the NCAA is deliberately producing an inferior product for the express purpose of creating controversy. Even though that is, I guess, a “conspiracy theory,” at least it has the virtue of not automatically assuming the presumably intelligent men and women on the committee are not actually the doltish, intransigent Luddites they appear to be in making and defending their decisions.

I’m not upset about the NCAA Tournament as such — it will be just as compelling this season as it has been every season in it’s existence. You could almost pick the bottom 8 or 10 of the 36 at-large bids by throwing darts over your shoulder at a list of all 351 Division I teams and come up with a compelling tournament.

The product is not the issue, it’s the process. And the process matters. Maybe not to Kentucky, but to a lot of others who pay their dues to be in the NCAA also and don’t happen to reside in power conferences. I’m certain Valparaiso and St. Mary’s would agree.