RIP RPI, Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya on the Way Out

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Most college basketball junkies utter RPI through clenched teeth, a three-letter acronym that functions as more of a four-letter word. And Wednesday, it died a long awaited death.

The NCAA issued a statement declaring the R-P-I, D-E-A-D. The RPI was a nonsensical farce, long ago revealed as archaic and ineffectual with the emergence of more in-depth models via third-party sources like KenPom.com. RPI functioned as a crutch for the NCAA selection committee to break out on Selection Sunday, explaining away the inclusion of a team like 17-loss Alabama in 2005-06 (major conference) but ignored for exclusions like No. 34 Middle Tennessee this past season.

Of the many absurdities tied to RPI’s existence, its use as a vehicle to deduct mid-majors when convenient but dismissal when inconvenient was most maddening. I hammered that point last season as MTSU was put in a win-or-die situation and Rhode Island was woefully under-seeded. Of course, Rhody beat Oklahoma in the Round of 64, so…

Two-time Big Ten slayer MTSU was not afforded such an opportunity, sadly. Buffalo, despite having a Top 25 RPI, was slotted into a No. 13 seed against Arizona. It worked out well for the Bulls, but was nevertheless an unfair position for the Mid-American Conference champions. 

On and on the examples go, extending well past the 2018 NCAA Tournament. RPI was so meaningless, the NCAA selection committee did not even place that much stock into it. But its negligence of its of own cited standard for mapping out March Madness does set the course for the NCAA Tournament’s future — specifically, the need for a complete overhaul; a truly fresh start that isn’t just the same old with a new veneer. 

This touches on something I have lamented with regard to the College Football Playoff. The system has its positives, but has actually exacerbated certain flaws inherent with the Bowl Championship Series; most evident is that the demarcation between Haves and Have Nots has become somehow more prominent, not less. 

College basketball thrives on a postseason system specifically because the underdog is granted an opportunity. Upsets like UMBC knocking off Virginia make March mad. It’s all the more frustrating, then, that the sport’s power brokers in recent years have actively worked to present more of those opportunities. 

The NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, cannot just be a retread of the RPI with a new name and few hollow nods to advanced metrics tied in. One way to introduce real change is to use this revamped system to also overhaul scheduling. 

One of the oft-repeated demerits against mid-major at-large candidates is their inherently weaker strength-of-schedule. Typically, a mid-major conference is indeed weaker than a power counterpart (though MTSU’s home Conference USA sent more teams to the Round of 32 than the Pac-12 but frog-sipping-tea). This isn’t a new revelation, though, and a mid-major conference member, Gonzaga, drew a blueprint to shed that distinction. 

However, Gonzaga’s path crafted in the early 2000s, loading up on marquee non-conference games, isn’t as feasible in the 2010s. 

I remember speaking with then-Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood in 2016 ahead of his team’s NCAA Tournament run. The Lumberjacks won a Tournament game in 2014 and were en vogue choice to knock off Utah in 2015. SFA was building a reputation as a quite strong and reliable program in a low-major conference, but that didn’t mean anyone was rushing to pull the Jacks. 

On the contrary, Underwood said the team’s non-conference schedule wasn’t complete until October. The latter days of the RPI fostered an environment in which the net-negative of possibly losing to a mid-major, even a good one, outweighed any benefit gained from winning. 

Deadspin published an insightful feature earlier this summer on broadcaster Mark Adams’ efforts to smash the proverbial glass ceiling for mid-majors. Writer Nick Martin offers up the following passage that speaks to the damning impact the RPI had on mids: 

Nowadays, terms like “RPI,” “Strength of Schedule” (SoS), and “Quadrant I wins” are far more important than a team’s conference record, if it happens to be in the right conference. As long as a school plays the best teams in the nation during its conference slate and stays above .500, it can feel relatively relaxed about its chances come March.

RPI’s death also presents the opportunity to shake up what constitutes Quadrant I. And while the NET era will require a learning curve for power programs’ scheduling, assuming the new system presents legitimate changes, the Deadspin article introduces a solution in the interim. Give it a read, and maybe @ influential figures in the NCAA Tournament selection process with the URL. 

The window for change in college basketball’s open.  

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