The debate over the RPI’s use rages with heightened volume this season because there have never been more evaluation tools accessible to the general public, much less to the 10-member committee soon to be sequestered in an Indianapolis hotel.
Unlike when the RPI was introduced in the early 1980s, games flood television airwaves and statistics are readily available at the click of a mouse, providing countless opportunities to assess teams from leagues famous and obscure. And in a metric-crazed era that former Maryland coach Gary Williams once deemed the “Revenge of the Nerds,” more sophisticated ratings systems, in the eyes of many, have rendered the RPI antiquated and insufficient.
No one painted a more visual image of the RPI as a relic than Scott Van Pelt, the ESPN personality who, in calling it the worst metric in sports during a seven-minute radio rant, likened the reliance on the RPI to a man “walking around with a big Walkman on his hip the size of his toaster, who is flipping over his cassette tape, who wants to run home to program his VCR on his standard-definition television.”
The NCAA’s view of the RPI is conflicted. While examining potential NCAA tournament teams, selection committee members study team profiles that are broken down by victories over specific sub-groups of the RPI, such as wins over teams ranked in the top 50. At the same time, officials attempt to distance themselves from the RPI, saying they don’t rely on a team’s individual rating or a conference’s RPI and that they consider a handful of metrics.
What’s more, Jeff Hathaway, the selection committee chairman, said that how a team appears to the eye is “crucial,” adding that “we need to go beyond the numbers.”
The RPI formula, tweaked over the years, considers a team’s winning percentage (25 percent), its opponents’ winning percentage (50 percent) and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (25 percent). Because of concerns over coaches potentially running up scores, it does not consider margin of victory.
For instance, Wichita State earned a 21-point win at Creighton on Feb. 11, one of the more impressive road victories by any team this season. On the heels of the performance, the Shockers entered the Associated Press top 25. But in the RPI, their position did not significantly improve.
Yet the RPI remains relevant because the NCAA deems it relevant. John Gasaway, an ESPN.com writer who this month explored the birth of the RPI in a 4,100-word story for Basketball Prospectus, said: “It draws its power exclusively from its sponsor. People who defend the use of the RPI do not themselves use the RPI to make points during the season. You don’t read a column saying, ‘Hey, everybody look at Southern Miss. They are a good team, and the reason you can tell is because they have an RPI in the top 15.’ ”