The Numbers, Gamed?

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

It was not unusual Wednesday to see two ACC coaches greet each other before a critical game, shake hands and engage in a brief pregame chat. The unusual part was the topic of conversation: the Missouri Valley Conference.

No men's basketball conference has sparked more debate this season among coaches and commissioners than the MVC, a 10-team conference spread across six Midwestern states that has become, by some measures, one of the nation's best. The Valley has never had more than three teams make the NCAA tournament but could land as many as six invitations this season, maybe more than traditional power conferences such as the ACC, Big 12 and Pacific-10.

Shrewd scheduling practices, increased parity across the country and a few key nonconference victories have boosted the Valley's position in the Rating Percentage Index, a mathematical measurement of a team's strength that is used by the NCAA selection committee to help determine tournament berths.

Four seasons after being rated the nation's 14th-best conference in the RPI, the Valley ranks sixth. And Friday, before the start of the MVC tournament quarterfinals in St. Louis, the Valley was one of three conferences (joining the Big East and the Big Ten) with at least six teams in the RPI's top 45.

"I've been beating the drum since October, when I told everyone to get on top of the hill and sing like Julie Andrews in the 'Sound of Music,' " Missouri State Coach Barry Hinson said. "Whether you want to call it a fluke or a phenomenon, so be it. I rest my case: It's the sixth-best conference in the country."

The NCAA tournament selection committee will decide how much weight to give the Valley's gaudy RPI rankings when the 65-team field is unveiled a week from today. Last season, no team with an RPI ranking worse than 63rd received an at-large bid, and no team with an RPI ranking better than 39th was left out.

But some coaches, whose teams also are jockeying for tournament bids, suggest privately and publicly that the Valley's RPI credentials are inflated, and that they have outsmarted the computer formula. Doug Elgin, the Valley's commissioner, has heard coaches such as Houston's Tom Penders refer to the Valley's "hype machine" and such analysts as ESPN's Jay Bilas say the selection committee needs to look beyond RPI numbers.

"Any major coach hiding behind that notion that we have cracked the code, tell that coach to come play our teams and see how overrated we are," Elgin said. "That notion that we have somehow outsmarted the system is a bunch of crap. . . . It's easy to make those statements when you're not willing to back it up."

In response, Maryland Coach Gary Williams said: "They haven't been banging down anyone's door in the ACC to play. The phone works both ways, last time I checked."

Penders praised the Valley as a conference but added that it does not include a team he would be afraid to play on a neutral court.

"What is RPI, garbage in and garbage out?" Penders said, speaking in general about the formula. "How do you build RPI, go out and play no one? If it's just a computer thing this year, I was born in 1945, I don't know much about computers. . . . The committee will dictate what guys do the next few years. If teams are rewarded for playing no one in the computers, then we should all do that."

As many as six Valley teams could be seeded anywhere from sixth to 12th in the NCAA tournament, according to some projections, even though Creighton Coach Dana Altman readily admits that the conference lacks a great team. Houston's Conference USA, however, has only two teams -- Alabama-Birmingham and Memphis -- ranked in the RPI's top 50, even though Memphis remains in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Similarly, the Atlantic 10 consists of one-loss George Washington and only one other team, Saint Joseph's (15-12), ranked in the RPI's top 50.

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