A fantastic piece by Luke Winn at SI.com that talks about the exploitable flaw in the RPI system. How it can be gamed, by numbers savvy coaches with their non-con to create a high RPI ranking without actually taking huge risks.
The NCAA tournament selection committee uses the RPI formula to assess teams’ non-conference strength of schedule (NCSOS). Two-thirds of RPI’s NCSOS is based on the raw winning percentages of a team’s opponents, and the other third is based on the raw winning percentages of opponents’ opponents. A team vying for an at-large NCAA tournament bid is best off having a respectable NCSOS rank and a number of wins over RPI top-25, top-50 or top-100 teams. While the selection committee has stated that RPI is just one of many tools it uses, the fact remains that schedule strength is viewed predominantly through the RPI’s lens.
The problem is that it’s a warped lens. Seventy-five percent of the RPI formula is about strength of schedule (SOS), and because the RPI uses the flawed metric of raw winning percentage to assess SOS, it fails to provide a true measure of the quality of opponents.
Here’s how that works. If you schedule decent to good mid- and low mid-majors. That is teams that can be expected to do well in their own conference, you puff up your own RPI because they end the year with 18 to 20+ wins. Even if most of those wins came in the MEAC or such.
This allows your RPI to be higher and puts you in a position to receive a much higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. Thus, giving you a better chance at winning more games because at least in the first couple of rounds you get far easier games than you would if seeded lower.
Jamie Dixon, it turns out, is absolutely brilliant at it.
Pitt’s Jamie Dixon is rarely lauded for his scheduling — if anything, the knock on him has been that he doesn’t schedule hard enough when he has an elite team — but here, he looks shrewd. He’s the best coach in the country at consistently turning a mildly efficient NCSOS into a respectable NCSOS in the eyes of the RPI, and thus, the selection committee. As he says, “I look at kenpom statistics — I love all the stats he does — but in scheduling, the NCAA is gonna look at RPI. So I care about RPI.”
Dixon’s year-to-year gaps break down like this:
Season Team Eff. NCSOS RPI NCSOS Gap 2008 Pittsburgh 129 90 39 2009 Pittsburgh 44 15 29 2010 Pittsburgh 158 49 109 2011 Pittsburgh 223 100 123 2012 Pittsburgh 209 119 90
Sometimes a gap won’t matter — like last season, when the Panthers nose-dived and went 5-13 in the Big East. They had no shot at the NCAAs. But in 2010, when Pitt earned a No. 3 seed despite having zero marquee wins outside the Big East, it was in part due to Dixon’s manipulation of the 158th-best efficiency NCSOS into the 49th-best RPI NCSOS.
I love that he acknowledges looking at not just RPI stuff, but the advanced metrics that Ken Pomeroy uses.
What Dixon likes to do for his home guarantee games, he says, “is play the teams that we think are the best picks to win the non-BCS conferences.” These are the best “gap” teams, because they’re beatable despite having high RPI returns. In 2010, Dixon beat five of them in Wofford (69 RPI), Wichita State (43), Kent State (47), Ohio (95) and Robert Morris (129). He only had one 250-plus RPI opponent (Youngstown State, at 271), either, and so it didn’t matter that he played just one marquee game (against Texas) and lost it; the Panthers were in good standing due to their choices of non-BCS opponents. Despite their efficiency profile suggesting they were the quality of a 7-8 seed, they were a No. 3 on the strength of their RPI.
That was the year after Fields, Young and Blair left. The rebuilding year that Pitt was supposed to have. Not to mention Jermaine Dixon injured for the first month or so. These numbers suggest how carefully Dixon planned the schedule to position Pitt for the NCAA Tournament, even if the players didn’t develop as well as they did that year.
We always knew Dixon scheduled with this kind of plan. It is interesting to see it broken down. It’s not great for season ticket holders who don’t see any names on the non-con slate most of the time. But Dixon is putting a schedule in place to help the team get in position for the NCAA Tournament. It would be nice for a better balance, but at least there is a logic beyond the reactionary: Dixon schedules badly.
It’s almost always better to play a mid-major that’ll go on to have 20-plus wins than it is a cupcake mid- or low-major, or a basement-dweller from a major conference. Dixon still adheres to this philosophy; last season he hosted Long Beach (34 RPI), Robert Morris (99) and Wagner (92), and this season he has Detroit as well as either Robert Morris or Lehigh, depending on how the NIT Season Tip-Off Bracket plays out.
And he says there’s an added benefit to playing guarantee games in which you might have a chance of losing: “Those are the teams that other [BCS-conference] schools don’t want to play, so not only do you get a higher RPI by scheduling them, you can also possibly schedule them for less money. It comes down to supply and demand, and there’s just less demand for those teams.”
Not only is he gaming the RPI, he’s saving his school money on its guarantee-game budget. High-value teams at low prices: That is next-next-level Scheduleball.
If the NCAA ever stops relying as heavily on RPI, or changes the formula, Dixon will adjust the schedule accordingly.