Archive for Friday, March 9, 2007

Commentary: Picking NCAA tourney field has flaws

March 9, 2007


The time has come once again to break out the fluffy and extra absorbent crying towels. Those inevitably heartbroken come Sunday evening already are preparing their manifestos of outrage that a tragically flawed system has denied them their rightful destiny.

But, strangely, this dance with the illogical has nothing to do with the BCS.

It's another alphabetical torment awaiting them.

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) exposes the vast holes in the hackneyed argument that college football should adopt college basketball's more precise model in determining its champion.

The BCS and RPI are already mirror images of each other, in that computer infiltration has become a necessary evil in determining who gets the opportunity to play for the championship on the field. And, naturally, that sparks the subsequent cries of systematic inequities or political interference.

But the RPI justly dominates the discussion in the days leading up to Selection Sunday, because there must be a gauge of relative team and conference strength that balances the obvious human emotions and biases that surface when the tournament selection committee convenes.

The RPI never was intended as a precision instrument. But it keeps programs honest, rewarding those who dare schedule legitimate upper-tier nonconference competition while not penalizing those languishing in the middle of the pack in strong conferences.

The rankings have gained greater influence because the conference schedule is no longer a precise barometer of respective team strength. Conference consolidation and the proliferation of conference tournaments have spawned unbalanced schedules.

But the results raise questions, same as the BCS.

How is Nevada ranked 19th in the RPI with an overall strength of schedule that's ranked 116th nationally? Why does a victory over a top 10-ranked opponent in December lose value over the course of the season, should that team later slide into oblivion through injuries or other difficulties?

The Big Ten is confident that it will get a minimal five NCAA invitations and hopeful that it might get a sixth if things fall just right. But the conference may only get four invitations because its conference RPI ranking is fourth overall.

Michigan State is a lock for the NCAA Tournament despite a seventh-place 8-8 conference finish while 9-7 Illinois and Purdue need plenty of help. The Spartans were the only team to play the league's top three teams - Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana - twice while getting the league's three worst - Penn State, Northwestern and Minnesota - only once.

The Spartans' RPI is 22, one spot higher than third-place conference finisher Indiana.

The RPI isn't above manipulation. Teams receive as much - if not more - credit for not scheduling nonconference teams in the bottom half of the rankings than they would for scheduling those ranked among the top 150.

Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champ Southern Illinois' RPI number is six, falling just behind potential No. 1 tournament seeds UCLA, Ohio State, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Of course, it's imperfect. It shouldn't be a newsflash that there is no foolproof method of selecting the most deserving 65 teams.

And the NCAA Tournament's redeeming charm is that it rewards the "most deserving" - not necessarily the 65 "best" teams.


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