February 23, 2010

Bracket Buster: How the Atlantic 10 gamed the RPI, and what Notre Dame can learn from it.

Like most college basketball fans, I'm just starting to now take a closer peek at the Bracketology projections and Bubble Watch stuff on ESPN.com to see who's in and who's out as we get closer to the NCAA Tournament. Anyway, I was sort of scrolling through the bracket on the Bracketology site, and glanced over at the number of teams from each conference that Lunardi has in the tournament.

ACC - 7 (ok, thought the ACC was having a down year but still a power conference)
Big 12 - 7 (lots of strong programs this year, 4-5 ranked teams, makes sense)
Big East - 7 (no brainer, best conference in America from top to bottom)
Big Ten - 5 (4 top 20 teams, power conference)

and then came

Atlantic 10 - 5

Five teams! Not only that, but I clicked on the Bubble Watch link and saw that there are two other bubble teams getting consideration. That floored me. I mean, I like the A10, but where is this coming from?? The A10 has been a 2-3 bid league for as long as I can remember. You can pencil Xavier in just about every year, and then you've had schools like Temple and Dayton and St. Joes and George Washington who have had varying degrees of success in the last 10 years. Right now, Temple is up (Fran Dunphy---one of the most underrated coaches in the nation), and St. Joes is down. This thing seems to run in cycles. This year, I figured Xavier, Temple, and maybe Dayton would be the A10 reps.

So when I saw five teams out of the A10, I started getting curious about what was going on. How did a league that has consistently been a 2-3 bid league (with literally no one else on the bubble) suddenly turn into a 5 bid league with 2-3 other teams on the bubble?? How does this happen all of the sudden?? I mean, even if the coaching and talent are a little better across the board, it's still the A10. There's only so much that league can do with its lack of exposure and resources.

And then it hit me. SCHEDULING! Of course. The old scheduling trick. As we've seen through the years (and written on this blog), these mid-major programs have become masters at rigging their OOC schedules to give them better computer and RPI rankings. Not only are individual teams doing it, conferences are literally organizing meetings to discuss scheduling and how to maximize your NCAA profile with smart scheduling. I'm not even knocking it. It's an intelligent way to run your league to get as many bids as possible. These mid-major teams don't have the ability to line up 18 tomato cans at home (mainly because they can't pay them to come) like the power schools do, so they have to be creative in setting up their schedules with home and homes and targeted "buy games" and some timely road games (which carry extra RPI points).

So I started to delve into the A10. Now, I'm not really looking at Xavier and Temple. Those teams are legit NCAA tournament teams. Temple beat Villanova, Siena, Virginia Tech, Penn State, and Seton Hall in nonconference play. Plus, they're 22-5. They're in no matter how you want to look at it. Same with Xavier. Xavier is going to be a 22-23 win team with wins over Cincy and Florida and they've won 7 out of their last 8. Not only is Xavier in, they'll be very dangerous when they get in.

Frankly, Richmond, believe it or not, is also legitimately deserving. I mean, I can't deny it after looking at their schedule. Richmond is 11-2 in the league, they've beaten Mississippi State, Missouri, and Florida, and they've won 8 games in a row. I can't even argue with that even though I didn't know they were 22-6 until five minutes ago. The Spiders pass the eyeball test. Maybe their RPI is a little inflated (more on that below), but they're still a top 50 team on Pomeroy. They're in. So that brings us to three.

Here's where it gets interesting though. Lunardi has Rhode Island in the NCAA Tournament. He's got them as an 11 seed right now partially because their RPI is sitting pretty at 26 right now.

And yet, when I look at their schedule, it's really not all that impressive in terms of name brands. They did beat Oklahoma State at home and BC on the road, but also lost to Virginia Commonwealth. Other than that, their nonconference schedule is a pupu platter. Plus, they lost to Temple (twice), Xavier, St. Louis, and Richmond. Basically, every other decent team in the league. Pomeroy has them as the 76th best team in the nation, and they're probably going to finish 10-6 in the A10 (which is nothing special in that league).

So how in the heck does Rhode Island have an RPI rating of 26 and a strong grip on an NCAA at-large bid?? If you're applying the Jay Bilas model of "who did you play and who did you beat" for selecting NCAA teams, they surely don't stack up. They've had maybe 2 good wins all year and haven't played an elite OOC schedule by any means.

So what gives?? Well, it all comes back to that time-tested model of RPI manipulation that we saw for so many years out of the Missouri Valley Conference. There are three really good ways to get a good RPI rating (Mike Brey.....please, please, get out your pen and paper)

1) Road games
2) As few RPI killer games as possible (200+ RPI)
3) A healthy dose of 50-150 RPI teams

Rhode Island has played the game to a science. They played 13 nonconference games this year. Here's how their nonconference schedule broke down using those three categories.

1) five road games
2) two 200+ RPI games
3) ten 50-150ish RPI games

You can't do it any better!! Rhode Island played and beat teams like Akron (101) and Drexel (112) on the road. Those teams aren't great teams by any means, but they're both upper-echelon teams in their conference. If you're going to play a team in the MAC, Akron would a good team to pick. But it's Akron. It's not like Rhode Island is going on the road to Syracuse or something. They targeted a few decent teams that they could play on the road and potentially win. Since the RPI gives you extra credit for winning on the road, those wins are huge RPI boosters.

Rhode Island also only played two 200+RPI games in OOC play. Meanwhile, Notre Dame played six games against 250+ RPI teams. The Mike Brey era!! The guy's been here ten years and still hasn't figured this out. Absolutely spectacular. And people wonder why ND sports haven't been relevant in almost two decades. We are the worst run athletic department in the country, and it's not even close. THE COLLARS!! God bless em. Where do I buy my Gator Bowl tickets for the next decade and some first round NIT tickets??

Here's the ultimate kicker though. URI played 13 OOC games, and ten of those games were against RPI 50-150 teams. Absolutely brilliant scheduling. They played teams like Davison, Providence, Northeastern, Akron, Drexel, and Fairfield. Any of those teams scare you?? Me neither. But every one of those teams is a solid 50-150 RPI team, and Rhode Island got a ton of credit of beating those teams.

Add all that up, and it equals a 26 RPI rating. That's how you do it. A team that has maybe 1-2 quality wins all year and has lost to almost every really good team they've played is suddenly looking like an NCAA tournament team. Heck, I give them credit for it. They scouted these midmajor teams and found the right combination of 100-ish RPI schools to schedule. Good work by their coaches and athletic department.

I don't want to single out Rhode Island either. Richmond took a similar approach with 5 OOC road games and a good diet of VCUs and William & Marys and Old Dominions. Dayton did a great job scheduling New Mexico (RPI 10) and Old Dominion (I feel like ODU played every team in the A10 this year) and teams like Creighton and George Mason. Same for Charlotte (yup, they played ODU too) who played 6 road games in nonconference play. Charlotte has no business getting an NCAA bid. Pomeroy has them at #101. But with a decent RPI and the perceived strength of the league, they're in the mix.

The other benefit of gaming your RPI in OOC play is that beating each other in league play gives you another quality win on the RPI. Because Rhode Island is #26 in the RPI, any win over them by Richmond or Dayton or someone else is viewed as a quality win. It's sort of a "rising tide lifts all boats" model. It's really a brilliant strategy.

So in a nutshell, that's how a league like the A10 goes from a 3 bid league to a potential 5 bid league. I don't want to give the impression that these teams are bad basketball teams taking advantage of these loopholes. The A10 is on an upswing right now with some solid coaches (Mooney at Richmond, Dunphy at Temple, and Majerus at SLU), so the success of the league this year is not just because of scheduling. You also obviously have to be good enough to beat the Akrons and Drexels of the world on the road, which is not as easy as it sounds on paper. The more of these 100-ish RPI teams you play, the more you risk stumbling and losing one of them. Anyone can come up with this strategy, but you still have to execute it. Credit to the A10 for getting it done.

This brings me back to Notre Dame for a second to finish up. ND is in sort of a tough spot when it comes to scheduling. Ideally, ND would do what a Rhode Island has done. We'd have 13 or so OOC games with 1-2 top 25 teams, 3-4 road games, only 2-3 200+ RPI games, and the rest of the games against teams in the 50-150 RPI range. If we did that, we'd probably be around 11-2/10-3 every year coming out of OOC play with an RPI in the 20-40 range. In other words, right in the mix for an NCAA spot and far better than the 75ish RPI that we always seem to have these days. With the current OOC schedules we play, we are forced to win 10 or even 11 conference games just to be in the mix. With a better strategy, we might be able to position ourselves much better going into conference play. Every little thing can help.

Problem is, this strategy costs money. And we all know that ND is run with basically one thing in mind these days: DOLLARS. ND wants to play 10 creampuffs at home (plus 2-3 neutral site games where we get paid) to maximize revenue. If you play a good mid-major, you have to pony up the cash to play them. Or you have to promise them a 2 for 1 arrangement where you play 2 home games and go to their place once. A team like Akron isn't showing up in South Bend for pennies and not asking for any return games. They have thirty other suitors looking for their services and willing to pay more. We'd rather play teams like Kennesaw State (RPI 292) and St. Francis (272) because they come cheap, we can get a home gate with no return game, and it's a guaranteed win.

Just like we've seen with football, it's an incredibly short-sighted strategy. The season ticketholders are turned off because the schedules stink, we get no RPI bump, and it hurts our ability to play in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe we squeeze some extra dollars in the short term, but it does nothing to help the brand.

This is the ND that we've come to know for a long time now. Short term gain, long term pain. We've seen it in football with the absurd 7-4-1 money-grab (which is turning off fans and ticketholders in droves and probably will jeopardize our national title chances and maybe even force us into a conference someday), and we've seen it in basketball with dismal OOC schedules that kill our RPI and send us spiraling down the NIT path before conference season has even begun.

Five years ago, it would have really bothered me to see a team like URI in the NCAAs. Now I just take my hat off to them. I wish the team I rooted for did the same thing.


Mike said...

Agree across the board, Doug. Great post.

I, too, have been beating this drum for years. Again, it is truly stunning that Mike Brey hasn't figured out how to schedule intelligently. In fact, our schedules seem to get worse on an annual basis, despite being left out of the tournament with winning conference records.

Of course, as discussed ad nauseam here and elsewhere, ND is flatly not interested in achieving athletic excellence. This absurd scheduling policy is yet another illustration that revenue generation is the primary, secondary and tertiary goal. As such, I wouldn't be surprised if Brey's ability to schedule prudently is hampered by the administration and its ongoing effort to squeeze every last dollar out of the Notre Dame brand.

Stan said...

To drive this point home, Ohio States RPI is in the mid to high 30s, and will finish there. It is almost entirely the result of our nonconference schedule. The nonconference schedule consisted of Carolina on a neutral court(not so good now, but what can you do), Cal on a neutral court, at Butler, at West Virginia, Florida State at home and roughly 10 horrible teams at home.

Thankfully and sadly, no one showed up to those games so maybe that will cause a change. Even more than ND (I imagine) OSU is based on money. Why not schedule all the local MAC teams? Hurts both our RPI and ticket sales.

Craig said...

The thing with gaming the RPI is, it gives you a gaudy RPI, but as the MVC showed, if you don't back it up with some quality wins, you'll still get left out of the tournament.

Without looking at URI's resume in closer detail, if it's as weak all around as you profess, there's a chance they'll be left out... even with a 26th-ranked RPI.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent post. One thought about a comment that was made. Mike Brey cannot duplicate what a conference with teams working together toward common scheduling goals can achieve.