In the Matrix: Reloaded, Agent Smith has a dialogue with Neo about purpose. It includes these lines:
Agent Smith: But, as you well know appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we're here. We are not here because we're free, we're here because we are not free. There is no escaping reason, no denying purpose, because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.
Multiple Smiths: It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us. It is purpose that defines, purpose that binds us.
This phrase perfectly describes the role of the RPI in selecting the NCAA Tournament field. Every year, some teams feel that they got the shaft. If they are not a power conference team, they lament the inclusion of some 7-9 ACC or Big East school. If they are a Big Sixer-type, they squawk about the unfair inclusion of a Johnny-Come-Lately MVC school. Miami-OH and Buffalo felt shafted last year. So did Notre Dame and Maryland. Why were those teams left out in favor of UAB, Northern Iowa, Iowa, and NC State? Not because of one person's bias. Not solely because of the RPI. Not because of committee nepotism. There is an elaborate process in selecting the glorious Field of 65.
Some fans have the idea that the ten committee members sat around last March with cigars and brandy and said, "Hey, let's screw Louisville with a 4-seed!," as they chortled and guffawed with glee. In actuality, the selection process is a long and arduous task, requiring many, many hours of poring over stats and schedules. To read the Official NCAA Selection Criteria, click here. I will try to summarize the process in the following paragraphs.
Of the 65 teams included in the Big Dance, 31 are automatic qualifiers from 30 conference tournaments and the regular season Ivy League champion. That's the easy part. That leaves 34 slots for at-large selections by the committee, and that leads to some sticky wickets each and every season.
First, let us debunk some myths about the RPI. A high RPI certainly is important when selecting at-large teams. In fact, no team with an RPI of #33 or better has ever been left out of the tourney. If a team desires "lock" status outside of an automatic bid, they need to be in the low 30's or better to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Second, beyond the mid-30s, teams with lower RPI's are routinely taken over higher RPI teams. The lowest-rated RPI team to ever garner an at-large bid was #74 New Mexico in 1999. Clearly, there were many teams ahead of them that were left out that season, so the RPI is not the end-all be-all for a ticket to Le Grand Waltz. A high RPI helps, but it does not guarantee a bid.
Furthermore, a lot of confusion exists about the purpose of the RPI. This brings us back to Agent Smith's quote: "without purpose, we would not exist." The AP and Coaches' poll attempt to rank the best teams from week to week. That is their purpose (and they are often pretty poor in fulfilling this purpose). The purpose of the RPI is not to rank the best teams from week to week, but to determine who has performed best against their given schedule. There is a difference. For example, it may be clear that Duke is the best team after four or five games. However, if UNC-Wilmington beats better opponents, they will have a higher RPI. That does not mean that they are the better team, but they have won against stronger competition. Agent Smith would understand and appreciate the purpose of the RPI. It is clear and statistical. Smith would hate the polls, as they have no true meaning or purpose. They are all about perception. They would be scheduled for deletion in the Matrix.
Jerry Palm, of CollegeRPI.com fame, explains the RPI formula this way:
"The basic formula is 25% team winning percentage (WP), 50% opponents' average winning percentage (OWP), and 25% opponents' opponents' average winning percentage (OOWP). For the 2004-05 season, the formula was changed to give more weight to road wins over home wins. A team's win total for RPI purposes is 1.4 * road wins + neutral site wins + 0.6 * home wins. A team's losses is calculated as 0.6 * road losses + neutral site losses + 1.4 * home losses. For example, a team that is 4-0 at home and 2-7 on the road has a RPI record of 5.2 wins (1.4 * 2 + 0.6 * 4) and 4.2 losses (0.6 * 7). That means that even though it is 6-7, for RPI purposes, it is above .500 (5.2-4.2). "
"This 'weighted' record is only used for the 25% of the formula that is each team's winning percentage. The regular team records are used to calculate OWP and OOWP. As always, only games against Division I opponents count in the RPI."
That may sound thoroughly confusing, but ultimately it is simply a measure of how a team faired against quality competition. As of last year, a team gets bonuses for road games. That is the short explanation and the purpose is clear: determine what teams played quality opponents, and their success against their given schedule. That is why Temple, who normally plays a brutal schedule, might go 18-10 and still maintain a higher RPI than a 21-7 Georgetown squad that loaded up on non-conference pastries.
The RPI serves as an important reference tool for the selection committee, but other criteria exist. They include Division I record; Overall RPI; Non-conference record; Non-conference RPI; Conference record; Conference RPI; Road record; Record in last 10 games; Record against teams ranked 1-50 by RPI; Record against teams ranked 51-100 by RPI; Record against teams ranked 101-200 by RPI; Record against teams ranked below 200 by RPI. The RPI is important, but the raw RPI ranking is merely one part of a teams' entire profile. It is not known which factors carry the most weight, but based on the inclusion of UAB and Iowa last year, it is obvious that late season momentum was important in 2005.
Teams are selected for the NCAA tourney by a series of votes. On the first ballot, each of the ten Selection Committee members nominates no more than 34 teams that should be in the bracket. Some of teams will win their conference tourney and will be moved into the bracket as an automatic qualifier. Members also construct a second ballot consisting of all remaining teams that should be considered for inclusion. This "At-large Nomination Board" provides the committee with a list of teams for subsequent votes.
From this point, teams are added to the bracket by a voting frenzy that would send Rock the Vote supporters into a state of ecstasy. Each committee member submits a list of eight teams to be added to the at-large field. Teams receiving all but two of the eligible votes are added to the at-large field. From the remaining teams not moving into the at-large field, the top four vote-getters are held for the next ballot. Then, another eight-team vote is held and the top four are added to the four remaining teams from the original eight-team vote. These eight teams are then ranked by each member 1 through 8 (called a "Cross-Country" vote). The four teams with the lowest point totals from the rankings are added to the at-large field. This process is replicated until all 34 at-large slots are filled.
Once all 31 automatic qualifiers and all 34 at-large teams have been decided, the bracket must be constructed. The committee conducts two more eight-team votes to determine the top eight teams in the bracket. Then, the eight teams are ranked 1 through 8 (the "Cross Country" vote) in yet another 8-team vote. The teams with the four lowest point totals go into the bracket as 1-seeds. They also go into the S-Curve (a 1 to 65 ranking of all NCAA tourney teams) in order. For example, if Duke (12 points total), Texas (16), Michigan State (21), and UConn (24) were the 1-seeds, they would also be assigned to the 1 through 4 slots on the S-Curve in order. The next four teams with the lowest point totals are held over and another eight-team vote occurs. The top four from that list are added to the holdovers from the first 8-team ranking vote, and another 8-team Cross Country vote is held. This process is repeated until all teams are placed in the bracket and on the S-Curve in order.
There are tons of other minor rules. At any time, the Chair of the Selection Committee can call for a 15-minute "quiet period" in which members may organize their thoughts and vote lists. Also, a member may at any time request that a team be removed from the nomination board (which goes to a vote). Most importantly, members may not vote or discuss any team that they represent as an athletic director or conference commissioner. In other words, Selection Chair Craig Littlepage may not vote for Virginia or any ACC team at any time. They may answer questions about injuries, schedules, and the like, but only when asked. They are not even allowed in the room when a seeding vote involving their team occurs. There are oodles of other little intricacies, but I think readers get my drift at this point. Space will not allow for an full explanation of the "pod" seeding, but in short, the committee uses the S-Curve to measure balance in all four regions and to send teams to the most geographically friendly region possible. They try to balance the strongest 1-seed with the weakest 2-seed when possible, but there are many other restrictive rules, like not putting teams from the same conference in the same sub-regional. This makes the committee's task even more difficult.
Selection committee criticism is often warranted and deserved, but it is not as simple as collectively hand-picking 34 at-large teams through a conversation over wine and cheese. I led a replication of the selection process last year (the South Central Kentucky Selection Simulation Project) and all members involved came away with a new appreciation of what the committee does. As an aside, I thought last year's selection committee did as good a job as any committee has done since I have been following college hoops.
Agent Smith said, "it is purpose that defines us." Teams have a defined purpose: get the to NCAA tournament. The RPI has a defined purpose: measure which teams have performed best relative to their schedule quality. The committee has a defined purpose: select the best 34 at-large teams available and construct a fair bracket. It is not a simple process, and understanding its complexity makes perceived Selection Sunday injustices a little more palatable.
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