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The RPI is Dead. But is the NET a Slam Dunk?
The RPI is Dead. But is the NET a Slam Dunk?
C.M. Rieman
Published by Chris R
08-22-2018
Smile The RPI is Dead. But is the NET a Slam Dunk?

DAYTON (OH) -- The NCAA has shelved the RPI and replaced it with the NET. Taking their news to the web and social media on Wednesday, the Division I Men's Basketball Committee announced the change in an effort to create a more perfect mathematical formula to rank all 351 teams throughout the course of the season and make it easier to pick and choose the best at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Known as the NET, the new system incorporates several new arithmetic calculations and adds additional complication in an effort to provide a better ranking system for the Division I teams. But is it truly progress?

Press Release: https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball...ts-new-ranking

Used since 1981, the RPI was a relatively simple formula incorporating wins and losses, opponents' records, and opponents' opponents' records in a weighted three-tier system that rewarded winning games, playing teams with good records, and beating those same opponents. The formula was revised over the last few college basketball seasons to factor in game locations to further reward teams for winning on the road. A recent quadrant tool was added to the RPI last year that categorized wins and losses into four buckets based on the weighting differences of home and away results against strong and weak opponents.

The NET more or less does away with the entire RPI system completely -- or so it seems -- but there's no way to tell with certainty because the NCAA's press release does not go into any detail on the actual formula of the NET system. They speak in broad terms and mention additional metrics, but stop short of defining how those metrics are calculated, how they will be inserted into the NET ranking system, and how they will be weighted against all other data sets. In other words, they didn't tell us much and that's part of the problem.

"The NCAA Evaluation Tool, which will be known as the NET, relies on game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses," according to the statement released by the NCAA. But they don't explain how any of those metrics will ultimately be tabulated.

Will strength of schedule (SOS) be a plug-and-play metric from the RPI? If the purpose is to improve the RPI, why integrate any legacy math into the new system? Likewise, will game locations carry the same weight as in the past? The addition of scoring margin and net offensive and defensive efficiency are two new additions the RPI avoided.

"In addition, a cap of 10 points was applied to the winning margin to prevent rankings from encouraging unsportsmanlike play, such as needlessly running up the score in a game where the outcome was certain," the NCAA said.

In short, the new formula will incentivize double-digit victories to maximize brownie points within the computer system. Up seven with three seconds left? Why run out the clock when you can launch a trey and add that little bit extra and maximize the math. Margin of victory -- even capped at 10 points -- is a moral hazard the RPI purposely avoided for 35 years to ensure sportsmanship and fair play. It also made sense because teams play different styles of ball that affect margin of victory but not outcomes. For instance, a five-point victory for Virginia is a 10pt victory for any other team because of their deliberate pace. With all kinds of ways to calculate proficiency, is margin of victory really necessary and does it subtract more from college sports than it adds?

Net offensive and defensive efficiency are two terms yet to be defined by the NCAA and could mean almost anything. In addition, the NCAA has elected to use third-party ranking systems and data sets to further sharpen the rankings, but fall short of telling us how.

"Another change made last year to the team sheets was the inclusion of other metrics. These include the Kevin Pauga Index and ESPNís results-oriented metric, the Strength of Record. The team sheets also included three predictive metrics: those managed by renowned basketball analytics experts Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, as well as ESPNís Basketball Power Index," the NCAA statement read.

Will data sets calculated by Jeff Sagarin, Ken Pomeroy, and ESPN continue as separate but additional tools to sit alongside the NET in team sheet evaluation, or will the formulas be rolled into the NET calculation itself and become part of the defining arithmetic of the 351 team rankings? The NCAA does not make it clear.

What is clear is the NCAA's preference to rely on third-party data sets more than they have in the past. On the surface, that poses no problem as long as the NCAA demonstrates unequivocal trust in those out-sourced metrics and stand by them. But the NCAA owes every member institution complete transparency in the NET and that includes how and where those third-party data sets will be used.

Part of that openness should include the publishing of the actual mathematical formulas created by those third parties that are now being leveraged. We're talking to you Jeff, Ken, and ESPN. As private enterprises engaging in their own affairs, it makes perfect sense to guard those formulas tightly. In this case however, they are acting in coalition with the NCAA which represents member institutions both public and private -- many of whom are supported by taxpayers. The NCAA is in the business of promoting fair play and there must be a minimum level of regulated fair play within the NCAA rankings as well. Using closely-guarded data sets comprised of unknown calculations from outside sources just adds to the speculation that member institutions are on a need-to-know basis and must trust the NCAA at their word that all metrics are fair and balanced. It shouldn't even matter if the third-party data sets remain standalone supplements. With the millions of dollars at stake for NCAA bids, all third-party metrics to evaluate member institutions must be subject to audit by those very schools held hostage to their arithmetic.

It's hard to be fair and balanced without checks and balances. That's why the RPI, as flawed as it was, remained a closed system where every last piece of multiplication and division was publicly known and relatively easy to duplicate. Duplicity is not just important for member schools to be able to fact-check the NET for accuracy, it ensures that any and all metrics used to create the new NET ranking system are open for praise or criticism to ensure the system treats all schools equally and does not provide a competitive advantage.

For schools like Dayton, the latter point has been a bone of contention for several years as non-conference scheduling becomes more difficult. As more Power-5 schools go to 20-game league schedules, the ability to attract quality non-con opponents has been nearly impossible at times unless you're fortunate enough to receive an invitation to Maui or the Bahamas. So why does it matter?

The NCAA created the Quadrant system last year to fully address the question of "who have you beaten and how often?" For a program like UD, it's difficult to stack those kinds of victories when you have just four of five opportunities a season rather than 15.

While Flyer fans are never completely satisfied with non-conference scheduling, UD has turned lemons into lemonade better than any non Power-5 school in the country, crunching the data and creating a set of non-conference opponents that put Dayton in a position to earn an at-large bid. With few Power-5 schools returning phone calls to play the Flyers, AD Neil Sullivan was forced to schlep through the deepest weeds of the arithmetic to find alternative opponents from lesser conferences that would provide similar upside. The results are undeniable too. As at-large bids for non Power-5 schools continue to disappear like shrinking violets, the Flyers remained one of just four or five schools in the country outside the top conferences that repeatedly put their name on the cut list (and punched their tourney ticket) in the last few seasons.

The NET has seemingly good intentions and improvement upon the RPI should be embraced. Any tool that is more accurate, fair, and transparent is a step in the right direction. What ultimately matters is creating a basketball ranking system that rewards success without punishing those too harshly who by no fault of their own have fewer opportunities to succeed because of conference affiliation.

All 351 schools deserve to know the mathematical formula they are being subjected to in all exactness and specificity regardless of complication. All schools deserve the right to calculate the same formula on their own to fact-check the fact-checkers and ensure there's no hanky panky. While the NCAA respects the work of Jeff Sagarin, Ken Pomeroy, and ESPN, that's not good enough. Who's to say some of these third-party data sets and rankings systems incorporate unintentional bias that provide schools from power conferences with a mechanical advantage? We're not suggesting they do, we're just asking for transparency to ensure they do not. Mistakes can and do happen which is why transparency is as important to the NET as the NET itself.

As flawed as it was, the RPI was transparent. That openness mattered greatly in 2009 when the NCAA mistakenly calculated a Dayton loss to UMass in Springfield, MA, as a neutral court defeat. We approached the NCAA and provided volumes of precedent from past UMass games in Springfield where those games were categorized as home matches for the Minutemen. After two weeks of lobbying, the NCAA agreed with us and changed the Flyer loss from a neutral court defeat to a road defeat. What sounds like an insignificant change resulted in a four-spot improvement for Dayton in the corrected RPI rankings. The 2009 Flyers back-doored into the NCAA tournament with one of the last at-large bids given out, earning a #11 seed in the process. Would the Flyers have made the cut without that correction to the RPI? Slimmer RPI margins have yielded greater outcomes. This is just one error for one team in one season and we've found many more elsewhere that impacted the rankings. Without the capacity to audit, the NCAA's calculations are taken at face value. That's not good enough either.

ďThe NCAA Menís Basketball Committee has had helpful metrics it has used over the years, and will continue to use the team sheets, but those will now be sorted by the NCAA Evaluation Tool,Ē Senior VP of basketball Dan Gavitt said. ďAs has always been the case, the committee wonít solely focus on metrics to select at-large teams and seed the field. There will always be a subjective element to the tournament selection process, too".

For now, we don't know what we don't even know -- which is a bit scary for fans and ADs around the country. Will these "helpful metrics" from third parties get rolled into the NET calculation rankings as weighted factors in a larger formula, or simply be used as additional data sets that stand on their own? More clarity is required by the NCAA on this and many other details.

No matter what the NET is or becomes however, there must be an open audit trail to guarantee every basketball program in the country is being treated fairly and honestly by the system. You can't have that if member schools cannot duplicate the formula themselves and ensure those lording above them are working with fair arithmetic as opposed to fuzzy math.

For better or worse, the NCAA has come under fire in recent years for questionable errors and omissions with the NCAA bracket that were in stark contradiction to the talking points the committee underscores publicly. In private -- which is how the War Room operates on Selection Sunday -- there's little fans and ADs can do to regulate that fairness. That's why the most important public tool the NCAA uses to tabulate fairness must be open to the strictest scrutiny and transparency. Without that, fairness becomes a subjective term manufactured in the back hallway of the NCAA headquarters. That would make the NET anything but a slam dunk and a full step backward for college basketball.

Let's give the NCAA a opportunity to further clarify what's going on by asking for the gory details. They deserve the chance to provide more clarity beyond an initial press release before the mob turns to tar-and-feathering, but fans and ADs of college basketball deserve more answers than they were provided. What we got today was no more than a sense of direction.
__________________

C. M. Rieman | Publisher | 937.361.4630 | Get the latest here:

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