USA TODAY Sports
The selection committee has made it obvious: the RPI, flawed as it is, is the most important factor in tournament seeding.
As we enter Tuesday, a full two days after the NCAA bracket was unveiled, the topic of conversation around the water cooler is still the idea that the Oregon Ducks were "snubbed" by receiving a 12-seed in the bracket. The top-25 polls, both of which have Oregon ranked in the top-25, have done nothing to quell those thoughts, neither have explanations that Oregon was a "true 11-seed" that was moved down due to bracketing purposes, as even an 11 seems woefully low to most people.
While we contemplate reasons that this happened, the answers are coming much more clear. The committee followed the RPI pretty closely, even though RPI is a pretty bad statistic that can be manipulated fairly easily. Oregon was ranked 46 in RPI, ranked almost right with Ole Miss, Akron, and California, the other 12 seeds. The Big Lead came and just said it:
If you think that is just funny math and will have no impact, think again. Let's compare Maryland to Boise State, and also throw in Oregon. There is some thought that Oregon got screwed (yes, they did), but it wasn't because of an East Coast Bias. It was a RPI bias. Oregon got seeded where the RPI dictated.
The flaws of RPI are well documented: it judges who you've played, but doesn't do a lot to judge whether you've actually beaten them, doesn't take context (injuries, home/road) into account, nor margin of victory. Furthermore, as the Big Lead article I linked to earlier says, games against Division II opponents don't even count in the RPI. So while Boise State was busy padding victories against Walla Walla and Corban, and not having to suffer an RPI hit, Oregon was demolished for playing Portland State (RPI 359) and Idaho State (RPI 337). That's a loophole that that the NCAA needs to close in short order, and one that the Mountain West, who played 14 games against non-D1 opponents that counted on the win ledgers, but not against their RPI, needs to fix in short order.
The question, though, is should Oregon have been able to see this RPI bomb coming, and what, if anything, should the Ducks to do prevent it in the future?
Non-conference scheduling is a tricky business. It's determined partly by what games you can get and how many home games you need to satisfy revenue demands, but also by where you are as a program. Everyone wants to play Duke or Louisville, but those teams are only going to play you if it's worth their while. Furthermore, it wouldn't have made sense for Oregon the past few years to schedule those games anyway--sending rebuilding teams in to get crushed by top ten teams isn't a way to build a program.
The first thing to note is that the Pac-12 had three teams that finished 150th or worse in the RPI. The Ducks beat Oregon State, Washington State, and Utah twice each (while also losing to Utah once). There is simply nothing you can do when the bottom of your conference is that bad. The RPI will pummel you for even playing them (of which you have no choice). The onus is simply on those programs to get better. Utah is headed in the right direction. Oregon State has been the conference RPI killer for two decades now. Those things are out of Oregon's control, as are the fact that the Ducks played Arizona and UCLA only once this season.
What is under Oregon's control is who they schedule, and, on paper, there was reason to believe that the non-conference schedule should have turned out better than it did. The Ducks won AT UNLV (No. 22 RPI) which was a big time win, maybe the second best in the conference behind Arizona's upset of Florida. They also lost to Cincinnati (No. 50 RPI) and at UTEP (No. 98 RPI). The only "bad loss" was the late season loss at Utah. Furthermore, the Ducks had reason to believe that a home game against Vanderbilt would have been a good win on the ledger, but Vandy had a disappointing season (No. 110 RPI) and that win didn't count for a whole lot of anything at the end. Maybe the Ducks should have scheduled one more difficult game, but they played a fairly ambitious non-conference schedule last year, and then were basically left out for losing too many non-conference games early on while Devoe Joseph was out. With Dana Altman figuring he would be starting a freshman backcourt, you can understand his hesitation to risk too many losses early. That shouldn't be an issue next year with a more experienced team coming back.
However, it wasn't this that killed Oregon's RPI. They had much more meat at the top of their schedule than many teams ranked ahead of them in the RPI. St Mary's (No. 30), Wichita State (No. 38), Southern Miss (No. 34), Belmont (No. 19), Memphis (No. 14) are among teams that have top lines and good wins that pale in comparison to what the Ducks have accomplished. However, what those teams have done that give them the RPI edge is avoid games against sub-300 RPI teams.
The Ducks had three wins against such teams (PSU, Idaho State, and Houston Baptist), and two more games against sub-250 teams (UTSA and Northern Arizona). We're essentially deciding these things on whether you crush Texas Southern or Hartford as opposed to Portland State, when any decent team is going to crush any of those teams. The RPI treats that 100 point difference the same as they would treat the difference between playing Duke or playing Fresno State, which is, of course, ridiculous.
Scheduling your guarantee games are tricky, especially out west where you have fewer such teams to choose from. We're going to play Portland State pretty much every year, and probably should, given that it's another state school. I hope Dana Altman, with a bit more of a veteran squad returning next season, can get a few more great top line games on the schedule, and maybe being seen as a rising program coming off a tourney berth will make that option more available. But avoiding those bad games are trickier--small programs are inherently unstable, and the loss of a coach or a single player can turn a team from really good one year to pretty bad the next (see Portland State post Ken Bone). This isn't something you should rationally have to worry about, but the NCAA has made it clear time and again that the RPI is paramount.
The good news is that for the first time since 2008, the Ducks are back in the Tourney. And when you look at what's in the pipeline, talent-wise, we should expect to be there more often that not in the future. The NCAA has sent a clear message to Dana Altman--start scheduling with gaming the RPI in mind. Which means schedule the right patsies. Or schedule Northwest Christian and Corban because, as the Mountain West learned, apparently there is no difference.