Perception, Grandstanding And The Non-mystery Of Scheduling
The day after Selection Sunday typically is good for two things: Continued news of coach firings and grandstanding by those whose teams/leagues were “snubbed” by the NCAA selection committee. As such, it was not terribly surprising to read comments from both Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon questioning how their teams/leagues were treated.
Martin, whose Volunteers were denied an at-large for the second consecutive season, served up a standard-issue list of gripes, noting that the SEC was “a BCS league, one of the best leagues in the country” and that getting only three bids, with the league’s second-place team not getting in, was injustice. His combo platter of brand label-dropping (“BCS”) and misrepresentation of quality, though, undermines whatever other potentially valid points Martin may have been making. The SEC ended up as the eighth-ranked conference in RPI (last year’s horrible Pac-12 was ninth, I believe) and the league went 15-33 overall against the other five “power conferences,” with a losing record against each of the five. By any objective evaluation, this was not “one of the best leagues” in the country this season, and it was judged accordingly.
It was another path taken by both Turgeon and Martin, though, that is a bit more interesting and discussion-worthy. Both gentlemen, in some fashion, suggested that “perception” played a large role in the committee decisions. Martin (and other coaches, like John Calipari) decried the perception that the SEC was down this season. Turgeon (and others) said the same about the ACC (which, while not as bad as the SEC, certainly wasn’t vintage, and the bottom of the league was very weak).
Turgeon also tossed this out for consumption.
“There was so much talk about the Mountain West all year. A 9-7 team [San Diego State and Boise State] got in from that league. I just think that’s the way it works. Next year, when the season starts, the ACC is going to be the league from the very beginning. Everyone is going to talk about the ACC like the Big Ten and the Big East this year, so I imagine we’ll get more teams in next year.”
Once you get past the hilarity of an ACC coach complaining that the Mountain West was a media darling, it was startling to read — even if it was just standard-issue grandstanding to show your fan base you’re standing up for them — that a head coach in 2013 thinks “this is the way it works,” as if performance and scheduling aren’t what lead to that “perception” that a league is either good or not.
Maryland’s non-conference schedule this season was understandable. There were a lot of roster question marks and the Terps certainly didn’t know Dez Wells was going to fall into their laps. So Turgeon scheduled to win games to help the morale of a developing team, and assumed (if the Terps were actually NCAA tournament hopefuls) that the ACC schedule would lift them with the tide. That’s the part that failed the Terps this season, and it wasn’t perception.
Per data provided by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm (@JPPalmCBS), the ACC was 19-18 against other BCS leagues in nonconference play (through Jan. 10). That’s well behind what the Big Ten and Big East accomplished, and about what the Big 12 and Pac-12 did. And all of those leagues were treated accordingly by the committee, both in terms of seeding and selection. These are just rough-cut approximations, but it speaks to the importance of nonconference performance on how your league will be rated and treated.
That’s where the discussion of the Mountain West (and, to some extent, the Atlantic 10) comes in. The Mountain West went 12-14 against BCS league teams this season, although very few of those games were at home. The league took care of business in virtually every other nonconference game, finishing 85-26 overall against Division I teams. Factor in that it’s only a nine-team league, so there weren’t any truly bad teams by second-level league standards, and you get a situation where the league is judged by its better teams.
You also have to include this information from The Big Lead’s Jason Lisk, who rightly points out that the Mountain West played 14 non-DI opponents this season, and the RPI benefit (in terms of strength of schedule) from playing those teams (which don’t count in the RPI) instead of Division I minnows, was significant.
The RPI is not some secret sauce formula. It’s an overly simplistic and widely public metric. A team’s rank is of comprised 25 percent of their record (adjusted, with flawed math, for home/away results), 50 percent of their composite opponents’ record, and 25 percent of their opponents’ composite record. For the latter two categories, just add up wins and losses. This is the easiest thing in the world to calculate, and quite simple to “rig” in your favor. All you have to do is avoid teams that are going to be really bad, and beat the teams you should beat. The Mountain West doesn’t have the guarantee game budgets of truly high-major programs, nor an endless supply of bad D-I teams close by who are willing to take a check for a beating. So they played smarter schedules and more non-DI teams, and this is the result.
It’s not baseless perception that the Mountain West was a better conference than the SEC or ACC this season. It’s based almost entirely on how the leagues did in nonconference play, which sets up self-fulfilling situations (good and bad) in league play in terms of RPI. In a league like the Mountain West, where homecourt advantage is so pronounced, it’s even more self-fulfilling.
Almost a decade ago, the NCAA made an adjustment to the RPI formula to try to incentivize teams to play more road games. Of course, they screwed up the math such that the new formula rewards “not losing at home” more than it does “winning on the road,” at least for what its primary purpose is: sorting teams that may make the NCAAs.
The formula adjustment for Factor I (your winning percentage) now credits you with 0.6 wins for a home win and 1.4 wins for a road victory. Likewise, you get 1.4 home losses for an actual home defeat and 0.6 losses for an away loss. That sounds like a reasonable plan until you realize that the target demographic — NCAA tournament-caliber teams — are all way above .500. As such, when you split two games (.500 overall), you want that impact to be as small as possible on your overall adjusted record, as determined by the RPI formula.
If you win at home and lose the away game, you would get an extra 0.6-0.6 added into your overall adjusted record. If you do it the other way, you get 1.4-1.4 added to your totals. If you are well above .500 overall, like all these NCAA caliber teams are, adding the 1.4-1.4 into the record drags you down more than the 0.6-0.6 does. In simple terms, losing home games (for 1.4 losses in your adjusted Factor I) is the worst thing you can do, and it’s way more harmful than adding 1.4 wins to the ledger is helpful.
So the Mountain West compiled a great nonconference mark and then, because very few teams win on the road in that league, they basically supersized the impact of playing only good and decent teams in league play. Throw in the 14 non-DI games and they gamed the RPI formula to a remarkable extent this season. But they did it through smarter scheduling and performance on the court, not through any voodoo or imaginary media agenda that supports smaller leagues. And, honestly, the committee saw through some of it. New Mexico, with a paper profile that argued strongly for a 1-seed, got a 3. UNLV was a bit overseeded, but the rest of the league got a 7, 8 and a play-in spot. They didn’t exactly get overly hooked up on seeding. Turgeon noted that (two) 9-7 teams got in from the MWC. Yes, Mark, just like they would have if the ACC or SEC was the No. 1 ranked RPI conference. The Big Ten got two 8-10 teams in.
So, anyway, take what Turgeon and Martin said with considerable grains of salt. Their job security depends on making the NCAAs and neither of them did, to the consternation of their fans. But underneath the bloviating, there seems to still be a lack of understanding as to how all of this works, which in 2013, is truly hard to understand. High-major leagues have every single advantage when it comes to scheduling — money, home games, familiar refs, etc. If they can’t figure out how to make those advantages work for them, they have no one to blame but themselves.