Monday, November 19, 2012

NCAA | Making sense of the RPI

How not to go crazy as tournament time approaches

Rain is falling, wind is howling and leaves are swirling. It must be:
  • The end of November in Seattle
  • Time for the NCAA to announce its 2012 Division 1 Women’s Volleyball Tournament bracket (this Sunday at 1PM on ESPNU).
  • Time to go a little crazy over the RPI

Washington's Cassie Strickland attacks
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
The NCAA has been using the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) since the 1980s, first for basketball, then for most other non-football team sports, to assist its tournament selection committees as they decide which teams should qualify for the postseason and how they should be seeded.

Last season, both USC’s Mick Haley and Washington’s Jim McLaughlin were vocal critics of the way the committee used the RPI for D1 volleyball. (ESPN called it a “gag bracket.”) USC was ridiculously penalized for an early-season nonconference loss to a team which went on to win 20 games, while Washington was forced to travel to Minnesota, despite having a better record and arguably stronger credentials than the Gophers. (note: Washington lost in five sets at Minnesota, while USC advanced to the Final Four.)

This year, the system has been tweaked to reflect some of last season’s concerns. The biggest change: the committee will be allowed to consider this week’s American Volleyball Coaches’ Association poll in its deliberations.

Here’s how it’s all supposed to work:

Division I conferences are divided into eight regions. The Pacific Region is far and away the strongest, as it includes the Pac-12, West Coast and Big Sky Conferences. In this week’s coaches’ poll, Pac-12 teams occupy five of the top seven slots; West Coast Conference members BYU and San Diego have been in the Top 25 all season, while Pepperdine and Santa Clara have made appearances.

The committee coaches in each region rank the teams under their jurisdiction, providing a list to the tournament selection committee. In theory, these coaches are supposed to get out and actually see the teams in their region in action. In practice, this rarely happens.

Washington's Jenna Orlandini
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Conference champions get automatic bids. That covers 31 slots, leaving just 33 at-large bids. (Stanford is the 2012 Pac-12 champion.)

Starting this season, only teams with a record of .500 or better can be considered. With one week to go, that winnows the list down to about 175 teams (out of 328 total.)

Teams with the highest winning percentages are supposed to be given the first look, but the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is a tool built to account for teams with gaudy records against weak competition.

The RPI is a number. It’s calculated by giving
  • 25% weight to a team’s winning percentage (against D1 competition)
  • 50% to its opponents’ winning percentage, and
  • 25% to its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage.

This week, Washington’s RPI is 12. You would think it would be higher, since its five losses have been to other teams with even better RPIs: two narrow losses to Stanford (RPI #1), and both a win and a loss against UCLA (#8), USC (#10) and Oregon (#11.) By comparison, Minnesota has a lofty #7 RPI, despite bad losses to both Michigan (#33) and Michigan State (#35).

The committee seems to place disproportionate weight on nonconference scheduling, which usually hurts Washington. This season, the Huskies scheduled (and handily defeated) Purdue (#26), a team which ended last season highly-ranked, but has surprisingly underperformed this season (something Washington could not predict.) The Huskies also scheduled a match at Penn State (#2), but had to cancel when the Pac-12 changed Washington’s conference schedule at almost the last moment.

Want more comparisons?
  • Louisville has a #4 RPI, but hasn’t beaten any team with an RPI stronger than #26 Purdue.
  • #5 Nebraska, like #7 Minnesota, has losses to #33 Michigan and #35 Michigan State, and to #20 Ohio State and #23 Iowa State.
  • Kansas is #6, despite losses to #20 Iowa State, #27 Arkansas, #36 Notre Dame and #51 Baylor. It’s biggest win? #17 Kansas State.
  • #9 Florida State has lost to #19 North Carolina, #21 Miami (FL) and #37 Pepperdine. Its biggest win was against #14 Florida.

And so on. You get the picture. You can also understand why coaches rank Washington #5 and not #12.

Washington's Katy Beals
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
The NCAA says the selection committee is supposed to use the RPI as just one of several factors. Among other things they can consider are:
  • Record in each team’s final ten matches (we’ll break that out in another posting)
  • Bonus points for wins against teams in the RPI’s top 50 (UW has seven so far, with Wednesday’s match against Arizona State a possible eighth)
  • Subtracted points for losses against teams ranked 150 or worse (UW has lost to no team lower than #11 Oregon)
  • Head-to-head competition with other potential tournament teams (UW was narrowly swept by the team with the #1 RPI—Stanford, split with the other three Pac-12 powerhouses, and—pending this week’s matches against Arizona State and Washington State—went undefeated against all other competition.)

And, as mentioned earlier, the committee will finally be able to pay attention to this week’s AVCA coaches’ poll (where Washington is #5.) One reported reason for the switch: AVCA coaches’ votes are now made public, which may discourage coaches from gaming their ballots to the benefit of their team (or detriment of an opponent).

Before last season, team proximity to a host site was a huge factor (to save travel costs.) Now, the top sixteen teams are seeded, and get to host the first and second rounds, regardless of possible geographic disparity. The remaining 48 teams, however, must pay their own transportation (unless they travel by bus), and therefore the committee tries to keep them closer to home.

To reach the Final Four, teams will have to win whether at home or on the road. It’s the fans who benefit when their deserving team stays home the first two rounds—especially in Seattle, which leads the Pac-12 in attendance year in and year out.

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann


  1. Jack, all things considered what are the odds Washington will get to host the first and second round this year? I love this blog and couldn't wait to read your thoughts on Friday night's Oregon match! Keep up the good work!


    1. Great to hear from you, Ross.

      If UW defeats both Arizona St and Washington St, it will host the first two rounds. Friday's incredible victory over Oregon sealed the deal.

      That said, it adds intrigue to both of those matches. ASU needs a big win to catch the eye of the selection committee, and WSU would like nothing more than to catch the Huskies napping.

  2. I agree that the RPI doesn't make sense sometimes. But as it pertains to UW, they had a pretty easy pre-season schedule. The only test I though they would have gotten was Purdue. Who has significantly failed to live up to their success of last year. A Penn State match definitely would have helped UW's RPI but it didn't happen.

    With that being said, I am super excited for the tournament to begin! Anything can happen.

  3. Thanks for the informative post. I am looking forward to watching the Dawgs roll the Devils and Cougs so they can host the first two rounds. Next year they need to schedule a two year home and home with Hawaii. It would be a fun trip for the team and help our RPI. It would also allow UW to run UH out of the gym like we did two years ago in the tourney.


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