RPI Can Assure Devils Dance in March

In early March of 2000, Arizona State fans tuned into CBS and ESPN on NCAA Selection Sunday hoping their beloved Sun Devils would be dancing for the first time in the Rob Evans era. It didn't happen. Many people, including myself, were upset with the NCAA selection committee's decision to exclude ASU from the field of 64. It was widely though that a record of 17-12 and 10-8 in Pac-10 play would look good enough for an invitation in the eyes of the committee. Looks can be deceiving.

Despite the solid record, ASU had an unimpressive RPI rating of 61 at the close of the season, which all but excluded the Devils from consideration. The RPI or the Ratings Percentile Index is a formula devised by the NCAA selection committee to determine how teams stack up against one another. It is based 50% on the record of a team, 25% on the record of the team's opponents and 25% on the record of the opponents' opponents.

Now, if that's confusing to you, don't worry about it too much, there won't be a quiz at the end of this column. What is important to know however is that in the last 5 years, every single eligible major conference team (Big-10, Pac-10, SEC, ACC, Big-12, Big East) with at least 17 overall wins, a winning record in league play and a top 50 RPI rating has made the tournament field.

In 1999 for instance, Washington made the tournament despite a regular season record of 17-11 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-10. What was the difference between the fate of the Huskies in '99 and the Devils a year later? The RPI. Washington played the 17th toughest schedule in the nation and finished with an RPI of 33, which is relatively strong. Not only did Washington make the tournament, the Huskies were given a surprising 7th seed. Conversely, the Devils strength of schedule was only 59th in 2000 and as already mentioned the final RPI ranking was 61. Thus, the Devils were shut out of the NCAA Tournament.

While the Devils were left out in 2000, the team wasn't alone. Vanderbilt finished with an RPI of 41, 19-10 overall, but was left on the outside looking in because of a .500% finish in the SEC. Wake Forest went 17-14 in the regular season and had an RPI of 53, but was left out because of a losing record in the ACC. Each of these three teams met one or two of the key variables, but none met all three; 17 overall wins, a winning record in conference play and a top 50 RPI.

There were several other teams however that did meet the parameters in 2000. Missouri finished 18-12, with a winning record in conference play and an RPI of 40. Arkansas had 19 wins and an RPI of only 49 and still made it into the field. Both of those major conference teams satisfied the three unspoken guidelines that almost invariably get a team into the field.

More recently, in 2001 Georgia won only 16 games overall in the regular season, but had a top 2 strength of schedule and an RPI of 38 and was given a number 8 seed by the selection committee. This further demonstrates that teams do not need to reach a mythical win plateau in order to receive a bid or even get a decent seeding. In the same year, Georgia Tech finish 17-12 and with an RPI of 41 and was given an 8 seed, and Missouri finished 18-12 with an RPI of 46 and was given a 9 seed. The highest major conference team left out in 2001 was Mississippi State. That team finished 16-12 and had a nice RPI of 34, but finished with a losing record in the SEC and was left out.

Last year, Michigan State made the tournament with a record of 18-12 and an RPI of 39 as a 10th seed. Mississippi was given a 9th seed with a relatively modest RPI of 51 after the team won 19 games and finished with a winning record in the SEC. Wisconsin made the field as an 8th seed, despite an 18-13 record and an RPI of 49. The best team left out? Again, it was a team that had a nice record of 17-12 and an RPI of 40, but only finished .500% in league play. One more league victory and Villanova would have very likely been dancing.

Now, you may ask how all of this relates to ASU's chances this year. Well, currently the Devils are sitting at 16-8 overall (non-Division I wins don't count) and 9-5 in league play with 4 regular season games remaining and an RPI of 29. That's very promising. With games left against high quality opponents such as Stanford, California and Oregon, the Devils are almost assured of a top 50 finish in the RPI even with 4 consecutive losses and a loss in round one of the Pac-10 tournament. If that were to happen however, the Devils would fail to reach 17 wins and would only finish .500% in league play.

For these reasons, ASU needs only one win in the remaining four regular season games to reach 17 overall wins, a winning conference record of 10-8, and a top 50 finish in the final regular-season RPI. In that scenario, should the Devils be left out of the NCAA tournament, it would be the first time in at least 5 years that such an event has happened. Of course, we'd feel considerably more comfortable with two wins from now through the conference tournament. That would make ASU an absolute lock, and secure their first invitation to March Madness since the Sweet 16 team of 1995.

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