Each time he spots one, Ervin crossed his fingers, praying for a victory. You see, Ervin isn't like his teammate, senior Sonny Weems. Ervin knows how important the words Ratings Percentage Index are to a basketball team. Weems' knowledge of the rankings starts and ends with, "I don't know nothin' about no RPI."
But Ervin grasps the system with total understanding.
"It's kind of hard," Ervin said. "Because of the RPI, you're in a situation where you have to root for the people you competed against. Like for example, I was all for Oral Roberts beating Oklahoma State and Oklahoma State beating Kansas. That was good since we beat Oral Roberts. That chain reaction was good for us."
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey doesn't love that Ervin comprehends the intricacies of the RPI. He doesn't want his Razorbacks to "get overwhelmed" or "get paralyzed" by paying too much attention to those three letters and too little to actual basketball.
He can't blame them, though. As in 2006 and 2007, Arkansas again enters the final two weeks of the regular season without a definite spot reserved in the NCAA Tournament. At 18-8 overall and 7-5 in the Southeastern Conference, the Hogs are one more loss away from the proverbial bubble. And since the NCAA Tournament committee uses the RPI as one of its criteria for selecting teams, players are going to keep track, coach's blessing or not.
"This time of year, the RPI is real important," sophomore guard Stefan Welsh said. "It makes you bring out your better game. If we play our game, we shouldn't have to pay attention to that stuff. If we just play our game, RPI won't matter for the rest of the season."
RPI Crash Course
Jerry Palm won't argue with Welsh's assessment. Palm, who has used the RPI to make his livelihood, runs the Web sites CollegeRPI.com and CollegeBCS.com, producing figures independent of the NCAA since 1995.
He said the tournament committee never relies solely on a team's RPI when discussing its postseason fate.
"The RPI simply reflects how a team is playing," Palm said. "You're not going to get in on RPI alone, and you're not going to not get in on RPI alone. But it's going to reflect what kind of season you're having."
Now, how that RPI gets calculated is a mystery to most, even to Ervin, and even to those fans who click on Palm's site every day.
Palm describes it as a "simple system."
"It's 25 percent your own record, 50 percent your opponents' record and 25 percent your opponents' opponents record," Palm said. "Of course, there are a few details. The biggest is your own record is weighted. You get more credit for winning on the road and less of a penalty for losing on the road."
So as Palm describes, the significance of strength of schedule is severe, as are the chain reactions Ervin monitors. Winning is crucial. So is prevailing away from home. But assembling the right balance of quality foes before conference play begins seems just as imperative.
Arkansas saw that last season with nonconference wins over Southern Illinois, West Virginia, Missouri State and Oral Roberts. Those victories helped bump Arkansas' RPI to 35 and its strength of schedule to 11 after a late five-game winning streak.
And the Hogs snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed.
Still, despite the anecdotal evidence of teams such as Arkansas using strength of schedule to get selected for the tournament, some coaches refuse to assemble a tough schedule. Palm singled out Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun as the most stubborn offenders. Calhoun pointed out that the RPI shouldn't be monitored as the year progresses. Palm agrees, pointing out that the RPI is calculated only with the opponents a team already has played, not future foes.
"The RPI is a mathematical thing that doesn't take everything into consideration," Calhoun said late last week. "It doesn't take in the human element. I'd always rather go by the ‘Would you want to play them?' test. I still think the committee thinks about that. I don't want them to be in a room looking at a little number. I want them thinking about how tough a team they would be to play."
Relating To The Hogs
Regardless of Calhoun's viewpoint, the committee is going to consider RPI. And that isn't lost on Pelphrey.
Unlike Calhoun, Pelphrey wants his Razorbacks to be tested away from Fayetteville. He isn't going to start putting together crazy schedules with tons of tests on the road. But he knows how valuable quality wins in opposing arenas or at neutral sites are.
"I think strength of schedule, RPI, you have to think about it some," Pelphrey said. "A lot of very good basketball teams last year didn't go to the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse, in particular, I think had 10 wins in conference and a .500 road record and didn't make it."
Pelphrey's first full stab at scheduling will be for next season, and the Razorbacks have home games set against Texas and Oklahoma. They will also open Missouri State's new arena in Springfield and take on Baylor in North Little Rock.
But sometimes, a schedule just doesn't turn out the way it looks like it should. This season, for instance, Arkansas had eight defending conference champions on its schedule. Several of those opponents — Delaware State, RPI 192, as an example — have performed worse than expected and that has lowered the Razorbacks' RPI.
None of this RPI analyzing will mean anything, however, if Arkansas merely takes care of its remaining schedule.
The Razorbacks have dented their own resume with four of what the RPI considers "bad losses." Providence, Appalachian State, South Carolina and Georgia all beat the Hogs and all have triple-digit RPIs. Plus, Arkansas' road record is as dismal as normal for the 21st century at 2-5. But the Hogs are still 6-4 against teams rated in the top 65 by Palm's site. High-RPI opponents Vanderbilt (10) and Ole Miss (43) are still on Arkansas' schedule, and the SEC Tournament should provide more chances to boost the Hogs' RPI.
RPI-boosting winning streaks vaulted Arkansas into the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. And Palm advised that a similar run was the only way to ensure another March on the right side of the bubble.
"They have played tournament quality basketball at the end of the year that last season," Palm said. "That's what has gotten them in. Their RPI has gone up and they've kept winning. It's merely reflecting how well the team was playing at the time."
Before Tuesday's games, Arkansas ranked 35th in the RPI standings, according to CollegeRPI.com. Here is a look at the RPI rankings of the Razorbacks' opponents this season and how the Hogs fared against them:
Opponent RPI Arkansas' Result
Wofford 185 W
vs. College of Charleston* 210 W
vs. Providence* 107 L
vs. Virginia Commonwealth* 50 W
Delaware State 192 W
Missouri 88 W
Oral Roberts 56 W
Missouri State 148 W
Texas-San Antonio 218 W
at Oklahoma 27 L
Northwestern State 199 W
vs. Appalachian State& 159 L
Louisiana-Monroe 234 W
vs. Baylor# 33 W
at Auburn 126 W
Alabama 130 W
South Carolina 133 L
at Georgia 132 L
at LSU 176 W
Mississippi State 40 W
Ole Miss 43 W
Florida 57 W
at Tennessee 1 L
at Mississippi State 40 L
LSU 176 W
at Kentucky 65 L
at Alabama 130
at Ole Miss 43
* — Neutral-site games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off
& — Neutral-site game in North Little Rock
# — Neutral-site game in Dallas
RPI Will Help Determine Arkansas' Fate
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