Once conference play starts, the RPI for each conference is more or less established. It's a zero-sum affair: if one team wins, another team loses, offsetting any potential gain to the conference's RPI.
Indeed, every win is a loss.
Blair Kerkhoff, who writes for The Kansas City Star and The Sporting News, discussed this at length on Kansas City's 810 WHB before the season started."That's where the conference RPI is established, is in November and December…" Kerkhoff said.
"You're locked into your conference RPI once the (conference) season starts, and conference RPI is really important when you're talking about how many teams are going to go from your conference."
Come late winter, Reece Davis and Clark Kellogg and the rest of the nation's talking heads will be dissecting NCAA Tournament résumés. And along with feather-in-the-cap wins and cringe-inducing losses, each team's RPI will be a talking point. And that RPI rating is married not only to the number of wins a team has, but also the strength of that team's conference.
"In February we'll talk about, ‘How many teams does [a conference] deserve?'" Kerkhoff added. "Well, that really has been established. We can talk about it then, but November and December is really the time to build those credentials."Since that's the case – fair or not – the Big Ten helped its cause this week by notching some big wins in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
On Dec. 1, heading into the meat of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Big Ten had a conference RPI ranking of No. 6, according to TeamRankings.com. That was behind the Big East, Big 12, Pac-10 and – gulp – the Mountain West and Missouri Valley.But then, on Dec. 4, after three days of Big Ten/ACC showdowns and after the Big Ten claimed a 6-5 overall victory, the conference RPI had leapt to No. 3, trailing only the Big East and Big 12.
Now, the Big Ten wasn't No. 3 in all of the RPI rankings. This one, from RealTimeRPI.com, had the Big Ten at No. 5 on Dec. 3, behind the Big East and Big 12, but also the ACC and SEC. And here, at StatSheet.com, the Big Ten was also ranked No. 5 on Dec. 3. Can't tell you for sure why there is the disparity – maybe because the Dec. 4 rankings aren't out yet – but it's safe to assume that, whether No. 3 or No. 5, the Big Ten did well for itself this week.And Northwestern helped the cause, continuing its early-season tear and moving to 6-1 with a 65-53 win at North Carolina State. If wins over then-No. 23 Notre Dame and previously unbeaten Iowa State weren't proof that Northwestern hadn't packed it in, then certainly the NC State game was.
The Cats fended off a late Wolfpack charge, everyone chipped in, and with upcoming games against North Carolina A&T, North Florida, Stanford and Central Connecticut State – all at home, all extremely winnable – there is reason to think that NU could enter conference play at 10-1.The NC State game was a big-time win for the Wildcats. No doubt. But some of the other Big Ten wins were – by association – big wins for Northwestern as well.
Wisconsin, which NU plays twice this season, scored a big 73-69 win over No. 5/No. 6 Duke. Duke was previously unbeaten – 10-0 – in the Challenge, yet the Badgers led the entire way."I'm proud to be a part of the conference when they win something," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said afterward. "We're in it to try to win it."
Believe it, Bo: The rest of the conference is proud of you, too.Illinois, another team that NU will play twice, also notched a conference-boosting win, downing No. 19/No. 18 Clemson. The Illini came back from a 23-point second-half deficit and won 76-74 – at Clemson, no less. While Wisconsin snapped Duke's winning streak, Illinois snapped its own three-game losing streak, bolstering the Big Ten's RPI in the process.
And there was much more. No. 6 Purdue continued its perfect season – the Boilers are 6-0 – by downing Wake Forest. Ohio State beat Florida State, 77-64. And Penn State beat Virginia by three, 69-66, in Charlottesville.Definitely some good wins in there. And moreover, none of the Big Ten's losses were stunners. North Carolina outlasted Michigan State in Chapel Hill. Still-rebuilding Indiana fell to Maryland. And Iowa – a putrid 2-5 with losses to Texas-San Antonio and Duquesne, among others – was downed by Virginia Tech. You can't bank on cellar-dwelling Iowa and Indiana to notch wins, and it's never easy to waltz into Chapel Hill and win.
The two other losses: Minnesota fell to 8-0 Miami on the road, and Michigan lost to Boston College.
But most of the big-time games went the way of the Big Ten. This is probably the most interesting stat from the Challenge: In matchups of teams that were both in the 2009 NCAA Tournament – Wake-Purdue, MSU-UNC, Duke-Wisconsin, Illinois-Clemson, OSU-FSU – the Big Ten was a resounding 4-1. So the conference wasn't feeding on cupcakes.
Things could still change before the conference season starts. Maybe some Big Ten teams – heck, maybe Northwestern – stub their toes in the next couple weeks.But as it stands now, after claiming the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and before teams start beating up on each other, the Big Ten has positioned itself to put the maximum number of teams into the Tourney.
That's good for the conference. And good for Northwestern.
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