As of today (Jan. 8) the Ags have a sterling RPI ranking of 22nd in the nation. As of today the Ags Strength of Schedule is 49th in the nation. Looking at these numbers it seems as though the Ags have would have an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney locked up if they were to falter in the Big West tourney. Some people might argue that no matter how high the Ags' RPI is they won't get an at-large bid. This may be true when you look at Utah State's seeding in 2000 when they had an RPI ranking of 27. However, some numbers suggest otherwise. The highest ranking RPI ever to be left out of the dance was #33 Oklahoma in 1994 (and from a major conference no less) the lowest rated team ever to receive a bid was #74 New Mexico. Based on these facts the Aggies current RPI and Strength of Schedule would get Utah State the elusive at-large bid if they were to need it. But in the words of Lee Corso – Not So fast, My Friend. The Ags are still a member of the Big West Conference and the Big West conference schedule can be extremely detrimental to a school's RPI.
So far this season the Ags have played twelve games. Of those twelve, four came against squads that currently have an RPI ranking of 200 or worse—Northridge, ISU (twice) and Cennetary. The rest of the schedule isn't fantastic (only BYU and Utah have RPI's ranked in the top 100) but it has been enough to keep USU's RPI in the top 30 for most of the season. However, in the final fourteen regular season games, the Ags will play seven games against opponents who currently have an RPI above 200 (including two RPI killers against Idaho which currently sports an RPI ranking of 309). No Big West team other than USU currently has an RPI ranked in the top 100. What does all this mean? It means that unless the Ags go undefeated throughout the remainder of the regular season, the chances of an at-large bid are slim.
The RPI By Us
All this talk about the RPI raises an important point that shouldn't be ignored. The RPI is a system set up by the NCAA. The NCAA is controlled by the major conferences. And, not surprisingly, the major conferences are the only ones that benefit from the use of the RPI. The RPI is also an extremely simple system that leaves out two important variables—margin of victory and location. If Utah State beats BYU in Provo by 25 points, it is treated by the RPI just as it would be if Utah State beat BYU by 1 point in double OT at the Spectrum. (for more info on the RPI and its bias, check out HYPERLINK "http://www.sportsline.com/b/page/pressbox/0,1328,4816940,00.html" this article at Sportsline.com)
The Majority of USU's problem is obviously tied to the Big West conference. The Big West has fallen on hard times. This year the conference has three very good squads in Santa Barbara, Irvine and Utah State, yet its very unlikely that the conference will get more than one NCAA tourney bid because bottom-feeders Idaho and Fullerton have a combined record of 4-20. The RPI is an important metric used to compare schools who play in different conferences and different regions, and the RPI is based on winning percentages.
Most people are familiar with the RPI formula: 25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents' average winning percentage , and 25% opponents' opponents' average winning percentage. The most important variable is the 50% opponents' winning percentage. Now, go back and think about Fullerton and Idaho and their 4-20 combined record and the fact the USU must play these schools twice each. Then, if you are Utah State fan, try not to slit your wrists or begin plotting a bombing of the Idaho basketball arena. Looking at these numbers its easy to see why the Aggies RPI ranking will drop after games against Idaho and Fullerton, even if the Ags win by 40.
But we can't just leave her there!
There are a few things USU can do to boost their chances of an invitation to the dance. First and foremost is win the conference tourney. The Big West hasn't sent two teams to the NCAA tourney in many a year, so any talk of an at-large bid should be taken with an extremely large grain of salt. But if the Ags should fall in the Big West tourney a few other factors could help them garner that always elusive at-large bid.
Finish strong. One selection criteria for at-large bids is how a team finishes its season, specifically, a teams record in its last 10 games. Assuming USU loses a conference tournament game and must hope for an at-large bid, the best they could do here is 9-1, but that's pretty good. In fact, USU's relatively weak conference means the Ags could do considerably better in their last ten games than a 5th or 6th place team from a major conference who would be competing with the Ags for an at-large invite. Win Road games. The Ags have already lost 2 road games this year, and since road record is another important variable the selection committee looks at, it would behoove the Ags to win out on the road the rest of the way. Winning out on the road in the Big West is no easy task, however. A road victory at Irvine (coupled with the road games USU has already won at UCSB and Utah) would be especially impressive and would help the Ags chances. Say thanks to Shawn Daniels. This year's team owes a debt of gratitude to last years squad that not only got to the tournament, but pulled off an opening round upset of Ohio State. The selection committee claims it doesn't look at past tournament performance, but history says otherwise. Only after Gonzaga went deep into the tourney did the selection committee give multiple bids to the West Coast Conference. Although USU's win last year won't help a helluvalot this year as far getting a bid, it will help the Aggies' seeding if they make it to the dance.
Pray for help. USU must get help to improve its RPI. The Aggies can safely assume that if they have an RPI ranking over #40 they will have to win the Big West tourney or settle for an NIT bid. Utah State must hope that UC-Irvine and UCSB continue to win games, raising their winning percentage and in turn raising USU's RPI. Aggie fans should also (begrudgingly) pray that Utah and BYU continue to win since victories over these two in-state rivals could give USU needed bonus points with the committee for wins over teams in the top 50. A turnaround for the Webercats would also help the Aggies cause. Another team to pay attention to is Montana State. Aggie fans should hope the Bobcats end up with an impressive record and the Big Sky title since USU has beaten them twice this year, MSU is hovering on the outside of the RPI top 100 at 101.
Think back to the beginning of the season. There we were, hoping the football team could turn around its season of lost opportunities and hearing the talk that USU basketball was in a "rebuilding" year. Oh, that dreaded word. But, once again, Stew Morrill surprised us all (or maybe it was just me). I know I didn't expect the Aggies would have a mere two losses going into the first showdown with You See Irvine. Stew's has brought this team together much the way he brought the 1999-2000 team together. That was a squad with a lot of new faces and a lot of questions. Those questions were answered with a 19 game win streak and trip to the NCAA tournament (albeit an unfair seeding).
I think most Aggie fans are glad to have the problem of having to worry about our teams RPI this year, because, frankly, we never thought it would come into play. Neither the media nor the coaches picked the Aggies to win the conference this year, yet most would now consider USU the odds on favorite. Hats off to Stew Morrill and his staff for another fantastic coaching job.