RPI history sheds light on WSU's dance chance

TWO WEEKS AGO, at 13-13 and with four highly touted opponents left to face, Washington State's post-season outlook ranged from cloudy to bleak. But Wazzu suddenly has tongues wagging after three straight over UCLA, 'Zona and ASU. So the question begs: If WSU beats Washington on Saturday, and nabs two more in the Pac-10 Tournament, could the Cougs, at 19-14, get a Big Dance invite?

Not according to our research.

While the prospects for an NIT bid look infinitely more promising, the outlook isn't favorable for Wazzu to receive one of the 34 at-large berths in the 65-team field for the NCAA Tournament.

Indeed, it would seem the only way for Wazzu to go dancing for the third straight season would be to head to the Pac-Tourney in L.A. next week and win the whole smash.

The virtues of the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) are certainly debatable, but there's little question that it plays a key role in the NCAA tournament selection process.

A high RPI does not guarantee a team won't make the tourney cut but consider this -- no team with an RPI worse than 63 has earned an at-large bid in recent years.

The Cougars, on the strength of two upset wins this past week against Arizona and ASU, climbed to No. 88 this weekend in the official RPI released by the NCAA.

The Cougs' last three wins (UCLA, UA, ASU) have come against teams in the RPI Top 50. And a win over Washington on Saturday would improve their RPI even further but even with a No. 5 seed in the Pac-10 Tournament, plus two tournament wins, it's difficult to see the Cougars reaching the low 60s in the RPI.

There are a variety of factors the NCAA Tournament selection committee looks at -- including record in road/neutral court games, non-conference record, non-conference RPI, record in the last 10 games and conference RPI -- that we won't get into because we recently misplaced our abacus and textbook on rocket surgery. But two that warrant closer inspection are wins against the RPI Top 50 and 100.

Washington State overall is just 4-8 and 5-11 in those two categories, respectively.

Washington State does hold up fairly well in strength of schedule, Sagarin has the Cougs at No. 30 in that category.

But home losses this season took a big bite out of Washington State's RPI. And with Mississippi State (17-12) -- whom Washington State dispatched back in November -- falling to 94 in this week's RPI, that didn't help either.

An at large berth? All evidence to the contrary. It's the Pac-10 Tourney crown or bust as far as an invite to the NCAA Tourney goes.

But first things first, and that means a rematch with Washington. And whatever may come in the postseason, an upset over Washington on the road this weekend before heading to Los Angeles would put quite a capper on an impressive final regular season surge by the Cougs.

Even if WSU were to lay claim to an RPI in the low 60s, consider the plight of Mississippi and Ohio State last year. They went into Selection Sunday with RPI's of 48 and 49, respectively. And they didn't receive an invitation from the committee. The year before that, Florida State with an RPI of 41 was shut out.

Closer to home, Arizona State last season went 19-12 with some quality wins and tight, even disputed, losses in a lauded Pac-10 Conference. But the Devils' RPI was just 83. On Selection Sunday, committee chairman Tom O'Connor said while the RPI was a starting and control point and not an end-all, be-all, he also cited ASU's RPI of 83 as reason for excluding the Sun Devils, saying they would have had the worst RPI rating of any team to ever make the field.

JOE LUNARDI, the bracketology expert at ESPN.com, told KJR Radio's Mitch Levy this morning that WSU "pretty much" has to win the Pac-10 tournament in order to make March Madness. "I suppose if they get to the final (game of the Pac-10 tourney) we'll have them on the also-considered list. But I don't think their chances are good at all ... They're 5-and-11 vs. the top 100 (RPI) teams."

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