Virginia Basketball's RPI Problem

USA TODAY Sports

For the Hoos to make the NCAA tournament, they'll need to improve their standing in a meaningless and arcane formula

Virginia is 12-5 (2-2 ACC) and has won at Wisconsin and taken down Tennessee, UNC, and Florida State. The conference is wide-open, and UVA has one of the more forgiving ACC schedules. A young core has only improved during the season's first two months, and its senior point guard finally appears healthy. So why are Wahoo fans so down on the team's NCAA chances? The team's RPI stands at 139, the worst in the ACC.

What is RPI?

The NCAA has emphasized that "RPI is just one of the tools both committees use to select, seed and bracket the Division I basketball championships." While that is indeed the case, the Ratings Percentage Index still holds undue influence over tournament selection. The number has a prime spot on the "nitty gritty" reports that the Committee views and is used to determine top-50 and top-100 wins; an end-of-season RPI higher than around 60 has a debilitating effect on a team's NCAA hopes.

The formula to determine a team's RPI is quite simple. Winning percentage makes up 25% of a team's rating. Win-loss records are adjusted, such that home wins are worth .6 wins, home losses worth 1.4 losses, road wins are 1.4 wins, and road losses .6. Games on neutral courts count for 1 win or 1 loss. The next 50% of the rating is composed of opponent's record, and the final 25% is the record of a team's opponent's opponents.

Thus, 75% of a team's RPI is determined solely by schedule strength. A team's actual performance on the court could only affect the other 25%. Additionally, all RPI cares about are wins and losses - margin of victory is not a factor. While this may be more "politically correct," it makes for a less accurate measure of how good a team is. Fans may only care about winning or losing, and at the end of the day, that's how sports work. However, advanced and predictive computer rankings should differentiate between a two-point win and a twenty-pont win.

Why is UVA's RPI so low? (Do other rankings agree?)

The answer to these questions are: 1. It's kinda baffling and 2. No.

Coming into the season, it appeared as if UVA's schedule was well-designed to keep "RPI-killers" off the schedule. However, a couple things happened. First, the Hoos lost to Delaware at home, which cost them a trip to Madison Square Garden to take on Kansas State and Michigan or Pitt in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Instead, UVA played Lamar (RPI #316) and North Texas (#251). Additionally, teams on UVA's OOC schedule have generally underperformed expectations. Old Dominion made the tournament in 2011 and Mississippi Valley State made it last season. This year, they are #319 and #322, respectively. Even the best scheduling intentions don't always work out - Virginia has some truly brutal RPI-killers on the schedule once again this season.

Obviously, UVA's performance has impacted the team's RPI as well. Losing to Delaware, Old Dominion, and Wake Forest all hurt, and rightfully so. RPI doesn't care who UVA loses too (if we had swapped wins and losses at Wisconsin and Wake Forest, our rank would be unchanged). Still, the team lost too many games against a soft schedule.

That said, the exceptionally low RPI appears to be an outlier. Here's where some of the most respected computer rankings have the Hoos:

System Rank*
Ken Pomeroy 39
Jeff Sagarin (Predictor) 45
LRMC 59
ESPN - BPI 57
Massey (Rating/Power) 83/64
RPI 139

*All rankings before games of 1/20

With our luck, the one computer that ranks UVA about 80 spots lower than the consensus of the (more knowledgeable) computers is the one the NCAA uses most.

How do we fix it?

Just win, baby.

RPIforecast.com has useful information on where teams' RPIs will end up; it projects the remainder of the schedule using Jeff Sagarin's predictor rankings and calculates an estimated RPI based on those results.

To make the NCAA tournament, Virginia's RPI must get below 60. An RPI in the low-60s could give the Hoos a chance, but making the tournament with an RPI over 70 would be unprecedented. With a 12-6 ACC record, RPIForecast.com projects an RPI of 57.7. At 11-7, UVA would be at 68.8. At 10-8, Wahoo fans could probably kiss NCAA hopes goodbye (though a deep and impressive ACC Tournament run could give UVA a chance) and at 13-5 or better, Virginia becomes a shoo-in.

These RPIs and projected records don't include the ACC Tournament. If the Hoos finish 11-7, they could probably get an NCAA bid with two wins, and may need one win in Greensboro to feel comfortable at 12-6 in the ACC.

So the bad news for Virginia is that the team's early-season RPI issues have raised the bar for reaching a second straight NCAA Tournament. The good news is that these problems aren't debilitating. Winning cures all ills; if the Hoos put together a strong finish to the season, the rest will all fall into place.

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