RPI looks like a system stuck in the past
Imagine this scenario: The NCAA Tournament selection committee sits in its conference room, gathering data from its Commodore and Tandy computers.
Maybe the committee is thinking about mandating that the short shorts come back for this tournament or playing it without the three-point shot or shot clock.
Are those Members Only jackets they're wearing? Right. No way the committee would go retro. It's ludicrous.
So answer this: Why will the committee use a computer ranking that was devised in 1981, with only minor updates since?
This is the time of year when the letters RPI get more airtime than IRS. The Ratings Percentage Index will be the statistical flavor of the week.
It's a strange place, RPI Land. In this numerical nirvana, the University of Kentucky (20-9) ranks higher (10th) than defending national champion Florida (25-5 and No. 11).
Here, Nevada Las Vegas is ranked higher than Kansas and Brigham Young is better than Georgetown. Here, Vanderbilt can beat UK twice and yet still rank 27 spots below the Wildcats.
Can we agree, whatever the "R" in RPI stands for, it isn't reality?
The RPI was designed to measure strength of schedule and performance against that schedule. The problem is, this time of year the numbers are repeated so much that they seem a part of a team's DNA.
We in the media like numbers. They're easy. They're quick. They can illustrate a great deal in a short time.
Unfortunately, they also can paint a picture that isn't quite accurate.
Scrap the RPI?
That's why I agreed when I heard ESPN's Jay Bilas say last week that it's time for the RPI to R.I.P.
"They should get rid of it," Bilas said on ESPN's "College GameNight." "The RPI has taken on a life of its own because it affects perception. … We can do better than the RPI."
Bilas called for a "precision instrument" that would better measure the quality of wins when they happened. He argued, for instance, that UK's win over the University of Louisville looks good now because the Cardinals have climbed up the charts as the season has gone on. But at the time, U of L was struggling.
I wouldn't go that far. Neither would two big-time hoops number-crunchers: Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com and Ken Pomeroy of kenpom.com.
"I wouldn't make that a part of it," Pomeroy said yesterday. "But I don't understand why they haven't gone to a better system. I mean, you don't see people sitting around playing games on Atari systems anymore. Back in 1981, you didn't have all the TV coverage we have now, you didn't have the Internet.
The RPI worked great then. But now, we have so much data to figure out what the important factors are historically, last 10 games, and all the other things. Why not build a system that measures that?"
Forget the numbers
One legitimate fear is that the better the ranking, the more people will defer to it. The last thing basketball needs is a system like football, with the ranking the final word.
"This isn't the BCS, where the numbers are supposed to do the thinking, and furthermore, the committee doesn't want a set of numbers to do the work," Palm said. "The RPI is fine, given how it's used."
The RPI works for the committee because the committee knows what it is for and how to use it. That's not always the case in the media and public.
Because it is a number endorsed by the NCAA, the RPI is thrown around in a round-the-clock news, talk-radio and Internet cycle leading up to the tournament. That's the perception Bilas talked about.
And as long as all of us amateur bracketologists are going to play with it, we might as well have a ranking based in reality.
Reach Eric Crawford at (502) 582-4372 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. Comment on this column, and read his blog and previous columns, at www.courier-journal.com/crawford