Indiana and Kansas played a fantastic game at Pearl Harbor late Friday night, in case you missed it. The Hoosiers won in overtime in a game of attrition, meaning that in its last three games (going back to last year’s NCAA Tournament), Indiana has played the three winningest programs all-time, beating two of them.
Of course, one of the reasons why Big Ten Champion Indiana got a 5-seed, and had to run through that gauntlet of Kentucky as a 4-seed before playing North Carolina, was because of their RPI rating last year.
Indiana was 24th in the RPI a year ago, pulled down by the bottom of their non-conference schedule against teams like McNeese State, Alcorn State, and Kennesaw State, all games they won comfortably. In contrast, Indiana was 12th in the AP Poll on Selection Sunday.
And I’m here to tell you that we will probably be looking at something very similar this year. I can make that assessment because of the way the RPI, and the non-conference schedules–not the top games that we will see on television, but the others–of the two teams are set up. Kansas plays Indiana, Duke, and Kentucky. Indiana plays Kansas, North Carolina, and Louisville. That’s pretty even, and then Indiana plays the next best opponent for either school, Butler, on a neutral court as well.
But the devil is in the details, as they say. And Kansas has been the best at paying attention to those details to game the system in their favor. Two seasons ago, I talked about this when Kansas (with multiple losses) was ahead of undefeated major conference teams (Duke and Virginia) in January. This article three years ago from the Topeka Capital-Journal details Larry Keating, the person in charge of scheduling at Kansas.
“When you’re playing teams in the leagues below you, you want to play teams that are going to win the most games,” Keating said, “because that’s what helps your RPI.”
He’s right, of course. The RPI formula consists of three factors: your own winning percentage (25%), opponents’ combined winning percentage (50%), and opponents’ opponents’ combined winning percentage (25%). Quick math should tell you that the opponent record makes up half of it. Thus, in the wonky math of the RPI, playing a 20-10 team from a bad conference (the type of team that might be a 15 or 16-seed) is as valuable, as playing a 16-13 team from one of the top power conferences. But what you must avoid is the 8-22 team from a bad conference.
The prediction business isn’t perfect, but it’s also not just flipping a coin. You can reasonably guess which teams from smaller conferences have a better chance of being good (or bad, and killing your rating). Just like with the bigger conferences, we tend to see the same teams at the top and bottom, with a few swaps.
Kansas is in an advantageous position, too, to play it that way. They are going to beat a decent team, one that might be the equivalent of a 14, 15, or 16 seed, about 95% of the time or more in Allen Fieldhouse. They would beat a true bottom dweller 99.9% of the time. It might cost them one win over a five or six year period to play the Sienas of the world, rather than the Savannah States.
Of course, Indiana could do that too. They don’t. The schedule this year includes Mississippi Valley State, who haven’t had 10 wins in a season since 2012 (Ken Pomeroy projects them for 8-23). It includes Delaware State (7-25 a year ago), Southeast Missouri State (5-24 a year ago), and SIU-Edwardsville (6-22 a year ago). It includes eight games against teams ranked 250 or lower by Pomeroy entering the season. Kansas has zero such games.
How big of a difference does it make? If we use Ken Pomeroy’s projected record for all opponents, we get Kansas at an non-conference opponent winning percentage of .608, and Indiana at .517. That will give Kansas one of the toughest non-conference schedules, and Indiana one that is below the top 125, even though you can make an argument Indiana’s is at least as tough at the top.
Here’s the illustration that shows how ridiculous it is, though. I then took those projected opponent records (and using past major conference teams with similar records to estimate an opponent opponent record), and calculated the RPI at various winning percentages for each team. The rankings are where each would have ranked last year with the exact same RPI score.
Indiana will have an RPI around 10 if they go 26-5. Kansas only needs to go 21-9 to achieve a similar RPI ranking. Kansas could lose to one of Siena or UAB or Long Beach State and still be way ahead of Indiana. While Friday night’s game was a fun one, it was way more important for Indiana. Kansas can still finish far ahead of them in the metric that the committee looks at when it sits down in March.
Here are some other programs, whether they are playing it like Kansas intentionally or not, that will benefit more than you expect based on their non-conference schedule, when it comes to RPI and seeding for the tournament.
LIKELY RPI DARLINGS
Xavier: .589 projected non-conference opponent win percentage. Only two teams with projected losing records (Missouri and Wake Forest) come from power conferences. Highest ranked opponent, pre-season, is Cincinnati (#25), but have games against Colorado, Utah, and Baylor, and decent mid-majors.
Florida: Play Duke, and Oklahoma in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Rest of schedule doesn’t have any clear cut tourney teams but still have .622 projected non-conference opponent win percentage, with no bad opponents pulling it down.
Pittsburgh: For years under Jaime Dixon, the non-conference hurt Pitt when they were on the bubble. It might help them now, if they can get to .500 in the ACC (no easy task). The Panthers play only one team outside the top 200 in Pomeroy’s ratings (Gardner-Webb, tonight). The toughest opponents are at Maryland and SMU, but it’s a balanced schedule with a .569 projected non-conference opponent win percentage. (Last year, it was .496, and Pittsburgh needed to beat Syracuse in the ACC Tournament to get in as a 10-seed).
Arkansas: The Razorbacks play several quality mid-majors (four projected to reach 20+ wins) and as a .568 projected non-conference opponent win percentage. The SEC hasn’t been kind at the bubble–we saw South Carolina get dinged for their poor schedule a year ago–but Arkansas is positioned to get on the right side of the bubble.