Nothing But NET: NCAA Hoops Ditches RPI for New Ranking System

By RossWB on August 23, 2018 at 3:30 pm
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© Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA is still, generally speaking, a thick-headed, self-serving organization far more interested in enriching itself and its member institutions than taking action to improve things for the student-athletes it governs. But it's made a few steps in some positive directions this fall, with things like its modification to redshirt rules in college football and the upcoming changes for transfer rules. And now it's making a long overdue change to fix one of the most irritating aspects of college basketball: its reliance on RPI rankings. 

As anyone who's paid even the slightest attention to college basketball for a while knows, RPI rankings are very flawed. While the NCAA selection committee has indicated in recent years that they now downplay the importance of RPI rankings when making their decisions to select the field of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament and how those teams are seeded, RPI still seemed to be a fairly significant factor in the process. No more -- per the NCAA, RPI is out and a new system, the NCAA Evaluation Tool (aka, NET) is in. 

So what is NET? You mean, aside from a Sandra Bullock thriller from the early '90s that has aged kinda poorly? Okay, okay -- CBS Sports' Matt Norlander has a good breakdown of the key elements: 

The NET, which is owned by the NCAA, will have five components that build out its 1-353 rankings. They are: 

  1. Team value index. This is the most dominant feature, according to the NCAA, and it's based on win-loss results (with strength of schedule also being an important component). Opponent faced will be an emphasis here.
  2. Team efficiency. A team's average efficiency (points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) on offense and defense will be taken into account, which introduces predictive elements into the process.
  3. Wins. A team's overall D-I winning percentage will play a not-insignificant part. 
  4. Adjusted winning percentage. This portion will reward teams for winning on the road, dock for losing at home, and balance out neutral-court performance. Opponents faced will not be factored here the way it is in the team value index.
  5. Scoring margin. For the first time, teams will be officially evaluated based on how much they win a game by. The scoring margin is capped at 10 points. This is a big step, backed by data. 

That seems... good! Incorporating scoring margin into the rankings was long overdue (if you're trying to compare the relative merits of two teams, ignoring the fact that one team won a bunch of close games and the other recorded a bunch of 20-point blowouts is a real head-scratcher) and incorporating efficiency rankings (think KenPom) into the mix should make for better, more accurate rankings as well. (Although, uh, memo to NCAA: plz don't look too closely at Iowa's defensive efficiency rankings?). 

We still need to know more about what exactly is in the "team value index," which sounds a bit vague right now. And while the NCAA says they're going to be "very transparent" about what goes into the rankings and "educate" as much as possible, it's concerning that they haven't committed to releasing the formula to the public. The stated rationale for that decision boils down to "it's really complicated."

"It's not really a 'formula,' so much as it's highly sophisticated and involves machine-learning is not easily digestible. It is not like the RPI, to consider this as a formula. This is not that. This is very contemporary, forward-thinking and involves machine-learning and artificial intelligence."

Which... if it's too complicated to be easily understood by the public, are we positive the men and women on the Selection Committee will be able to completely grasp how it works too? As Jerry Palm notes, it's also important that the NET rankings can be verified by outside analysts to confirm that the rankings are, you know, actually accurate. We'll have to see how this all plays out as the rankings are implemented for the first time this season. 

But there's a lot to like about these new rankings and, more importantly, they mean RPI has finally been kicked to the curb. (Although only in men's basketball; women's basketball and other sports will continue to use RPI.) It's about time the NCAA told RPI to RIP. 

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