The first three examples in our series, “CSI: RPI,” have shown how an RPI can be inflated through savvy manipulation and the right touches of luck. We conclude our examination of RPI case studies with an example of how an RPI can remain low.
It stands to reason that if an inflated RPI is the result of shrewd scheduling and good luck in terms of certain teams being better than expected, an alarmingly low RPI will be the result of the exact opposites. Such is the case with Illinois, a team that will enter the weekend with an RPI in the vicinity of 60. That’s certainly not a good number for a Power-5 conference team, especially when you look at a resume such as Georgia’s and notice that the Bulldogs are hovering around No. 30 in the RPI.
You could make the argument that Illinois — with wins over Miami, Maryland, Purdue, Baylor, and Michigan State — has achieved much more than Georgia. True, the Illini have dumped a few bad losses into their portfolio, falling to Nebraska and Minnesota while losing a “neutral-court” game to Oregon that was essentially a home game in Chicago. Had John Groce’s team won two of those three games, this team would not be in a particularly precarious bubble situation. There’s no doubt that Illinois’s collection of losses and its meager amount of road wins (two) have played big roles in holding down the team’s RPI.
However, those factors merely begin to tell the story of why the Illini have an RPI that’s roughly 30 spots lower than a Georgia team which doesn’t have high-end scalps on its resume. There has to be something deeper at work… and there is.
Another layer in Illinois’s unfortunate RPI adventure is that the Illini have seen two teams take wrong turns. Missouri — historically a decent-to-very-good team — has fallen off the cliff this season, outside the top 200 of the RPI. Illinois’s annual battle with the Tigers is supposed to be an RPI lifter or at least an RPI sustainer. This season, it has been an RPI dragger.
The other lamentable occurrence for Illinois as far as the RPI is concerned is that Miami — a team that won at Duke and looked like a 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA tournament in the middle of January — has plummeted over the past month and a half and is right on the NCAA cut line, alongside the Illini. Had Miami sustained its high level of play throughout the season and not tossed in several clunkers along the way, Illinois would enjoy a higher RPI today. So it goes.
One could also point out that had three Oregon players not been suspended in the offseason, the Ducks might be a team seeded 5 to 7 in the NCAAs. As things stand, Oregon is another team squarely on the middle of the bubble. Illinois has not received pleasant plot twists from the good non-conference teams it has scheduled. That definitely plays a part in altering RPI outcomes.
However, if Illinois has been the recipient of bad luck in some cases, the Illini still have no excuse for how they scheduled out of conference. Just ask the 2014 SMU Mustangs.
In our RPI profile of the 2015 SMU team, we mentioned that SMU learned from its 2014 experience and altered the composition of its non-conference schedule. The Mustangs trimmed a lot of sub-275-RPI fat from their diet and produced a far leaner schedule which included multiple road games against solid teams. They have seen their RPI jump more than 30 spots.
There’s a difference between 2014 SMU and 2015 Illinois, though: 2014 SMU was a surprise — it burst onto the scene without having expected to contend for an NCAA berth. On the other hand, 2015 Illinois entered this season with a lot of pressure on its back. Illinois is not in the same league as Michigan State, Ohio State, or Wisconsin in terms of prestige or stature, but the school should expect to annually make NCAA tournaments. Its heritage — created by Lou Henson and continued by coaches such as Lon Kruger and Bill Self — is substantial, at least to the extent that annual tournament trips should be expected. Regular Sweet 16s? That might be asking too much in the loaded Big Ten, which is regularly one of the deeper conferences in the country. Annual tournament trips, regardless of result? That seems like a reasonable bar to set for Illinois basketball.
Accordingly, then, Illinois should always be willing to schedule in ways that facilitate a higher RPI number and a more likely NCAA tournament appearance. SMU could have been forgiven in the 2013-2014 season for not scheduling ambitiously outside its conference. Illinois has no such excuse, and poor scheduling is certainly a core reason why the Illini are 20, 25, 30 spots below a cluster of SEC teams that have not achieved as much as Illinois has.
If you look at the Illini’s non-conference schedule, you will see games against Villanova and Baylor. However, you will also see only one true road game on the slate (which the team lost, at Miami). Georgia, by contrast, scheduled three true roadies in non-conference play.
The bigger issue is that Illinois ate way too many cupcakes. The Illini played three teams — Coppin State, Austin Peay, and Kennesaw State — that are in the 300-plus range of the RPI, at the bottom of the pile. Hampton is just inside the top 300. Illinois has also played Brown (just inside the top 250). Georgia, as a point of comparison, has only one 300-plus foe (Troy), with another (Florida Atlantic) being just inside the top 300. Illinois put a lot more RPI sugar and fat into its non-conference menu. Georgia and other SEC schools scheduled a lot more intelligently. (Just Like Foot-Ball! CLAP! CLAP! CLAP-CLAP-CLAP!)
It’s not just in the 300-plus RPI schools where Illinois went wrong, though. If you look at Georgia’s resume again in the link provided in the beginning section of this piece, and if you comb through the NCAA RPI rankings list — we’ll re-link to it here — you’re going to notice something obvious: Georgia’s low end is Illinois’s high end in a large cluster of non-conference games not involving the plus-300s or the top 50s against high-profile opponents.
Yes, Illinois scheduled Villanova and Oregon while playing Baylor in an early-season tournament. Georgia scheduled Gonzaga, Minnesota and Kansas State. When you get past those games, though, and move to the bulk of the non-conference schedule — acknowledging that all teams will throw at least a few cupcakes into the pot at some point — you can see where (and how) Georgia distanced itself from Illinois.
The Illini scheduled Georgia Southern and American, two teams in the 135-155 range. Indiana State is sitting near 180. Georgia, on the other hand, scheduled Chattanooga, Seton Hall, Stony Brook, Colorado, and Georgia Tech. That’s a collection of five non-conference games. What do all five of those teams have in common? They’re all inside the RPI top 130, with only Colorado being outside the top 120. Georgia wore out the 70-120 range of the RPI. Illinois barely touched it if at all. The Illini wasted their time cramming 200s and 300s into their slate. Georgia laughed and scheduled the way an NCAA tournament team is supposed to schedule.
Really — what was stopping Illinois from scheduling a few road games against the likes of Vanderbilt, Bowling Green, Arizona State, or other teams in that 70-120 section of the RPI? Two cupcakes and maybe one team near 175 in the RPI? That’s fair. Three 300-plus teams, a near-300 team, a near-250, a near-180, a near-150, and a near-135? That’s appalling for a program which should expect to make the Big Dance every year.
If you’re a top seed in the NIT on Selection Sunday, Illinois, don’t say you couldn’t have done anything about it.