Our week of RPI case studies continues at The Student Section. If this was a TV show, you’d call it “CSI: RPI,” and the job of investigators is to find out exactly how teams have managed to create such high and glossy-looking numbers from bodies of modest achievement.
Tuesday on CSI: RPI, we looked at SMU, the foremost example of how to manufacture a high RPI number without doing much of anything at a particularly high level of competition. Today’s example — the Virginia Commonwealth Rams — reminds us that, again, there are different ways to cook the RPI’s special sauce and its blend of herbs and spices. Yet, the common thread with other high-RPI teams remains very much intact.
What SMU did was to replace 300-level RPI teams with a handful of teams in the top 50 and more teams inside the top 200. On the court, the main positive thing the Mustangs have done in 2015 — something they failed to do in 2014 — is that they’ve avoided bad losses. They coughed up three of them last year. This year: zero. On the morning of Wednesday, February 25, SMU has an RPI of 19 — this, despite losing all three of its biggest games (at Gonzaga, at Indiana, home against Arkansas). Merely by playing tougher teams — not necessarily beating them — SMU has transformed an RPI that was 53 on Selection Sunday of last year. A 34-slot gain is no joke.
When you pivot from SMU and turn to another acronym team, the VCU Rams, you’ll see a somewhat different approach to scheduling, but with a key similarity at the heart of many inflated-rankings stories in “RPI World.”
First off, let’s note that VCU’s schedule is much more ambitious than SMU’s, and that the Rams are rightly several slots above the Ponies in the RPI — they should be. Whereas SMU’s 2014 non-conference schedule was so bad that even modest improvements dramatically raised the Mustangs’ profile, VCU wasn’t interested in tweaking. The Rams wanted to challenge themselves at every turn.
When you look at most of VCU’s non-conference slate, it’s not a list of giant killers, but it’s a list of teams that can be a threat if you’re not on top of your game: Tennessee, Old Dominion, Oregon, Illinois State, Belmont, Cincinnati, Cleveland State, and Toledo are all in the top 140 of the Feb. 25 RPI. Of those teams, only Cleveland State (121) and Belmont (136) lie outside the top 100. VCU loaded up on a schedule with teams in and around the top 100, and it played most of those games in road- or neutral-court environments, further enhancing how a resume can look to a committee… and a formula vulnerable to manipulation.
Here’s another key point to glean from the majority of VCU’s non-conference schedule: Of those teams listed above, VCU’s best RPI win is No. 46 (Oregon, neutral court). VCU lost to Old Dominion, which is currently at 45. The Rams’ RPI is built partly on the fact that the Rams have beaten a lot of teams in the back end of the top 100, especially away from home. A neutral-court win against No. 86 (Tennessee) and a road win at No. 87 (Illinois State) represent masterpieces in effective RPI scheduling. You can hate the RPI itself and yet marvel at VCU’s ability to schedule so wisely. It really is a work of high art.
Here’s the big similarity between VCU’s schedule and SMU’s schedule, however: The Rams, like the Mustangs, scheduled a few games against big-time teams. VCU played Villanova on a neutral floor and Virginia at home. The Rams lost those games by 24 and 17 points, respectively. Yet, the simple act of playing those games lifted VCU’s numbers, anyway.
A difference within this larger similarity relative to SMU: VCU did go out and win one game of considerable consequence in the non-con realm. The Rams beat Northern Iowa at home, and since the Panthers have become a highly formidable team, one that is likely to get a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament, VCU has gained an appropriate boost, one based on an achievement rather than just the act of playing someone tough. This fact, combined with more road- and neutral-court wins against tough opponents, shows why VCU should be much higher than SMU.
However, none of this means that VCU should be No. 12 in the RPI.
No team with only one non-conference win in the top 45, and only two wins in the top 40 (Massachusetts, from VCU’s Atlantic 10 Conference, is 39 on the morning of Feb. 25), should be No. 12 in the country. If we were to ask the question, “Are there only 11 teams in the nation that have achieved more than VCU?”, the act of asking that question would itself unearth the answer… and magnify the point that the RPI tells lies.