NCAA March Madness: Deconstructing the RPI By Comparing SMU and Massachusetts

By Jason Lisk

SMU and Massachusetts are both 19-5, and both are considered teams that will make the tournament, as of right now. They also present interesting contrasts and a lesson on what the RPI is and is not, and why there is plenty of criticism about it as a the primary tool for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Because both teams have the exact same record, this cannot be about one team proving to be a winner and the other not; we need to look how they got there.

The RPI has Massachusetts at #20, which would put them solidly in the field, while SMU is at #40, putting them in, but closer to the bubble. Interestingly, and why I chose to compare them, they are almost mirror opposites in the Pomeroy rankings, with SMU at 20 and Massachusetts at 49.

Jerry Palm has UMass as a 7 seed while SMU is a 10 seed. Lunardi has them both as 8 seed. Let’s compare their results.

Let’s start with the losses.

Massachusetts: lost to Florida State on a neutral court; Richmond, St. Bonaventure, and St. Joseph’s on the road; and at home to George Mason.

SMU: lost to Virginia on a neutral court, and on the road at Louisville, Cincinnati, Arkansas, and South Florida.

Verdict: SMU has the clearly better losses. Three of their losses are to teams that appear to be in contention to be Top 5 seeds in the NCAA tournament. All of UMASS’ losses are to teams that are currently, at best, bubble teams, and probably on the outside. Yes, SMU has a bad loss at South Florida. At least it wasn’t at home, like the loss to George Mason for UMASS.

Now, let’s turn to top wins. Here are the five best wins for each team.

Massachusetts: Neutral court over New Mexico, BYU, Clemson, home over LSU, Providence

SMU: Home over Cincinnati, Memphis, Connecticut, Rhode Island, road at Wyoming

Verdict: SMU has the clearly better top wins. They have three wins over teams that will be in the at-large range of the NCAA tournament, including one that will be a high seed, in a blowout. The only tournament team that Massachusetts has defeated is New Mexico. Even the road win for SMU at Wyoming (who just beat San Diego State) is better because of where it occurred.

So, SMU has played the clearly better top of the schedule when it relates to teams that will be in the NCAA field. They have beaten better teams, and their losses are more easily explainable, since they came against better competition. Why, then, does the RPI have them as being significantly worse than Massachusetts? It’s the bottom of the schedule.

SMU played six teams non-conference who have turned out to be dreadful, and those six results are dragging down. They played six teams outside the RPI Top 250, who have a combined record of 32-103. SMU won those games by an average of 22 points.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, scheduled wisely, and the Atlantic-10 appears to be this year’s Mountain West, the conference that is taking advantage of the quirks of the RPI. Only one opponent so far is outside the Top 200, Northern Illinois, and they are 10-12. Massachusetts has played a bunch of non-tournament teams who aren’t horrible. They have won those games in a very high percentage. They have not played the elite teams in the country, but have avoided the dreadful ones.

We could debate who would have the better record if they swapped schedules. We can also debate which one has proven more when it comes to NCAA Tournament worthiness. That RPI quick sheet that the mock committee looks at shows that UMASS is 2-3 against the Top 50, while SMU is 3-3, and so it will be no surprise if they are seeded similarly when that is the organizing tool. Looking closer, though, it doesn’t appear those games are equal.

Keep in mind that SMU is 20 spots lower than UMASS, though, because they blew out six bad teams, not because, as RPI proponents might suggest, they did not beat as many good ones.