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John Blanchette: For Gonzaga, move away from RPI in college hoops has been nothing but NET

UPDATED: Fri., March 15, 2019

Before Zion’s shoe went kablooey and “strong-ass offer” became the meme of the moment, college basketball’s ranking outrage of this season was some post-Thanksgiving indigestion.

You may have forgotten by now, but it was heresy at the time.

Loyola Marymount was adjudged the 10th-best team in the nation.

Now, this turned out to be a heck of a year for the Lions – 20 wins and maybe more coming in a CITBI, or some other JV postseason event nobody can keep straight. But to have them up in the rarefied part of the Top 25 with the Kansases and Michigan States and Gonzagas in anything other than weather required strong hallucinogens and some vintage Dead vinyl.

Or a damned computer.

Guess which.

This occurred in the rollout of the NCAA Evaluation Tool, the new metric college basketball’s overlords cobbled together in the off-season to replace the ever-maligned Ratings Percentage Index used in their kneading and massaging the seeds and selections to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Just the news that the RPI was landfill bound left fans and pundits alike giddy, and all atwitter in anticipation of the first belch from this new dealybob. Until it happened, at which point they took to Twitter with torches and pitchforks.

“These are the worst rankings I’ve ever seen in any sport, ever,” tweeted statistical guru Nate Silver. “NCAA needs to go completely back to the drawing board.”

(Insert Hillary Clinton projected-to-win joke here.)

Among the lonely voices preaching patience then – and even now – was Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose work with the National Association of Basketball Coaches had persuaded the NCAA to dump the RPI and go with nothing but NET.

“The only NET rankings that matter are the ones the night before Selection Sunday,” Few echoed again last week. “This thing is still accumulating data.”

Predictably, the outrage petered out with each successive day as the NET righted itself with a larger sample size. There was a small kerfuffle in midseason when a few coaches huffed that the offensive efficiency and margin-of-victory factors made clearing the bench in blowouts problematic. But that, too, was mostly nonsense.

And so now, on the eve of the bracket reveal, just what’s the report card on the NET?

“Hey, it’s been pretty good for us,” Few laughed.

Well, yes. The Bulldogs have been No. 1 in the NET off and on this season and currently are No. 2 between Virginia and Duke, though Friday’s ACC Tournament results could change that.

But what about a less parochial view?

“I do think it has (had) a positive effect,” said Stanford athletic director and selection committee chair Bernard Muir, who noted the NET “has been able to allow the committee members to look at something more contemporary.”

And less, uh, lame.

It’s easy for the eyes to glaze over when the discussion turns to math, but about all you needed to know about the RPI was that 75 percent of a team’s number was determined by strength of schedule – which sounded reasonable, except that it tended to overwhelm actual results. The NET algorithm is considerably more diversified, also taking into account outcome, site, offensive and defensive efficiency and margin of victory (capped at 10 points).

Is it more meaningful?

“I haven’t checked for a while,” Few said, “but when I did, Kansas was No. 1 in the RPI. Look no further than that.”

He’s right. On the sites still tracking the NCAA’s old RPI formula, the Jayhawks are first – even though they’re likely to do no better than a No. 4 seed come Sunday. In the NET, they’re 21st.

There are NET-RPI gaps that are even more pronounced, and significant (the Zags are sixth in the RPI, by the way). Arizona State, as bubbly as a team can be, is 63rd in the NET and would naturally feel a whole lot better for an at-large bid with a 35 RPI. North Carolina State, meanwhile, is getting a 60-spot boost with the new metric.

But then, it’s not so much about a team’s number as how their opponents’ ranking is reflected in the committee’s quadrant system for assessing what victories on the resume are truly meaningful. That was the RPI’s essential purpose, too. And in another new twist, other metrics and ratings – like those compiled by Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin – are also listed on the data sheets distributed to the committee.

“I wouldn’t mind just averaging them together,” Few said, “but the math nerds scream about that. For most of us simpletons, just average them out and get rid of the outliers.”

The ones that time doesn’t, that is. Like LMU – now 144th in the NET.

“Another thing I think we need to underscore,” Muir said earlier this season, “is observation. Certainly watching games, watching how teams perform, is really important – as well as any metric we can use.”

Watching games?

Damned heretic.

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