The evaluative dead-end in which college basketball finds itself today has two sources. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward problem of political economy, method, and optics.
On the other hand, it’s a statistical issue that, rather remarkably, metastasized over the course of 40 years into an all-encompassing mode of entirely basketball-independent basketball perception. Ironically, that mode is engaged in mostly by those who fancy themselves as true basketball people above minutiae and pedantry like statistics.
The problem of political economy, as always when the NCAA’s involved, is maddeningly easy to solve in concept but difficult to make happen in reality. We keep critiquing the content of what this men’s basketball committee does, when in fact it is the very existence of and charge given to the committee that charts our path-dependent course. Once we’ve made the decision to let a group of eight or so people go from blank slate to a completely seeded and bracketed 68-team field, literally everything else is a footnote.
It is this imbalance between task (selecting and seeding the tournament field for an event with a $10.8 billion media rights deal) and method (form a committee) that has landed us where we are. It is this imbalance that has led the committee to adopt its needless, curious and wholly extraneous obsession with schedule at the expense of performance.
The fact that this obsession has arisen is entirely an accident of history, and the role of bad statistics in the form of the RPI was indeed crucial (see below) but it didn’t have to be this calamitous. If we could travel back in time to the oh so statistically benighted 1970s, for example, they would think we are absolutely full-out insane for squinting like a horde of sun-starved comp lit doctoral candidates in the stacks at games played in November and December. It is odd that we do this.
There’s no basketball reason for the squinting, of course. It arose entirely and, I dare say, unconsciously as a post hoc rationalization from a committee with an impossible task for a statistic that, while born of the best intentions, turned out to be primarily and self-nullifyingly a measure of a team’s schedule. The fact that the most statistically revelatory moment in the entire college basketball season is the day that a team releases its schedule tells you all you really need to know about the RPI.
It is lamentable that the RPI is worthless, surely, but we non-NCAA and non-committee types didn’t have to choose to be enablers of its worthlessness. Above all else, we didn’t have to start talking the way the RPI thinks.
That is on us. After all, the RPI itself is just one more benign linear weights equation from a laudably advanced 1970s and 1980s Kansas City sports analysis culture that also gave us a passer efficiency rating and Martin Manley’s NBA “Efficiency” metric.
These were inquisitive and diligent people in KC back in the day, analysts who never would have been content with some moldy 40-year-old metric left over from the 1930s. They were always building better mousetraps. The sovereign irony here is that we should actually try to be more like those pioneering and curious thinkers who did give us the RPI.
Step one in that process is realizing that, in 2018, the RPI way of thinking, separate from the benign stat itself, is a ratiocinative toxin that we need to affirmatively treat, isolate, and remove from our basketball minds. The RPI way of thinking reliably produces dumb statements and, worse, dumb decisions.
There is no reason to be obsessed with schedule at the expense of performance. The obsession does a manifest disservice to the 75 percent of Division I that proudly carries the mid-major torch. Not only is scheduling acumen logically and intrinsically independent of basketball performance, the ability to build a committee-pleasing schedule is tilted dramatically in favor of major-conference programs.
When Notre Dame was fighting for its postseason life, it got neutral-floor games against Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and Duke. A win against the Blue Devils would have given the Fighting Irish a shot at North Carolina. Win there, and you get Virginia. To act like we can make apples-to-apples comparisons of merit and dessert based on schedule between a program with a Veblen-level embarrassment of riches like that and a Conference USA team is the height of absurdity.
The cleanest solution would be to do what every other mass-audience sport in the world does and simply give teams their complete schedules. Doing what every other sport does as a matter of course is ritually held to be impossible, though, so I do have a plan B.
Starting today, the NCAA should get out of the schedule-preferring business once and for all. Preferring certain schedules, after all, is still nowhere to be found in the committee’s official charge. It just happened. In other words, the proximate solution to our debilitating obsession with schedule is: a) to model our behavior more closely on the guy who gave us the RPI; and b) to follow the NCAA’s own guidelines (“best teams”) with greater fidelity. Our obsession came about by accident, but that condition can be long gone by 2019 if we simply agree to no longer allow the RPI to make us this dumb in our thinking.