Earning a coveted berth in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament lately seems to be less a function of a team’s ability to cobble together a winning record in and out of conference play and more a function of scoring style points in the all-important Ratings Percentage Index.
The RPI, a metric that gives significant weight to a team’s Division 1 winning percentage and strength of schedule as well as that of its opponents, has been utilized by the NCAA selection committee since 1981 to determine at-large selections and seedings for all teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments.
Making the postseason has become such a numbers-crunching game that, much to the chagrin of basketball purists such as Boston College’s Steve Donahue, it has turned the NCAA Tournament into the “RPI Invitational,’’ lamented the fourth-year Eagles coach.
“That’s just the way it is right now,’’ Donahue said. “If they’re going to base everything on the RPI — which, in my opinion, is flawed — you’d better not fight it. You’d better join it.’’
And so, with a veteran team picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Donahue has decided to play the percentages and toughen the Eagles’ nonconference schedule this season, which some experts have ranked as the fourth toughest in the country.
“When you boil it down, I want us to get into the NCAA Tournament and I don’t want us to be derailed with what I think is really happening with teams at our level with the RPI,’’ Donahue said. “If you don’t understand it, the fact of the matter of is, over the last couple of years, there’s been 347 moving parts to this.
“Some schools and conferences have really figured it out, dramatically over the last couple of years. So if you’re expecting your league to carry you into the NCAA Tournament, those days are over.’’
That much became evident to everyone in the ACC coaching fraternity when Virginia, a team that went 23-12 and tied for fourth in the league at 11-7 after defeating third-ranked Duke at Charlottesville Feb. 28, was snubbed on Selection Sunday.
Virginia’s nonconference home wins over Fairfield, Seattle, Lamar, North Texas, Green Bay, Mississippi Valley State, Morgan State, and Wofford did little to bolster its RPI, which wound up being 80 at season’s end. Virginia’s strength of schedule (119th) failed to offset nonconference home losses against Delaware and Old Dominion, and back-to-back conference road losses at BC (53-52) and Florida State (53-51) sealed the Cavaliers’ postseason destination: the National Invitation Tournament.
“Not only did [the Cavaliers] not get in, they weren’t even close,’’ Donahue said. “When you went back and looked at the RPI, there was about five or six teams they could’ve taken before them. So it is RPI-based and there was only one outlier in the RPI and that was Southern Mississippi.’’
The Golden Eagles finished 25-10, had an RPI of 27, and owned a strength of schedule that ranked 45th among the top 50. It was stronger even than Gonzaga, which went 31-3 and earned the top seed in the West Regional, despite having the weakest schedule (60th) among the RPI’s top 10.
“The reason [the Golden Eagles] were [left out] was because they had no top-100 wins,’’ Donahue said.
In an attempt to avoid a similar fate, the Eagles toughened their schedule and will play five nonconference road games, beginning with Friday night’s season opener at Providence. In addition, BC will play four neutral-site contests, including Sunday’s against Massachusetts in the Coaches vs. Cancer Boston Tip-Off tripleheader at TD Garden, and against former Big East rival Connecticut Nov. 21 in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“I think everybody has to figure out what can you handle,’’ Donahue said. “We wouldn’t have done this last year. Not that it’s not going to be extremely difficult this year, but I think it’s important that we separate ourselves somehow, at Boston College, in this league.
“Why would kids choose us? Why would fans be excited? Well, we’ve got to be different than Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse. Hey, they’re playing everybody.
“I give the analogy of John Chaney at Temple back in the ’80s. They didn’t have anything going, but John said, ‘We’ll play anybody, anywhere, to build our program.’ I think that’s part of our motto. I think that’s how we’re going to be here, otherwise we’re accepting that we’re not as good as them. Somehow we’ve got to be different enough so that kids may say, ‘You know what? I want to go there. I love that idea of playing that schedule.’ ”
The Eagles are returning five starters and seven of the top scorers from last year’s 16-17 team, including 6-foot-4-inch sophomore guard Olivier Hanlan (15.4 points per game), the ACC Freshman of the Year, and 6-9 junior Ryan Anderson (14.9 ppg), an All-ACC third-team selection. As a result, Donahue is confident his team is prepared to handle its challenging nonconference slate.
“They stayed the whole summer and they were really motivated by it,’’ Donahue said. “I think they’re motivated by the failures that we’ve had, and the disappointments. It’s a group that’s very mature now.
“Not that we’re not going to have our nights where the other team is better than us, especially when you take on this [schedule]. But it’s going to make us better each and every game going forward as well so we’re a good team in January, February, and March.
“We have a balanced schedule and it’s not like the league is designed like the Big East [was] in terms of redoing the schedule every year so the maximum amount of teams get in. We don’t do that. Ours is balanced, so it’s imperative that we be intelligent about the way we schedule.’’
Donahue tapped into some intelligent resources on his staff in associate head coach Nat Graham, a 1997 Penn graduate, and video coordinator Dan McDermott, a 2004 BC graduate with a pair of master’s degrees.
When Donahue took over four years ago, McDermott, who was drawn to “the science of scheduling,’’ asked if he could expand his role to help with nonconference scheduling. This year his task took on a new dimension with BC’s beefed-up schedule.
“It’s like a big puzzle when you’re putting the schedule together,’’ said McDermott, who indicated there were a number of factors to consider when sketching out the schedule — opponents’ obligations, final exams, and holidays.
“So, it’s tough to find times to play,’’ McDermott said. “Coach Donahue likes to give guys time off for Christmas. He doesn’t like to schedule a game on Dec. 23d or on Dec. 26th, because he likes to let them go home for a couple of days at Christmas. So, that’s another hurdle.’’
The biggest obstacle was BC’s commitment to playing tougher nonconference games. But that’s not to say the Eagles won’t enjoy a few pastries along the way, such as a Dec. 15 game against Philadelphia University at home. It comes, however, amid a grueling stretch in the middle of BC’s exam period and three days after its ACC home opener against Maryland.
“There’s no one else at the high-major level playing more than three nonconference road games — true road games — and we’re playing five,’’ Donahue said, referring to BC’s dates at Providence, Purdue, Southern California, Auburn, and Harvard.
“Because the way the RPI works — and we did the math on it — it benefits you greatly to play road games,’’ McDermott said. “A loss on the road doesn’t hurt as much as a loss at home and a win on the road is worth a lot more than a win at home. You can do the math on it and see that it doesn’t make sense to play nine games at home from an RPI standpoint.
“Even if you win all those games, it’s not helping you.’’
A quarter of a team’s RPI is derived from weighted scores given to home wins (0.6), neutral wins (1.0), and road wins (1.4). Road losses are weighted the same as a home win, while neutral losses and home losses against teams in the RPI top 25 aren’t as catastrophic.
At the ACC’s preseason Operation Basketball, Donahue said coaches convened and made a commitment to schedule tougher nonconference games. “We need to schedule better to make this league as good as it could be,’’ Donahue said.
With the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame to the conference this season, and Louisville next, “It could be off-the-charts good, but the numbers have to say it,’’ Donahue said. “It can’t be based on perception only.
“We got exactly how many teams the RPI said we should get in [the NCAA Tournament],’’ Donahue said, referring to the ACC’s four NCAA bids. “That was a fact. There was no perception that Boise State was better. No one said that. The RPI said that.’’
It explained why Donahue was not going to leave anything to chance in March. He wanted to make sure the seeds of BC’s postseason fate are sown with a rock-solid nonconference schedule that removed any doubt about the Eagles’ worthiness as an NCAA Tournament team.
Otherwise? “We have no chance,’’ Donahue said. “We have to [play to the RPI with a tougher schedule]. They’re not going to say that Boston College is better, unless the numbers say it.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.