The RPI is Bullsh*t

The creator of the RPI. via www.funnycoolstuff.com

If the NCAA doesn't do something about the RPI soon, there's a good chance that I'll burn down the Internet with a big ol' bucket of gasoline and a blowtorch.  (That's possible, right?  Good.)

Here's the thing: The 2011 college lacrosse season is approaching its sunset.  We're finally at the point where we'll all be wondering about which schools are going to claim the 10 at-large spots to the NCAA tournament field. 

This sucker is at warp speed, man, and the guy on the throttle is going HAM.

It's an exciting time, sure, but it's also the most frustrating: Despite ample information available to actually judge the quality of a team, the NCAA lacrosse selection committee is bound by bylaw to utilize the RPI in a myriad of ways to select those teams deserving of an invitation to the show. The problem with that, as I noted above, is that the RPI is a steaming pile of feces excreted from the anus of a male cow.

Here's the primary criteria that the Division I Men's Lacrosse Committee must use to figure out which schools are getting an at-large berth (I've bolded the most asinine pieces):

  • Strength of Schedule Index which is based on the 10 highest-ranking opponents in the ratings percentage index RPI. Two games against the same opponent will count as two contests.
  • Results against teams in descending order, as determined by the "normal RPI [Ratings Percentage Index] rank" used during the selection process, that is, the record against teams ranked 1-5, 6-10, 11-20, and team ranked greater than 20. See Quality Win Points vs RPI ranked teams
  • Average RPI win (average RPI of all wins)
  • Average RPI loss (average RPI of all losses)
  • Head-to-head competition.
  • Results against common opponents.
  • Locations of contests.
  • Significant wins (wins against teams ranked higher in the RPI)
  • Significant losses (losses against teams ranked lower in the RPI)
  • That's a whole bunch of stuff that's based on the RPI.  When you realize, however, that the RPI is as noteworthy as winning "Slimmest" at the Obesity Festival, you quickly understand that this entire process is pointless.

    Ken Pomeroy recently contributed a piece to Slate that discussed the straight stupidity of utilizing the RPI in selecting tournament teams. Here are some money quotes: 

    The biggest problem with the metric is how it uses strength of schedule. Theoretically, the best team in the country could play the weakest possible slate of opponents. While playing bad opponents shouldn't imply that you're a bad team, three-quarters of the RPI is determined by a strength-of-schedule component. That means who you play is often more important than whether you win or lose.

    * * * * *

    The RPI also does not account for context. A loss against a great team is more valuable than a win against a poor team, no matter the circumstances. It's also undeniable that teams that beat quality opponents by bigger margins are superior to those that win close games. Yet the RPI, like college football's BCS, does not take into account margin of victory, seemingly because the NCAA's administrators don't want to encourage teams to run up the score.

    * * * * *

    Even if the NCAA opposes the inclusion of any context in their ratings system of choice, there are still better systems out there than the RPI. For starters, I'd direct them to the work of Jeff Sagarin or Kenneth Massey.  Both Sagarin and Massey look exclusively at outcome and location and, unlike the RPI, are rooted in solid mathematical theory. Massey, for one, has an elegant way of incorporating strength of schedule. Not only does he include the location of the game, but he rewards a team more for playing a few elite teams and a few poor teams than for playing a series of mediocre teams. It's easier for a bubble team to rack up a good record against a bunch of middling squads, and Massey's system recognizes this, unlike the RPI. (And for what it's worth, Sagarinand Massey both give Belmont its due, ranking the Bruins 35th and 34th respectively.)

    * * * * *

    The RPI may be one of many tools that the committee uses to do its job, but it's clear that it's a very important tool. It's also one that was invented in the age of punch cards. Since then, we've learned a lot more about what makes a good team, and more sophisticated methods have been developed to quantify that goodness. Perhaps someday the NCAA will take advantage of this information.

    Now, let's apply some of this nonsense to college lacrosse, homeslice.

    As it stands currently, this is how all the factors look.  Now, there's plenty of time to see some movement, but it's always fun to play, "If the season ended today, this is why I'd be pissed off."

    • Villanova is currently fourth in the RPI and it's straight silly.  There isn't a ranking -- computer-based, journalist-based, or child-with-crayon-based -- that would slot the Wildcats as the fourth-strongest team in the country.  And yet, there they are.

      So, why is Villanova so high?  My first impression was that malfeasance is afoot.  Maybe a bribe?  Blackmail?  Does Kevin Cunningham have pictures of NCAA brass in compromising positions? 

      My second impression is that Villanova is getting a generous bump from its "strength of schedule": They're right around fifth in the RPI's calcuation of schedule strength.  Now, the Wildcats haven't actually beat any of the really good teams they've played (the Wildcats' three losses are attributable to games against Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Bucknell), but they've simply played those teams.  And that's all the RPI cares about: That you win more games than you lose, that those wins are against reasonable competition, and that the teams you play win a bunch more games than they lose. 

      That's why Villanova is fourth in the RPI, and it has nothing to do with whether Villanova is actually the fourth-best team in the country (which would be, you know, an important consideration).

      Now, this angers me for a number of reasons.  Mostly, though, I'm pissed because Villanova is good, but I'm not sure if they're "seeded" good.  Hell, Quint Kessenich had the Wildcats seeded seventh going into Saturday's games due to what Villanova's RPI number would be. Again, not just seeded, but seeded with a bump.  That's ridiculous.  Use your heads out there, people.  Put 'em in the field but don't even think about seeding these jamokes based on a stupid metric like the RPI or a strength of schedule value based on the RPI.
    • Loyola's a fun little case to examine.  They're 15th in the RPI, right around where teams tend to drop off of the ledge or pull themselves back up to solid ground.  Yet, only three of their eight wins are against teams with at least a .500 record. Here's some context to their other wins: They beat Navy, Towson, Fairfield, and Georgetown by one; they beat Bellarmine and Hobart by three.  In their three losses, Duke smoked 'em, Denver hit 'em hard, and, *ahem* FREAKING AIR FORCE BEAT THEM.

      This isn't a tournament team, at least not yet (they get a shot at Hopkins on Saturday).  In fact, it's not even close in my mind.  An inflated record against mediocre competition via nail-biting wins is totally ignored by the RPI.  So, the Greyhounds sit right around the cut-off point despite the fact that any performance-built ranking module would have Loyola somewhere around the 25th slot.

    I could go on and on about this, but there really isn't a point.  The RPI is stupid, and it needs to go.

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