By replacing the RPI, the NCAA tried to eliminate a perennial controversy on Selection Sunday. Instead, it appears the NCAA might have created a new set of problems for itself.
On Monday, the NCAA released its first-ever edition of the men’s basketball NET ratings to boos from observers who wondered how a tool created to make things better had actually yielded more baffling results than the method it was designed to replace.
The NET ratings consider strength of schedule and margin of victory and will be the primary measurement the tournament selection committee will use to finalize the field of 68 in March.
Among the head-scratchers in the initial rankings released three weeks into the 2018-19 season: Kentucky is ranked 61st. The Wildcats have one, 34-point neutral site loss to Duke, the Associated Press poll’s No. 1 team last week.
Ohio State, which has wins against four sub-200 squads in KenPom.com’s rankings, is No. 1 in the NET ratings.
Loyola Marymount, a team with a 7-0 record, started its season with a victory over Westcliff University, an unaffiliated school. Yet the Lions (10th) are ranked one spot ahead of Kansas, which has neutral-site wins over Michigan State and Tennessee, both top-10 teams in the latest AP poll.
Michigan State is also four spots ahead of the Kansas team it lost to in the Champions Classic.
Among the critics of the new system Monday was statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who called the first list “the worst rankings I’ve ever seen in any sport, ever.”
“I guess I’m not sympathetic because a lot of smart people have worked on this problem (power rankings) for a LONG time and the NCAA ignored all that and came up with something that doesn’t reflect methodological best practices and which doesn’t make sense, basketball-wise,” Silver wrote on Twitter.
Over the past two years, NCAA officials have met with the brightest analytics minds in college basketball to create a new method that would offer a more accurate depiction of a team than the outdated RPI.
Kevin Pauga, the creator of the KPI rating system and one of the analysts who attended the meetings with the NCAA, said it was too soon to judge the NET’s methodology.
“I think it’s too soon to give a true and fair evaluation of any metric that is based entirely on data from this season,” Pauga told ESPN on Monday. “A single result right now could range from 12 to 25 percent of a team’s résumé, depending on how many games a team has played. By the end of the season, each result will constitute about 3 percent of a team’s résumé.”
The NET considers these factors in its rankings: strength of schedule, game results, net efficiency, winning percentage and winning percentage adjusted based on the location of games played. A new tier system, implemented last season with the RPI, will give teams the same credit for a home win over a top-30 team, a neutral site win over a top-50 team or a road win over a top-75 team.
The RPI was criticized for its failure to recognize quality teams because it did not consider the location of games or margins of victory. The new NET rankings implement both, as well as other results-based and predictive elements, to reward good teams for facing and defeating other good teams on a weighted scale.
But it clearly has its limits, as the first rankings show. Credit for margin of victory is capped at 10 points, which means Duke won’t be granted full credit for its destruction of the Wildcats in the Champions Classic.
And the NET’s efficiency rankings, unlike KenPom.com and other analytics sites, don’t account for the quality of the opponent. So a team that records a net efficiency of 0.5 points per possession against Michigan gets the same credit for a team that records that mark against Central Michigan.
It’s too early to know how the first season of the NET will play out. The initial rankings are based on just three weeks of data, and the NCAA did not start the season with a preseason benchmark that would have kept teams such as Kentucky from falling outside its top 50 after one lopsided loss to a national title contender.
This is not, however, the only tool the selection committee will use in its evaluations. In recent years, the RPI was weighed along with a variety of analytics tools.
On last year’s team sheets, rankings from KenPom.com, Jeff Sagarin, ESPN’s Strength of Record, the KPI and ESPN’s BPI were mentioned. They’ll be on this year’s team sheets for committee members, too. Just like the RPI, the NET is just one component with an impact on what happens on Selection Sunday.
But if Monday’s unveiling is an indicator of future results, the NCAA’s attempt to rectify a situation with the NET could backfire.