IOWA CITY — Iowa sophomore Aaron White doesn’t know how Ratings Performance Index figures into the NCAA tournament selection process.
But with his team within NCAA striking distance — but clearly far from an at-large tournament berth — he also doesn’t care.
“You keep winning games and you put it the committee’s mind that they have to take you,” White said.
National experts and fans agree Iowa sits outside the 68-team NCAA tournament field because of two factors. One, the team lost four road Big Ten games in the final minute of action. Two, the Hawkeyes’ non-Big Ten schedule featured some of the sport’s weakest programs, including five opponents with a Ratings Performance Index (RPI) of 300 or worse.
That’s why this week’s Big Ten Tournament is vital for Iowa (20-11, 9-9 Big Ten). Should the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes beat 11th seed Northwestern on Thursday in the opener, then follow with a victory against third-seeded Michigan State, it still might not be enough. It might take a third win on Saturday or perhaps even the title to earn Iowa’s first NCAA bid since 2006. Either way, Iowa’s status begins with its non-conference scheduling.
Iowa finished the non-conference slate 11-2 with wins over in-state rivals Iowa State and Northern Iowa. In Cancun, the Hawkeyes went 1-1 against probable NCAA teams Western Kentucky (win) and Wichita State (loss). A few of the games were scheduled for Iowa — Virginia Tech (Big Ten-ACC Challenge) and Howard (Cancun Challenge). But Iowa officials picked four teams of the 300 club (36-86 final record) for individual games.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery offers no apologies for scheduling those games, saying, “We did exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to win games.”
“It’s great to say you’re going to play them all,” McCaffery said. “But how much traveling are you doing? Are you getting your young guys ready? The No. 1 component in RPI is wins, so we wanted to win.”
Xavier Athletics Director Mike Bobinski, chairman of the NCAA tournament’s selection committee, said Wednesday that road wins and non-conference schedule are important factors in separating at-large teams. RPI, which is based on a team’s wins and losses (25 percent), your opponents’ wins and losses (50 percent) and your opponents’ opponents’ wins and losses (25 percent), uses location and strength-of-schedule as components.
Iowa finished 2-8 in true road games, and its RPI on Wednesday was 76. The at-large team with the highest RPI (67) to enter the tournament was USC in 2011.
“The true fact and reality is the RPI is the organizational basis for the information that is presented to us and available to the public through a variety of NCAA sites and access points,” Bobinski said. “So it is a way that we evaluate, for instance, strength-of-schedule, whether it would be non-conference or overall, or top 50 wins or top 100 wins. (They’re) all RPI-based.”
But simply looking at total wins and losses based on strength-of-schedule can be unfair. Iowa, for instance, won its nine Big Ten games by an average of 11.3 points. Its losses were by 7.7 points per game, 5.2 points if you exclude a 28-point beatdown at Michigan.
“I strongly believe that that is something you should look at,” McCaffery said. “I think that’s a more consistent approach in terms of trying to evaluate a team over the long haul, whereas if you beat a team by 18 and lose to another team by 18, OK, you have a great win and you have a terrible loss. We don’t have any bad losses, really. We have some really good wins, and we’ve been consistent.
“So I think from that standpoint, I’m very happy with what we’ve done and very comfortable knowing that we’re under serious consideration for one of those bids.”
Bobinski said he does use other methods to view a fuller picture of a team’s profile, especially when statistics are erratic. Iowa ranks 30th by Kenpom (points scored and allowed per possession), 35th by Sagarin (who could beat whom) and 49th by Basketball Power Index (a combination of several measurables).
“The RPI, in and of itself, is never used as a selection tool,” Bobinski said. “It’s not a stand-alone criteria for selection seeding or anything. It’s just that general and overall overriding organizational metric that we use. I know for my perspective, I absolutely rely on other ranking systems.”
This year Iowa could put itself in a favorable position by winning three games. A win against Northwestern (13-18, 4-14 Big Ten) wouldn’t help the Hawkeyes’ RPI, but games against Michigan State, ranked seventh by AP, and possibly Ohio State (10th by AP) would boost Iowa’s profile. But beating top-10 teams on Friday and Saturday won’t sway the committee any more than it would have in early February, Bobinski said.
“We try not to overweight what happens here this week in relation to the rest of the season,” Bobinski said. “Teams have played since the middle or early part of November in some cases and all the sudden put undue weight on what happens here this last week before selection doesn’t seem to do justice to the game or to a team. So we try hard not to overweight what we see this week.
“We don’t try to underweight it. We don’t try to minimize it. We certainly build it into our evaluation. But we don’t want to be swayed in an undue way but what happens this week.”
Rather than leave the situation to a committee, Iowa coaches and players have one goal this weekend in Chicago: take control of their destiny.“That’s kind of our mindset,” White said. “We want to win four games in four days. Let’s get prepared to do it.”