clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Syracuse Men's Lacrosse: The NCAA's RPI Problem

Rating Percentage Index is one of the NCAA's most important metrics in determining the top teams in the country. But, should it be?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So, here's the deal: if you're a college sports fan, you've heard of RPI before. The Rating Percentage Index is probably the single most important metric used to compare, contrast and rank college teams in many different sports, including basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, and lacrosse.

It is the defining number that will help to determine who is ranked as a one-seed versus a two-seed, and who will be one of the last teams in versus one of the first teams out. It will help to determine the postseason positioning of your favorite college team.

But the thing is, it really shouldn't. A "fun" fact about RPI: did you know that one portion of the criteria for RPI is the winning percentage of a team's opponents' opponents? No, I didn't accidentally type the word 'opponents' twice. In other words, the record of the teams that your team's opponents play is part of your team's RPI.

Let's take a look at an example. In their first game this season, the Syracuse Orange hosted the Siena Saints in the Carrier Dome, beating them 18-5. Later in the season, Siena took on conference foe Canisius. According to RPI, Canisius' winning percentage is now something to be taken into consideration for Syracuse because they were an opponent of one of Syracuse's opponents (Siena). So, when Canisius played a mid-April game against Robert Morris, that outcome had an impact on Syracuse's RPI. Now, isn't there something seriously wrong with that fact?

Let's take a look at what comprises the RPI metric:

RPI is calculated through a team's winning percentage (25%), it's opponents' winning percentage (50%) and the winning percentage of those opponents' opponents (25%). The last two together make up a team's strength of schedule (S0S), so RPI is made up of 25% your team's wins and losses and 75% their SOS.

The fact that the NCAA came up with this metric in the first place is crazy, but the fact that they use it as one of their most important criteria in making postseason selections is ludicrous.

This past Sunday, men's lacrosse fans got to witness the insanity as the postseason bracket was revealed on ESPNU. The selection show started by revealing the eight seeded teams, starting with the number one seed and working up to eight, which is where Syracuse found themselves.

Two spots before the Orange learned their fate, however, the Marquette Golden Eagles found out that they were the number six seed, hosting a game in the tournament in only their fourth year of existence.

Marquette finished this season with a record of 11-4, but had only three wins worth mentioning. They beat Villanova, a team that did not actually make the tournament, twice. And had one gigantic win over Denver in the Big East tournament final. There is no denying that Marquette's victory over Denver, arguably the best team in the country this year, is a fantastic one. In fact, it's better than any win Syracuse had all season.

However, the Orange, who also finished the season 11-4, had a much stronger resume in terms of the entire collection of teams they beat. Syracuse holds victories over Duke, North Carolina (twice), Albany, and Army. Compare that with Marquette's wins of note, and it's not all that close.

But, when the final tally on that magical number was tabulated, Marquette came out with a RPI of six, while Syracuse had a RPI of 10. How did Marquette finish with a RPI four spots higher than Syracuse? Well, when you see the above and notice the obscure statistics that go into calculating RPI, it becomes less of a mystery how it happened.

Marquette and its head coach, Joe Amplo, have undeniably done a remarkable job in creating and building up their program in less than half a decade. Walking onto Denver's home field and beating the legendary Bill Tierney and his team is an accomplishment usually reserved for the other power programs of the game, and yet Marquette pulled it off.

It's not Marquette that is being criticized. Their work deserves nothing but praise. It is the NCAA and their system that deserve the criticism. Marquette should be a tournament team. Their win over Denver confirmed that, even if you took away their automatic bid. Their resume did enough to get them into the tournament. But, the six seed? That can be attributed back to one thing: RPI.

How about another team seeded ahead of Syracuse, the Loyola Greyhounds? Here's a team whose wins of note are Johns Hopkins, Bucknell (twice) and Army (twice). That's okay, and, yes, they did beat a Hopkins team to whom Syracuse lost. But, when you compare the teams they beat during the season, you've got to give the advantage to Syracuse's resume, and, like with Marquette, it's not all that close. However, Loyola's RPI is seven, three spots ahead of Syracuse. Low and behold, on Selection Sunday, the Greyhounds are getting the seven seed while the Orange get the eight.


The NCAA has a problem. Actually, it has a laundry list of problems. But, this time, its problem is named RPI. Their plan to assign a number to each team to help make them easier to compare to one another has deep-rooted issues. This thing needs an overhaul. In fact, it needs to be replaced entirely.

The NCAA selection committee is so worried about using RPI to organize their selections, that it blinds them to what is really important when looking at a team's resume: who did you beat? What did you accomplish as a team?

Our priorities of what should be most important to the selection process are out of whack. The NCAA has a problem, and it needs to be addressed, but as we all know, the first step to addressing and fixing a problem, is admitting you have one.