NCAA's winning formula confounds ACC coaches

February 21, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Nearly a year after getting stung on NCAA tournament selection day, Florida State men's basketball coach Leonard Hamilton is still smarting, still annoyed that his Seminoles missed out on the sport's main event.

After all, Florida State had won 19 games, finished 9-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and had beaten top-ranked Duke at home in early March after losing in overtime to the Blue Devils on the road. But, in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee, the Seminoles' weak nonconference schedule and lightweight power rating relegated them to the National Invitation Tournament.

A year later, with his Seminoles in the hunt for an at-large bid - and with the ACC poised to send a record number of teams to the tournament, after the league's weakest showing since the NCAA opened the party to 64 teams - Hamilton is still wondering what the NCAA wants as it forms the bracket.

"I'm a little confused about what goes into the evaluating process," Hamilton said. "It seems as though there has been a very aggressive attempt to place emphasis on nonconference schedules. In the last year or so, more emphasis has been placed on road victories. I hear this year [the selection committee] is going to place more value on postseason conference tournaments.

"In most years, if you went .500 or better [in the ACC], that was considered a positive. For whatever reason, in the last year or so, that's been devalued. [The criteria] seems to be a moving target."

Unless several teams, including ninth-place Florida State, fade badly down the stretch, the ACC should rectify last season's failure with a historic achievement next month. Currently, nine of the league's 12 schools - including sixth-place Maryland, which is trying to bounce back after two straight NCAA tournament misses - are in position to get the call on Selection Sunday.

That could portend a quantum leap from 2006, when only four ACC schools got to the NCAAs. The one-third participation rate matched the lowest ever for the conference since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

In 1999 and 2000, three of nine ACC teams appeared in the NCAA tournament. Since 1985, the league has sent six schools to the NCAAs, its highest number ever, nine times. Each year, and most recently in 2004, the conference consisted of eight or nine members.

The raw numbers point to the ascendance of the ACC in 2007, and it all starts with the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). That is the power rating system that mainly takes into account a team's winning percentage, its opponents' winning percentage and the winning percentage of its opponents' opponents.

This week, nine ACC schools rank in the top 50 of the NCAA's RPI rankings, more than from any other conference. Only North Carolina State, Miami and Wake Forest are out of the fold. The ACC also is rated the second-strongest league, just behind the Southeastern Conference, by The Sagarin computer rankings list the ACC as the most powerful conference.

But, as Princeton athletic director and Division I men's basketball committee chairman Gary Walters said, RPI will not tell the committee the entire story. As it seeks to separate tournament contenders that are bunched and tries to decide between strong mid-major schools and middle-of-the-pack members of the major leagues, the group will look at conference tournament results, strength and results of nonconference schedules, and how teams are performing late in the season.

Thirty-one teams receive automatic bids for winning conference titles. The other 34 schools are at-large selections. A 65th team and a play-in game were added in 2001.

"The RPI as a quantitative model is a tool. It's a useful tool, but it's not the only tool," Walters said. "Understand that the RPI is a general indicator of relative strength. It is not a precise indicator of absolute strength."

Maryland coach Gary Williams has seen his Terps (20-7, 6-6) rise from No. 35 to 19 in the NCAA's RPI rankings with a three-game winning streak over visiting Duke and at N.C. State and Clemson.

"There's facts out there that anybody can see, in terms of the league," Williams said. "We have some pretty good statistics to support the ACC this year. Hopefully, they'll speak for themselves."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wants the whole season's performance judged equally.

"People who put emphasis on the last 10 games or conference [tournament] play, that's wrong. It's what a team has done over the entire year," Krzyzewski said. "I'm not saying just choose with the RPI. But the RPI does try to tell you what a team has done for the whole year. That RPI shows the ACC is the most powerful conference, and it has nine teams that could be eligible for the NCAA tournament."

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