The WIAA took a step into the future — or present — of high school basketball this fall when it adopted an RPI ranking system to go along with its new 12-team state (and 16-team regional) tournament for the 2016-17 season.
But the RPI has its flaws, and the state’s prep sports higher-ups have some issues to address in the seasons to come.
“I think the RPI has a place in seeding at the state tournament,” Richland boys coach Earl Streufert said. “I could see all 16 of these teams playing right now being seeded in the state tournament, but to make some of these teams the haves and the have-nots, and some of them playing non-counters basically and the rest of us are playing a loser-out solely based on an RPI ranking ... I think it’s kind of a travesty.”
RPI is critical to the new-look state basketball tournament, which this year will return to the classic four-day format at the finals sites, but with only 12 teams per tournament being invited to the domes as opposed to the pre-2011 total of 16. The eight highest-ranked teams in each classification play each other in regionals (No. 1 vs. 8, No. 2 vs. 7, etc.) with both teams already guaranteed a spot in the 12-team tournament. The winners of those games get byes to the state quarterfinals.
That’s a pretty huge advantage over the teams ranked Nos. 9-16, who play each other in loser-out games this weekend, and it puts a lot of pressure on an experimental ranking system to get it right.
Perhaps if the RPI formula had been announced before it was approved — the State Basketball Format Committee still had to “refine the details of the RPI system” when the tournament format was finalized, according to a WIAA press release — there would have been some hesitation from the state basketball community.
A quick breakdown of the RPI formula: (your win percentage x .25) + (your opponents’ win percentage x .5) + (your opponents’ opponents’ win percentage x .25).
That means that the win percentage of a team’s opponents (OWP) is given twice as much weight as the team’s own win percentage (WP), which counts the same as the winning percentage of its opponents’ opponents (OOWP).
That makes it tough — almost impossible, really — for a Mid-Columbia Conference team like Richland (the No. 11 4A seed) to get one of those top-eight seeds because six of its seven conference opponents were .500 or worse this season. It’s especially difficult because the RPI rankings finalize at the end of the season, which means the Bombers’ two postseason wins over Ferris (16-4 regular season, No. 7 in RPI) don’t count toward seeding.
The SCAC East-champion Columbia-Burbank girls may be one of the biggest victims of the formula. The Coyotes went 20-0 during the regular season (one of three undefeated 1A girls teams) but were ranked No. 10 in RPI because of their .491 OWP. What makes this less fortunate is that their regional opponent, No. 15 seed Seattle Christian, only lost two games this season — both to No. 6 Bellevue Christian, the 1A Nisqually champs — but was ranked No. 19 in the RPI because of a low OWP.
By the way, Seattle Christian beat Bellevue Christian in the West Central District 3 championship game, but, as we know, those district tournament games don’t count.
The RPI is also forcing teams to do away with one of the cooler opportunities for high school athletes — participating in national tournaments and other interstate contests. Because out-of-state teams aren’t obligated to properly report their records on MaxPreps like Washington teams are, all of them factor as .500 clubs into OWP.
So it doesn’t matter if a Tri-City team beats a top-five national squad like California’s Mater Dei, or blasts a so-so team from Oregon, those games count the same. That has Streufert taking a hard look at whether the Bombers will ever again play out of state.
“Teams like us, if we want to stretch ourselves, play teams from a different state with a different style — we’ve gone to Utah, we’re thinking about going to Idaho or Las Vegas next year. I don’t know if we can afford to do that with the way the RPI is,” Streufert said. “If we’re not going to count teams in Nevada the same way we’re going to count teams from Washington, it may not matter (how good they are). They’re all .500 teams.”
While talk about the RPI and state tournament has been mostly negative this season, the system still is a progressive step for the WIAA. Teams like Goznaga Prep (No. 2 in 4A) and Seattle’s Nathan Hale (No. 1 in 3A and one of the top teams in the country) had great seasons, and deserve a little advantage over the teams with less sterling résumés.
But some questions still have to be answered heading into the second year of the system: How should out-of-state games be factored? Should OWP be twice as important as a team’s own record? Should district playoff games not count when a Dec. 2 non-conference game does?
But those can be answered over the next few months. For now, let’s just kick back and watch some hoops.