As the second day of the NCAA Tournament tips off, one of the main stories of the first day was another bad showing from the Mountain West Conference. Colorado St. got by Missouri, but No. 3 seeded New Mexico, a Final Four favorite for some, and No. 5 UNLV both lost yesterday. UNLV went ice cold from the field and lost to an under seeded Cal team, and New Mexico was dropped by Harvard, who achieved their first ever NCAA tournament victory. Scott Van Pelt, on Mike & Mike earlier in the week and on Twitter yesterday (@notthefakeSVP), touted the view that Mountain West teams manipulated their RPI by playing non-Division I teams instead of low Division I teams with RPIs under 200. In playing a non-Division I team, your RPI doesn’t dip because the game isn’t calculated in the RPI formula where beating a team with a low-RPI drags down your RPI. The Mountain West, after a 1-2 performance yesterday, went to 16-36 in the NCAAs, 6-29 vs. Power Six Conferences. Does the Mountain West with high RPIs deserve their seat at the table?
Before we bury the Mountain West, I’d like to talk about the most basic fact that mid-majors have to do with their schedule. They have to go above and beyond. Power Six Conferences rely on the fact that in conference play they will have RPI boosting wins. Teams from the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, and Missouri Valley do not have that luxury. They have to play a more challenging non-conference schedule to boost their resume and RPI. New Mexico played six non-conference games against teams with an RPI under 100 and one of those was USC, from a Power Six Conference, and another was against Mercer, who won their conference and just beat Tennessee in the NIT. The rest of their non-conference schedule was littered with NCAA Tourney teams. UNLV in non-conference played Iowa State, Cal, Oregon, and North Carolina. San Diego St. played UCLA, Syracuse, and Arizona. Colorado St. played Colorado, Denver, Montana, and Washington. Boise St. took road trips to Creighton and Michigan St., the Creighton win probably solidifying the Broncos’ tourney bid. They may have played one or two non- Division I, but they also scheduled much harder in non-conference to make up ground.
The problem with high majors who have won year after year is simple. Teams don’t want to play them. Like in football, Power Six Conference teams have nothing to gain by scheduling a home-and-home with a New Mexico or San Diego St. They are going to get their chance to shine in conference like Maryland, who made a late push for a bid by beating Duke twice. But, if you’re only going to rely on what you do in conference, you better shine in conference. The Terps went 8-10 in the ACC, losing to 6 teams that didn’t make the tourney including a loss to Georgia Tech (RPI 148). Their best non-conference win was over Stony Brook, and the Terps had 11 wins over teams with RPIs below 150. If a high major has a non-conference schedule like that and then goes .500 or worse in conference, they’re sitting at home.
The point is, and I thank the committee for recognizing this, the Mountain West isn’t manipulating their RPI by playing a couple non-Division I teams. They are playing a harder non-conference schedule and being rewarded for that. I understand playing a couple of “cupcakes” at the beginning of the season to see where your team is at and give your team confidence. But, did Maryland really need to play Georgia Southern, Maryland-Eastern Shore, South Carolina State, Monmouth, Delaware State, and IUPUI? The highest RPI out of that group was 264 by Georgia Southern, who went 14-19. The Mountain West has struggled in the tournament, and it looks like they may not get a team to the Sweet 16 after five bids (Colorado St. has No. 1 overall seed Louisville tomorrow and San Diego St. plays Oklahoma and then probably Georgetown). But, they deserve their invites. If the Power Six Conferences want to keep them out, the committee gave them the formula. Strengthen your non-conference schedule.