Though most of the changes over the years have been to the advantage of the little guys, the RPI's many critics believe the metric remains biased in favor of the power conferences. They complain that the RPI doesn't take into account:
Common sense. Even after the reworking of the formula 10 years ago, teams with major-conference pedigrees often lose yet, because of schedule strength, go up in the RPI. Worse, a team from a weak league can win and win—but go down. There's something flawed about a ranking system in which a victor would be better off not having played at all.
Point differential. The RPI ignores how much teams win or lose by, for two reasons: Anything with a whiff of Vegas to it spooks the NCAA, and the committee doesn't want coaches running up scores to improve their RPI. "But you do keep score for a reason, and the number of points you win or lose by has some significance," counters Sukup, whose Collegiate Basketball News has morphed into The RPI Report and rpiratings.com. "The NCAA keeps track of scoring margin and publishes that." Sukup suggests adding a factor that would reward victory margin, but not beyond 15 points.
Home court advantage. "There isn't enough weight to reward road success, though everyone agrees that winning on the road is the toughest part of college basketball," says Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin, who just finished a four-year turn on the committee. A home team wins about two thirds of the time, and the host in a nonconference matchup is much more likely to be the higher-profile school. "The majors will play you, but only on their home floor," says Morehead State coach Kyle Macy, whose Eagles have lost at Arizona State, Alabama and Ohio State this season. "But once your program starts to improve, some schools won't play you again." Adds Elgin, "If [mid-major] teams could schedule [more home-and-homes], it would be much more fair. [Two seasons ago] Indiana made its first trip to Indiana State since 1908, and lost."
Johnson points to the RPI's early abandonment of the road-record factor, and Palm says that the committee, having passed over Georgetown last season and Alabama two years ago for their reluctance to go on the road, makes sure to punish yellow schedulers. But no metric can really evaluate schedule strength unless it accounts for where games are played. "The major conferences have a scam going," says Jeff Sagarin, whose own ratings appear in USA Today and who proposes alternatives to the RPI (box, page 55). "When you have huge imbalances between home and away games, it's irrational to ignore them."
You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about the RPI. The NCAA parcels out millions to conferences according to games won per tournament. Ergo, the more bids a conference lands, the more money it stands to make. With the committee disproportionately composed of representatives of the major conferences (this season seven of the 10 members are from major-conference schools) and the RPI consistently placing major schools higher than other ranking systems, the metric looks like the big-timers' errand boy. Counters Jim Livengood, chairperson of the men's basketball committee and athletic director at Arizona, "Every person on the committee shows compassion to all schools and is dedicated to making our selections unbiased across the board."
Palm believes that committee members, for the most part, are conscientious. "Of course nobody believes they are, because people are so cynical," says Palm, who began calculating the RPI to better understand the selection process. "But only once has my faith been shaken: In 1999 New Mexico got in when it had beaten only one good team [No. 7 Arizona] all year, had a bad record in the Western Athletic Conference and was 74th in the RPI—the worst RPI to get an at-large bid since I started doing this."
Johnson is forever reminding people that the RPI isn't designed to predict games, as some people do with the Sagarin Ratings. "It's a tool to help the committee," he says. "If the RPI were a say-all, there'd be no need for a committee." Nonetheless, he's currently tabletopping yet another improvement to the formula—though he won't say exactly what.
Until the RPI is perfected, Sukup and Palm hope fans know enough not to shoot the messengers. "I get, 'You must be an Indiana fan, because you rate them so high,' " Palm says. "I hate Indiana. I went to Purdue."
Says Sukup, who holds degrees from Indiana and Wyoming, "A couple of years ago someone from either Auburn or Alabama told me I could shove the RPI up my Yankee you-know-what."
On his next flight south, Gary Johnson may want to check that NCAA briefcase curbside.