Oregon got a really nice road win last night, winning at Utah 70-68 in overtime, on one of the more unusual final sequences you’ll see to decide a game. Even though I don’t think the Utes are world-beaters, it was a really good win for the Ducks. All the available info we have so far suggests they are about the 70th best team in the country. Utah probably isn’t going to the NCAA tournament, but beating the nation’s 70th best team on the road is quite difficult.
According to my model, Oregon had about a 56% chance of winning at the Huntsman Center, but if the teams played in Eugene, the Ducks would have an 81% chance of winning. So sure, Utah looked good last night, but they probably wouldn’t look as good if there was a rematch. (Then again, there’s about a 20% chance they would look as good. But I think that figure puts things in perspective.)
The Utes’ RPI – and yes I feel dirty for having looked this up – was around 150 before the game and is projected to finish around 90. So unless Utah overachieves the rest of the year, this is not going to be what those married to the RPI would call a quality win. In fact, I blame the RPI for the general perception in a non-RPI world that a win like this isn’t all that special. Come tournament time, people start talking about top 50 wins almost at the exclusion of anything else. It gets kind of absurd as a team’s opponents can make or break its resume depending on whether an opponent ends up #50 or #51.
The problem is that road win over #51 is significantly more difficult than a home win over #50. We can all agree on that, right? And yet one counts as quality and the other doesn’t. This type of thinking has also slipped into everyday talk well before tournament resume comparison becomes an issue. “Hey, so-and-so has X top 50 wins,” ignoring the context of where those games took place, which is a pretty important consideration.
If the NCAA wants to keep using the RPI as its go-to metric then it really should consider a simple change to how the games against quality opponents are aggregated. Here’s a handy table describing the difficulty that the 30th ranked team would have in winning games against teams of various rankings by location of the game.
against… Home Neutral Road Win% Opp Rk Opp Rk Opp Rk 59 20 50 73 76 57 100 177
You could make the baseline team whatever you want, but it wouldn’t change the calibration much. Instead of focusing on games against the top 50, the NCAA could call it games against quality opponents or Tier I opponents, or something catchy that would get a hashtag. Whatever you call it, that group would include home games against the top 20, neutral games against the top 50, and road games against the top 75. I can’t imagine the code change would take more than an hour for the NCAA to implement. Boom, now Oregon has a quality win it deserves, and teams picking off the 47th ranked team at home don’t. (Using my ratings, anyway.)
You could do likewise for the record against the top 50-100. Call them Tier II games. Home games against teams ranked 21-60, neutral games against teams ranked 51-100 and road games against teams ranked 76-175. These ranges present a much fairer reflection of a team’s record in losable games.
Plus, it would set a good example for the rest of the college basketball world. If Oregon had beaten, say, San Diego State at home, I think they would have got a lot more credit than they did for winning at Utah. “It’s a win against ranked team” many pundits would say. But it would be about as impressive as winning a game at an average Pac-12 team. People should start talking that way because this is how college basketball, with its large home-court advantage, really works.