The old cliche in the physical Big Ten play used to be that teams needed to muck it up in order to win. Bruising, low-scoring matchups were something to be reveled in. Final scores of 49-47? Bring it on. An ugly win is still a win.
That’s not true any longer now that the NCAA has moved away from RPI and towards NET ranking as the primary NCAA Tournament selection criteria.
“This will prevent the outliers,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few says on the NCAA website. “There were teams and leagues that were able to trick the RPI, either intentionally or unintentionally. We have all the technology and analytics, and it was silly not to use it.”
While RPI’s formula was based on winning percentage and strength of schedule, NET adds game location, scoring margin and offensive/defensive efficiency to its equation. For coaches, it’s no longer about grinding out wins any way possible. It’s about winning big and losing close, potentially playing more road non-conference games and keeping your teams’ attention even in blowouts.
“Even against Rutgers, we’re up 20 with three minutes to go,” said Gophers head coach Richard Pitino, “and I’m telling them during a timeout, do not take a possession off.”
The Gophers earned a No. 5 seed in the 2017 tournament thanks to a top-25 RPI and strength of schedule. While their RPI remains a strong 28th as of Jan. 16, their efficiency numbers are low, thereby hurting the NET ranking. Minnesota (13-3) is 45th in NET, but there are 15 teams above them with more losses, including a 9-6 Florida team. Nebraska (13-4), which lost to Minnesota on Dec. 5, is 10th in NET thanks to a 10th-ranked defensive efficiency and 21st-ranked offensive efficiency. The Gophers are 74th defensively and 96th offensively, per Team Rankings.
Predictive analytics website KenPom.com, which adjusts efficiency rankings based on expected performance against average opponents on neutral courts, ranks Minnesota 62nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 56th in adjusted defense.
“[Pitino] definitely stresses it in our heads,” said senior Dupree McBrayer. “He wants us to win but also to shoot the ball efficiently, play good defense, get our, I think it’s called, net rankings up. … That’s in the back of our heads, but the most important thing is getting the win.”
Pitino looks frequently at KenPom and RPI as a way to see where his team is falling short analytically. He maintains a belief that the committee will continue to take other metrics into account besides NET in Year 1 of the new system, but he admits it can be maddening to see teams with worse records above the Gophers in the rankings.
“I probably look at some of the analytics way too much because it kind of drives me insane because you’re sitting at 13-3, yet in the NET rankings you’re at like 40,” said Pitino. “I’m not saying we’re a top 15 team, but it used to be there was more value in winning — and this kind of sounds stupid — but if you are efficient offensively and defensively efficient, you’re going to be ranked higher, but if you’re efficient in both those things you’re probably going to win the games. But there’s value in not only winning but playing the right way, so I’ve been talking to our guys a lot.”
Minnesota thought it had a sterling-looking resume entering December with wins over Utah, Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State under their belt, but only Washington (12-4, 3-0) currently has a record that might jump off the page to the committee. Nonetheless, a series of neutral-site wins in November bolstered their adjusted winning percentage (which weights higher for neutral and road games). Of their three losses (@ Boston College, @ Ohio State, vs Maryland), only Maryland would be detrimental since it came at home, but the Terrapins are ranked 17th in the NET.
“I do think from the teams that we’ve played, Maryland is really really talented,” said Pitino. “Now it comes down to winning at home, but I do think it’s early. I think Michigan, Michigan State and now Maryland, they are very, very talented teams. That is why it’s so important for us to steal a few on the road, which is hard to do and win those home games. Fortunately, we got a good win versus Wisconsin under our belt on the road.”
Scoring margin has hurt the Gophers’ NET a bit, since the new formula allows up to 10 points to be counted toward margin of victory. Seven of their wins have come by single digits, while all three of their losses have been by double digits. But team efficiency is the root of why the Gophers aren’t higher in the rankings.
So why are the Gophers considered inefficient?
Essentially, it’s been poor shooting, since efficiency boils down to total points divided by total possessions. Minnesota is among the nation’s lowest in three-point attempts (336th of 353) and percentage (253rd), which is the easiest way to derail an offense’s efficiency. Ranking 33rd in offensive rebounds and 15th in free-throw attempts also isn’t enough to offset the team’s 206th-ranked field goal percentage.
Inevitably, if the Gophers keep winning at a high rate, they’ll put themselves in position for a tournament run, but seeding will be heavily influenced by NET.
Numerous players have mentioned their desire to land a top-four Big Ten Tournament seed, which grants the team a double-bye and sends them immediately to the conference quarterfinals. Eric Curry voiced on Tuesday the team’s goal of competing for a Big Ten title.
Pitino, however, can’t help but ask the question that’s been gnawing at him all season.
“Would it be better to have a high OER and DER and not win?” he pondered. “I don’t know. At the end of the day, it is about winning.”