Problems in RPI-land? A look at NU's tournament chances

It's been a month since G1000 broke down Northwestern's tournament chances here, so with the non-conference season pretty much over, let's revisit what the Wildcats need to do to reach the Holy Grail of the NCAA tournament.

10-1 in non-conference play is about the best any fan could have hoped for, and now everyone's wondering how many Big Ten wins will be necessary. Before the season, the general assumption was that 9-9 in conference play and 21 wins overall would be enough to get the 'Cats to the dance (for the record, NU has 2 more non-conference games, but they are against two of the worst teams in Division 1 and I'm assuming that both will be wins). While 9-9 certainly isn't great, the Big Ten was projected by many to be the best conference in the country, as the preseason polls had 6 Big Ten teams ranked. Coming off last season, when 7 Big Ten teams got in and an eighth (Penn State) was one of the last teams out, it seemed that at least 7 would get in this year.

The problem is that the Big Ten has dramatically underachieved in non-conference play. Michigan is of course the biggest culprit, but Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, Indiana and even Michigan State have not been as good as expected. Only Northwestern and Wisconsin have exceeded expectations. These struggles are reflected in the conference RPI rankings: after being 2nd to the ACC in conference RPI last season, the Big Ten is currently 7th in conference RPI and is projected to finish 5th. Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana are already pretty much eliminated from NCAA contention, and Illinois has damaged their chances with their mediocre showing in non-conference play and will probably need at least 11 conference wins. I'd say right now the absolute max for the Big Ten is 6 bids, with 5 being much more likely.

So how many Big Ten wins will it take for Northwestern? It's hard to say exactly, but let's take a look at some RPI projections. There is obviously some margin for error here, but these numbers should give you a general idea of what kind of RPI NU will end up with.

9 wins: Almost no chance. That would leave the 'Cats with an RPI of about 80, and no team with an RPI of 80 or more has ever gotten an at-large bid. They'd probably need to win the Big Ten tournament or at the very least make it to the championship game.

10 wins: Still not a good chance. 10-8 projects to be about 68th in the RPI, which is about where Penn State was in the RPI last season. NU would need at least one quality win in the Big Ten tournament and some marquee wins over the top of the Big Ten during the regular season.

11 wins: Probably in. That projects to an RPI of 56.8, which still isn't very good, but 11 Big Ten wins ought to be enough to override the RPI and get the 'Cats in unless they have a bad loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

12+ wins: Lock. Even 12 wins only projects to an RPI of 46, but there's zero chance NU gets snubbed with 12 or more wins.

Much like I was, you may be wondering why Northwestern's RPI is so bad. Right now they're 40th, which reflects their weak non-conference schedule in the eyes of the computers. Only 3 of the 11 teams they've played so far are in the top 100 (and they are #20 Butler, #95 Notre Dame, and #60 NC State). Strangely, the next highest team is none other than #125 North Florida, with Iowa State close behind at #131. That should change as Iowa State starts playing good Big 12 teams while North Florida starts playing terrible Atlantic Sun teams, but right now Iowa State is being punished for the same reasons as Northwestern, namely playing a bunch of really really bad teams. The 'Cats have already played 6 teams ranked 150th or worse (Stanford, NC A&T, Liberty, Tennessee State, Northern Illinois and Central Connecticut State), and they have 6 more games against teams projected to finish 200th or worse (Iowa twice, Indiana twice, Chicago State and Texas Pan-Am), which won't help matters. Of course all this highlights a major flaw in the RPI, namely teams being punished for wins. Schools shouldn't be rewarded for beating up on nothing but bad teams, but if there are some good wins mixed in then it seems unfair to deduct points for taking care of business against weaker competition.

I may be focusing a little too much on RPI, as not all 10-8 conference records are created equal. Wins over Michigan State or Purdue, or a road win at Minnesota, Wisconsin or Ohio State would look great on a resume, certainly much better than beating up on the bottom of the league and struggling vs the top teams. What would also help would be Notre Dame, Iowa State or NC State exceeding expectations and getting into the NCAAs, but I don't see it happening. Notre Dame and Iowa State are both talented but lack toughness and are poorly coached, and NC State just doesn't have enough good players to compete in the ACC. Notre Dame in particular should be embarrassed at how bad their non-conference schedule was, NU was by far the best team on it and UCLA was the only other team that was supposed to be any good.

Even though I'm not optimistic about the 'Cats getting 11+ conference wins, I'm having a lot of fun speculating and breaking down the numbers. Hopefully the 'Cats can keep playing well and at least make things interesting come March.

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