March Madness: Does a top RPI ranking predict NCAA tournament success?
If you had to pick just one stat to analyze college basketball, you’d be hard pressed to find one more all-encompassing than RPI.
Simply put, Ratings Performance Index — or RPI — answers an important question: how good are the teams you beat or lost to?
So what can it tell us about NCAA tournament performance?
We looked at the teams ranked 1-15 in the RPI at the time of Selection Sunday for each year since 2010 to find out. The answer: While there are never any guarantees in the tournament, RPI is a pretty strong indicator of March Madness success.
RPI’s only tangible impact for a team is how it informs the Selection Committee. While it’s far from the only statistic used on Selection Sunday, it certainly carries a lot of weight.
Of the 120 teams ranked 1-15 in RPI since 2010, all that were eligible for tournament play got a bid to the NCAA tournament, with an average of approximately a 3-seed. Only one was ever lower than a 7-seed — in 2011 when Utah State, ranked 15 in RPI, landed a 12-seed.
Phrased differently: In this time span, no team has ever gotten a 1-seed without being in the Top 10 of the RPI. Only one team has ever gotten a 2-seed without being in the Top 12. That would be Ohio State, which received a 2-seed in 2010 with an RPI rank of 22 (the Buckeyes would go on to lose to 6-seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16).
But it's not a one-to-one relationship either. Only one year since 2010 has had all four 1-seeds be ranked 1-4 in the RPI. That was 2012, when Syracuse, Kentucky, Michigan State, and North Carolina earned the top seeds.
After Selection Sunday, the success continues. The average Top 15 RPI team will get 2.1 wins in the NCAA tournament, meaning they will make the Sweet 16 before losing.
One bar in this chart jumps out immediately. The No. 14 team in RPI rankings has more wins per tournament than all ranks but Nos. 3, 4, and 6. If we look at those teams, we can see that six of the eight made the Sweet 16, three made the Final Four, and one — Louisville in 2012 — won the championship. Is there any reason the No. 14 RPI team has this much success? Not that we saw. None earned a 1- or 2-seed in the tournament. But it's something to keep in mind nonetheless.
|Year||Team||RPI||Record||NCAAT seed||NCAAT result||Wins|
|2010||Tennessee||14||25-8||6||Lost in Elite Eight||3|
|2012||Louisville||14||26-9||4||Lost in Final Four||4|
|2013||Syracuse||14||26-9||4||Lost in Final Four||4|
|2014||UCLA||14||26-8||4||Lost in Sweet 16||2|
|2015||UNI||14||30-3||5||Lost in second round||1|
|2016||Maryland||14||24-8||5||Lost in Sweet 16||2|
|2017||Florida St.||14||25-8||3||Lost in second round||1|
Speaking of championships, seven of the past eight champions have finished the regular season ranked in the Top 15 RPI. UConn’s win in 2014 is the lone exception, as the Huskies entered the tournament with an RPI rank of 22.
But success is not a given in this group. Almost 43 percent of teams in the Top 15 RPI never made it to the Sweet 16, and 18 percent lost in the first round.
So, the all-important question: How should this impact how you pick your March Madness bracket?
Obviously nothing is a given in March — nine teams that finished in the Top 5 RPI since 2010 didn't even make the Sweet 16 — but if you don’t want to spend too much time researching to fill out your bracket, RPI rankings would be a good one-stop shop.