PantherU

Conference has real opportunity with openings

Near the end of every regular season, they awaken from hibernation like clockwork. Bracketologists, by the thousands, come out of their caves to try and predict the field of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament. They focus on lots of things, like RPI, analytics such as KenPom ratings, and of course every team’s strength of schedule (SOS).

They’ll all be able to rattle off every bubble team’s record against the Top 100. But what about the bottom 100?

Too often, Youngstown State has been one of the schools in the bottom 100 of the RPI. YSU is sitting at 251 right now, the 101st-lowest RPI in D-I. More often than not, they’re easily outside of the top 250. Jerry Slocum may have won his 700th game, but he was never able to get that program going the way YSU would have liked.

Cleveland State, unfortunately, has been down the same road lately. Retired head coach Gary Waters built a program of mercenaries, able to get players eligible who couldn’t be eligible elsewhere with CSU’s ‘build-a-major’ in liberal studies. That caught up to him in recent years, as the transfer epidemic started in the NCAA and he lost players such as Bryn Forbes, Anton Grady and Trey Lewis to national programs.

With both head coaching jobs coming open, it looks as if new life is about to be breathed into Cleveland and Youngstown – and that couldn’t come at a better time for the Horizon League.

Both schools have spent extended periods of time at or near the bottom of the conference, although Waters was able to put it together at the Wolstein Center until a couple years ago. This has made things difficult on the Horizon League; as much time is spent on dissecting bubble teams and their records against the best, the same thing goes the other way. Teams outside the top 250 of the RPI can really be a major drag on their conferences, and enough of a drop can move a team such as 2015-16 Valparaiso to the wrong side of the bubble.

To illustrate how this can affect a school, let’s look at a comparable team to 2015-16 YSU. Last season, the Penguins finished 272 in the RPI, not the lowest in the Horizon League – that ‘honor’ belonged to UIC, 346th out of 351 schools. The closest school this season to YSU’s 272 is Cleveland State, ranked 260 according to RPIForecast.com.

This is a great website, because it shows just how much a school can impact another school in the RPI – even schools that don’t play each other, but share a common opponent. Cleveland State’s RPI is positively impacted by playing Oakland (109), Valparaiso (71), and Northern Kentucky (87). The Norse run to the NCAA Tournament jacked up the RPI for the entire Horizon League, because Kentucky (3) has the fourth-best impact on CSU’s RPI after the three Horizon League schools.

Conversely, the bottom teams of the conference have a negative impact on CSU’s RPI. Because they had a poor season, they had the largest impact on their own RPI – which is always the case. After the Vikings, Detroit (289), YSU (251) and Milwaukee (256) had the most negative impact on CSU’s RPI. The Vikings’ impact of -1.79 on Valparaiso is a pretty big splash this year. Conference teams play each other twice a year, sometimes three – so despite beating the Vikings by 11 on the road and 21 at the ARC, the Vikings dropped their RPI both times – having a harder negative impact on Valparaiso’s RPI than any non-conference game the Crusaders played.

Valparaiso’s best non-conference victory – over the A-10’s Rhode Island (31) – positively impacts their RPI at a 0.81 rating. What that means is that Cleveland State’s two hits on Valpo’s RPI canceled out any positive impact Rhode Island had on the Crusaders’ RPI – and doubly so. Let’s not forget that CSU is not the worst team in the Horizon League for the RPI this season. Last year, there were a few teams that hurt Valpo’s RPI. The two UIC games alone likely impacted their RPI enough to put them on the wrong side of the bubble.

It’s why I’ve spent a lot of time making my case that cutting YSU out of the conference would be a better move than adding more teams. They’ve spent most of Jerry Slocum’s tenure – really, their entire time in the Horizon League – having a negative impact on the RPI of other conference schools.

That could be about to change. The Penguins have a strong list of candidates for their head coaching position. So does Cleveland State. If these teams bring in program-building coaches who can get them pointed in the right direction on a permanent basis, the Horizon League stands the chance of gaining big time.

Even if the basement of the conference were to move up from 289 this season to say, 225, the likely positive impact on the entire conference could be staggering. The Atlantic 10 Conference has six teams in the top 100 compared to three outside the top 200, and only Duquesne (267) is outside the top 250. So yes, adding stronger teams to the conference can help, with the RPI. Belmont (61) is dragged down significantly by the Ohio Valley Conference, with eight teams ranked 200 or worse in the RPI. A move to the Horizon League would be a major benefit for both teams.

A better benefit, however, would be if the Horizon League could pick itself up. If YSU and CSU can turn things around with new coaches – and let’s not forget improvements to LaVall Jordan’s program here in Milwaukee and Bacari Alexander’s Titans at Detroit Mercy – the Horizon League may not need to just look at adding strong 11th and 12th teams to counter a weak bottom. They may be able to do it while sitting pretty at ten.

This is important when the conference hasn’t had an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament since 2009 and is now using a tournament format that is more equitable than the past, when the deck was stacked heavily for the highest seeds. Stacking the deck allowed for the Horizon League to put a Top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament in every year we’ve won a game in the Big Dance. Cleveland State won a game in 2009 as a three seed, but by winning four games on the road, including a true road game at Butler in the championship game, they proved they were worthy of that automatic bid.

A stronger basement in the conference could have given us an at-large berth in 2016, and in every year it would help the conference tournament champion walk into Selection Sunday with a better RPI.

Like it or not, the NCAA Selection Committee uses the RPI to choose and seed the field of 68. We have to play that game – and it may be easier to play if the Penguins and Vikings put strong programs on the floor every season.

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