Commentary: Schedule strength a plus for UA women

By Kyle Kensing
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 10, 2005

RPI. These three letters, which mean rating percentage index, are the holy gospel according to the gods of college basketball.

A team cannot gain entry to the promised land, the NCAA Tournament, without adhering to the guidelines of the RPI: win games, play "quality" teams and don't lose to bad teams.

The Arizona women's basketball could reap the benefits of this controversial system, first introduced in 1991, in a somewhat disappointing season.

The Wildcats finished 19-11 in 2004-2005, 11-7 in the Pacific 10 Conference, and were bumped from the first round of the league tournament.

A year after Arizona forged a tie with Stanford for the Pac-10 regular season championship and won 24 games yet still received a lowly No. 9 seed in the Big Dance, one would assume a season like this would make the National Invitational Tournament inevitable.

Not so fast.

Thanks to a highly rated strength of schedule, Arizona boasts an RPI of 41, a mark that in theory assures them a tournament invitation.

And, despite the team's fifth-place finish in the conference, experts like ESPN are picking the Wildcats for the dance.

As of March 7, the weekly tournament report has Arizona as a 10 seed in the East Region, matched up with a very beatable Texas Christian team.

How does the RPI relegate a 24-game-winning, conference-championship team to a mediocre seed one year, and then send the same team a year later, that finished four places lower in the league and had double-digit losses, to in all likelihood the same spot?

It basically comes down to everyone else around that team.

Since the RPI's inception, teams have avoided loading up on "cupcake" non-conference games, because the system rewards teams for playing top squads.

This is a good thing. A team should not earn a tournament bid based on a string of wins over BYU-Hawaii or Sister Mary's School for the Blind.

But what the RPI has done is remove too much of the emphasis on performing well in conference play.

Arizona did not play easy-win teams in 2004. Its schedule included ACC powerhouse Virginia, always-tough UC-Santa Barbara, and then, of course, the rest of the Pac-10.

However, the Pac-10, which composed the bulk of Arizona's games, was in what the RPI considered a down year, and it hurt the Wildcats.

Though Arizona held up its end of the bargain by winning conference games, the conference outside of Stanford struggled, and as a result, the Cats took the hit and were faced with a solid Michigan State team in the first round, a game that would have been better suited in the second round.

Contrast that with 2005.

After playing tough non-conference games in Ohio State, Georgia, UC-Santa Barbara and Maryland, Arizona was met with a highly ranked conference.

Despite dropping crucial Pac-10 games, Arizona could, and probably will, be rewarded because those teams beat other great teams.

Kind of strange, isn't it?

That isn't to say I'm against Arizona getting a tournament bid, or that it doesn't deserve one, because it does.

Arizona was the victim of injuries most the season, yet persevered to win 19 games, not an easy feat considering the strength of the Pac-10, and that is something worthy of praise.

And the nation should get a chance to see senior guard Dee-Dee Wheeler on ESPN, because she plays the game unlike anyone else at the collegiate level.

But should the fate of a college basketball team be placed in the hands of every other team it plays?

The RPI system is certainly better than the arbitrary system of decades past, but it is imperfect.

Yet as long as it benefits one of my university's teams, you won't hear me complain.