Strong RPI gives Pitt basketball reason for March optimism

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Strong RPI gives Pitt basketball reason for March optimism

By Chris Puzia / Sports Editor

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Turn on ESPN in March, and one thing is sure: there will be more talk of “bubbles” than in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

“The bubble”refers to teams that are either just inside or just outside of the NCAA Tournament, and it drives some fans crazy hearing whether their team is or is not “on the bubble.”

Pitt is precariously perched on top of the bubble this year, and, for that reason, it merits looking at both arguments of whether the Panthers should or should not play in this year’s March Madness.

The main case in favor of Pitt playing comes down to another term that fans hear constantly: RPI.

RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index, calculates a team’s record on the road differently than at home or at a neutral site. 

A road win, for example, counts as 1.4 wins, whereas a home win only counts as 0.6 wins — conversely, a road loss counts as 0.6 losses and a home loss counts as 1.4 losses. Neutral site wins and losses still just count as one.

RPI also accounts for opponents’ winning percentages, so a tougher schedule and more road wins benefit teams trying to squeeze their way into the tournament. Though the NCAA selection committee takes other factors into account — like conference tournament performance, quality wins, bad losses and strength of schedule — the NCAA typically holds RPI as a benchmark for team performance.

Still, the rating isn’t a steadfast guide to a team’s tournament chances. Pitt’s RPI, as of Monday, sits at 36th in the country. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has the team in his “next four out” category for his bracket projections, expecting Pitt (18-10, 7-7 ACC) will barely miss the tournament.

The quality of RPI does bode well for its chances historically, as a team from a Power 5 conference with an  RPI better than 40 has never missed the NCAA Tournament. With four more winnable games on the schedule, head coach Jamie Dixon can bump that season win total up to 22 entering the ACC Tournament.

Add that to quality wins over No. 15 North Carolina and No. 9 Notre Dame, as well as a season sweep over still-decent Syracuse, and Pitt has a solid case for tournament inclusion. 

So why is there even a question of Pitt missing out?

It comes down to bad losses.

Despite some recent success, the Panthers will still have a difficult time overcoming losses to Hawaii (18-11), Virginia Tech (10-17) and Clemson (15-12). Then, consider that none of Pitt’s remaining games come against quality opponents, and it appears that the team has little to gain, RPI-wise, but everything to lose come selection time.

A home win over Boston College tonight, with its 1-13 conference record, would do almost nothing in terms of RPI change, but a loss would be devastating for Pitt’s tournament chances. Fans may not typically be afraid of the struggling Eagles, but any slip-up by the Panthers would represent a serious misstep on an already tenuous path to the tournament.

Pitt’s best opponent in its final four games is Miami, which Lunardi also slotted in his “next four out” slot.

The team also has only a 2-6 record against top-50 RPI teams, and it has a loss to Virginia Tech, which has the 223rd-best RPI. 

Pitt’s 2-7 road record doesn’t help either.

CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm said that the Panthers “really need a quality win away from home, but that will have to come in the conference tournament.” 

The team’s two remaining home games are against Wake Forest and Florida State, neither of which is projected to make the tournament. 

Palm still lists the Panthers in his “work to do” section, meaning, like Lunardi, he has them on the outside looking in — though, for Palm, Pitt is first on the “first four out.”

In that case, fans often root just as much for similarly situated teams to lose as they do for their own team to win. Bad losses by other bubble teams, such as Stanford, Texas A&M, Temple and North Carolina State, would likely vault Pitt over them.

The team’s destiny is still unclear. If Pitt loses any of its final four games, it may be hard to make a legitimate case to put the Panthers on the sunny side of that bubble. Winning a few games in the ACC Tournament against a quality opponent — on a neutral site, as well — will seriously help their cause.

Either way, Panther fans should get used to that “bubble” talk, because it probably won’t cease until Selection Sunday.


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