How will NCAA’s new method of selecting at-large teams affect Dayton?

AD Neil Sullivan in support of modernizing NCAA selection tools

The NET has a catchier name than the RPI, more modern math behind it and, for the most part, more widespread support from the college basketball experts who start predicting next year’s NCAA tournament field as soon as the “One Shining Moment” montage airs after the championship game.

How will the NCAA Evaluation Tool affect the Dayton Flyers men's basketball program? That's a question UD Athletic Director Neil Sullivan has examined since the NCAA announced Aug. 22 the NET will replace the RPI.

“It’s early,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “We’re still learning what it means and what the formula consists of. I understand it may not be a precise formula as the RPI was.”

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The NET, which will help determine the 36 at-large teams selected for the NCAA tournament and the seeding of 68 automatic and at-large qualifiers, relies on results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency and the quality of wins and losses.

Result of early-season games matter as much as late-season games. Teams do not gain an advantage by outscoring opponents by more than 10 points. The tool uses that measure so teams don’t run up scores to improve their ranking in the NET.

While the exact formula will remain a secret, Sullivan hopes to learn more about how the NCAA will crunch the numbers at the Atlantic 10 athletic director meetings this fall.

“In general, I fully support modernizing the evaluation tools to use all the best available resources we have,” Sullivan said. “You think how far data and analytics have come since the RPI was introduced, I think, in the early 80s. It’s probably the right direction to head. I would say it’s a little bit challenging in that it’s the second year in a row the sorting mechanism has kind of changed after the schedules are complete.”

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Last August, the NCAA introduced the quadrant system, which changed how the selection committee viewed road and neutral wins. It became effective in the 2017-18 season. The same goes for the NET.

“The RPI has been embedded in the DNA of the selection process for so long, it will take some time to unwind,” Sullivan said, “and it seems like they’re unwinding it immediately. I need to understand it better. You like to think of these things as you’re building your schedule.”

Dayton has scheduled teams for years with the goal of giving itself opportunities to build a resume worthy of an at-large bid. It worked for four straight years (2014-17) as the Flyers heard their name called on Selection Sunday despite falling short of earning the A-10’s automatic berth each season.

Sullivan plays a big part in the creation of the schedule and said UD has used custom-made computer simulations to study the behavior of the selection committee over the previous three, five or even 10 years. Now he needs to learn all he can about the new system, he said, so he can make “good foundational decisions with the most relevant and salient data points.”

With only one year of data behind the NET next spring, making the schedule will challenge Sullivan and everyone who helps him put together the schedule. On the other hand, he doesn’t expect the changes to be so drastic that a team ranked 150th in the RPI suddenly becomes a top-20 team with the new tool.

“The fact that is true under any metric and what we understand is we have to win games against NCAA tournament caliber teams and compete for an A-10 championship,” Sullivan said. “No matter what the metric is, we know that’s true, and that fact will always remain. We accept that challenge and acknowledge that. I just want to make sure we have the opportunity to meet that challenge because when you look at the data, clearly the committee believes that all conferences are not created equal.”

Sullivan pointed to the fact that in the last two seasons, nine of the 72 at-large teams to make the tournament came from conferences outside the top six: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and Big East. Four of those nine teams (two each year) came from the A-10.

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Getting in that small group will be a tough task every year. For example, St. Bonaventure, of the A-10, earned an at-large berth and a spot in the First Four at UD Arena as a No. 11 seed last season. Its non-conference strength of schedule ranked 59th in the country.

Three teams from power conferences — Kansas State, Florida State and Virginia Tech — earned No. 8 or No. 9 seeds despite ranking below 320th in non-conference strength of schedule.

In short, the top six conferences have a big advantage, especially with some moving to 20-game conference schedules. That’s why Sullivan wants to decipher the NET to make the most of future schedules.

“When you’re looking at being one of five or one of four teams out of the entire field, every margin matters,” Sullivan said. “So we go to incredible lengths to study the decisions made by the selection committee.”

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