RPI ushers in new era for postseason basketball play

Teams that head to the state’s Sweet 16 will now be seeded based on their RPI and not their overall win-loss record for the season. Photo by Dennis Box.

A seismic shift has occurred in the world of Washington prep basketball, with the introduction of a rating system that will shape seedings into the state’s Sweet 16.

Now in full swing is a Ratings Percentage Index, a ranking of every team – in every category, both boys and girls – that updates constantly. It’s an ultimately fluid system that can see teams creep up or down daily.

The RPI system was investigated last year after a survey of coaches and school administrators showed a desire for a postseason change. Gone are the days when district tournaments decided seeding into the Hardwood Classic, the state championships; now, once a team qualifies for state, its RPI is the one and only factor used for seeding purposes.

In local athletic offices, the change has been met with optimism and support – along with an acknowledgement that the system will likely be tinkered with after the season.

At the forefront of the RPI effort is Tim Thomsen, athletic director for the Sumner School District. He joined two others – Pat McCarthy of the Seattle school system and Greg Whitmore of tiny Lind-Ritzville High School – to consider alternatives and make recommendations for state basketball changes.

“We heard it loud and clear,” Thomsen said, commenting on the widespread desire for a new state system. “And we wanted to be responsive to our (WIAA) membership.”

A priority, he said, was “to get more teams to the bigger sites.” That was accomplished by creating a 12-team, four-day state tournament format that will be used for all classifications. It’s a step down from the format used until a few years ago – 16 teams and four days – but an improvement upon recent years, when just eight teams made it to the big show, which went three days.

Like all involved, Thomsen admits some things will need to be worked on. For example, district games do not count toward a team’s RPI, so they’re not a factor when a squad is seeded into the state tourney.

“We know we have to fix that,” Thomsen said.

Chris Gibson, girls basketball coach and athletic director at White River High School, was part of the planning process that led to the RPI system. Like Thomsen, he sees advantages and drawbacks to the plan being used this season, but he’s confident a final solution is reachable.

“We’ll have a really great model in a couple of years,” he said.

Gibson’s club is generally regarded as the best Class 2A girls team in the state – or maybe second best, depending upon who is asked. His Hornets have bounced between No. 1 and No. 2 in the RPI rankings since the numbers were first released in early January. Interestingly, when they were No. 2, they trailed Black Hills, a team the Hornets had defeated earlier in the season.

The reason for that? It’s all in the math, Gibson points out.

White River participates in the South Puget Sound League 2A, where the girls’ Mountain Division isn’t especially strong. Piling up victories – and the White River girls were 12-0 in league play following last weekend’s games – doesn’t mean a lot when opponents are ranked in the bottom third of the state.

“You’re better off losing to a good team that beating a really bad team,” Gibson said, speaking purely in terms of an enhanced RPI.

From his office at Enumclaw High School, Athletic Director Phil Engebretsen says he too is supportive of the change.

“In my mind, it’s definitely an improvement,” he said. The RPI system, he said, “is set up to reflect your entire season.”

While he misses the days of a 16-team state tournament, Engebretsen appreciates at least 12 teams earning a trip to Tacoma, Yakima or Spokane.

Before taking on the AD role at Enumclaw High, Engebretsen coached the EHS boys basketball team. He previously coached in Alaska, where an RPI-type system has been in place for a couple of decades.

With that background, Engebretsen has at least one firm recommendation in mind. He would like to see a team’s RPI based only on results against Washington teams of the same classification. Presently, a team could defeat a powerhouse from another state and it simply doesn’t mean much when the RPI is factored.

Thomsen made the same point, offering a real-world example. During the holiday season, Seattle’s Nathan Hale High defeated a team regarded as perhaps the No. 1 program in the nation; such victories will hardly register a blip in the team’s RPI.

HOW EXACTLY DOES IT WORK?

Simply, every team carries an RPI that constantly changes, floating up or down based on three factors. A team’s winning percentage makes up 25 percent of the RPI, while 50 percent is determined by the winning percentage of a team’s opponents. The final 25 percent is determines by the winning percentage of the opponent’s opponents.

In the end, the RPI is intended to reward teams who beat quality opponents; less weight is given when teams play a relatively easy schedule.

The system was adopted statewide by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body for high school sports in the state. The system works thanks to data provided by MaxPreps, the official digital media partner of the WIAA. The system only functions when schools promptly, and accurately, report game results to MaxPreps.

TOURNAMENT IMPLICATIONS

For the past few seasons, the 16 teams left standing would compete in a “regional round” of eight loser-out games. Then, the Elite Eight would gather for a three-day state tournament. Before that, all 16 teams would come together for a four-day, double-elimination tourney, a formula that became financially untenable.

A compromise has been devised and will debut next month. Sixteen teams will still make the regional round, but only a dozen will earn berths in a four-day state tournament.

Postseason brackets will remain the same through the district level, so there will be no discernible difference for players, coaches and fans. Once teams have qualified for the Sweet 16, however, RPI makes all the difference in the world.

When heading to the regional round – the initial field of 16 – teams will be paired according to their RPI. The top eight squads will square off (No. 1 vs. No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, etc.) and the same goes for the bottom half of the field where No. 9 is paired against No. 16, No. 10 takes on No. 15 and so on.

In the top half of the field, all eight teams will advance to the 12-team state tourney, with the winners receiving a first-round bye. In the bottom half of the field of 16, regional losers are done for the season, with only the four winners advancing.

State tourney sites are not changing. Class 4A and 3A teams will play in the Tacoma Dome; Class 2A and 1A teams will still head to Yakima’s SunDome and B schools will travel to Spokane.

GOOD QUESTIONS

Where can a team’s RPI be found?

There’s a link prominently displayed on the WIAA website (wiaa.com). One click takes a visitor to the RPI page, where there are tabs for each of the state’s six classifications. Using the “select another sport” box allows visitors to jump from boys to girls rankings. The page also has a “frequently asked questions” button that explains the RPI system.

Many teams play out-of-state opponents, so how does that impact the RPI?

Due to all the variables, out-of-state opponents will be assigned a winning percentage of .500.

Also, teams typically include nonleague contests against school from larger or smaller classifications. How does that impact a team’s RPI?

The system does not recognize classifications. So, a team will not be penalized for playing an opponent from a lower classification nor rewarded for playing against a team in a larger classification.

Does scoring differential play a role?

RPI is all about wins and losses, not points. So, there’s no advantage for a strong team to run up a score against a lesser opponent.