Saturday, November 25, 2023

Common Sense Crowdsourcing Says SFA Should Be In the NCAA Tournament

 In case you want this to be a one minute read, I'll cut to the chase so you can get back about your business.  If you put any weight at all on volleyball analysts predicting the NCAA Tournament bracket, then every one of them, if not hypocritical, should still be supporting SFA as an entrant as an at large bid.  Here's why:

The pervasive thought before the WAC Championship match was that SFA was a mid-seed in their prospective first round match-up in the NCAA Tournament.  That is, virtually every bracket prediction I saw leading up the WAC Championship match had SFA NOT playing the host team in the first round.  A team does not go from being predicted to be in a non-host first round match to out of the tournament all-together on the basis of two sets.

Now, the above thought is especially true considering that Stephen F. Austin was riding an 18 game winning streak and has consistently held an RPI in the high 30's / low 40's all during when these predicted brackets were released.  If you felt as though SFA deserved to play a host team in the first round had they gone 30-3 and won the WAC Tournament, then fine, my argument doesn't apply to you.  But, I don't know where those people are?  Again, that wasn't the crowdsourced thought at all.  Instead, it was widely believed that had SFA won the WAC Tournament that they would have the same fate as in 2019 - a first round match against a team that was not hosting.

(That's the end of the post if you only have one minute to think on this)

Now, provided you're willing to read on, let's do what the readers here would expect me to do given my background and that's put a little more numerics to the situation.

First off, if you've wandered over here because you're a volleyball junkie and love debating this kind of stuff then you need to know - yes, I am aware of RPI, Futures RPI, Figstats, KPI, Pablo, Massey, the Volley Talk Boards, Volleydork, Rich Kern, etc, etc.  I lurk on all of those sites, some for years, know how they work and anyone who has heard me call WAC matches knows that things from these places rather routinely make it into broadcasts. So, don't come at me with all that.  I'm not making a hometown argument based on hometown "feels" here.  Again, regular listeners on ESPN+/radio and readers here know that's not my style.

The NCAA selection committee in part, uses things such as head-to-head results, substantial wins/losses, common opponent matchups as well as rankings like RPI to make at-large bid decisions.  Even within the last few days it has been acknowledged that the committee is aware and considering the KPI ranks.

So, before we get into these things, let's be fair:  Stephen F. Austin, by virtue of losing in the WAC Championship is a bubble team for this years' NCAA Tournament.  To those of you that think it is OBVIOUS that SFA deserves an at-large bid - I'm sorry, that just isn't the way this goes.  It is NOT obvious that SFA deserves an at-large bid.  History very much places us on the bubble and there isn't much previous evidence in selections to rest on the thought that SFA is a lock.

However, SFA should not be dismissed out of hand here as well.  There are people - and they know who they are - that are doing this.  They are categorically dismissing SFA's candidacy over conference affiliation and circular reasoning.  You just simply CANNOT state RPI shouldn't hold much weight and then start spouting off records against the Top 25/50/75/100 as your primary reason for keeping SFA out.  I mean, first of all, those values (25/50/75) are arbitrary and they are based on RPI.  So, don't say things like "RPI shouldn't carry much weight, plus, SFA is 0-3 against Top 50 teams (by RPI)."  That's circular reasoning.  Do I think it is a fact that SFA is 0-3 against top tier teams?  Maybe. We lost to Arizona State and Baylor, who have stronger cases than us and outrank us. South Alabama?  That's debatable, and not so obvious.  That match was on the first day of the season on their home floor and we HAD ALREADY PLAYED A MATCH THAT DAY.  South Alabama had not.  That fact gets overlooked I believe.  So, I really don't think the loss to South Alabama should have anything to do with our candidacy.

One objective of things like RPI and KPI rankings is to do EXACTLY what we are trying to do here.  Compare Power 5 programs that by virtue of their conference alone will play tougher schedules to mid-major programs that by virtue of their conference will not.  I feel like a lot of the people that are down on SFA's at-large candidacy are double penalizing the Ladyjacks for their WAC affiliation and strength of schedule.  I mean, hey, either that is baked into the KPI or RPI or it's not, right?  At some point, you have to just stand on those ranks and say "that's been factored in already, so deal with it".

Now, are things like RPI and KPI perfect?  Of course not, and we should definitely strive for creating better metrics to evaluate our game.  Geez man, I've been advocating that in this space for literally 15 years! But, at the end of the day, if the accepted current metrics for comparing teams claim to factor in matches against opponents of various strengths, then we shouldn't be advocating for an RPI mid 50's team over a team that RPI's between 35-40.   That's just too much of a gap and too many teams to span to be logical to me.  The sampling error in those ranks isn't THAT big.  In large part, I think that's the key concept.  

Should we expect teams to cross the "cut points" and take at large spots away from teams that RPI/KPI higher?  Yes, sure, I see all the reason in the world to do that in some cases if the gap they span is just a few teams.  I would not ever advocate using straight RPI as the committee metric.  But a 15, even 10 team span?  That's pushing it.  Again, the error/variation, or whatever you want to call it in those metrics isn't THAT big.  Not a dozen teams big.

OK, so what are these ranking cut points and how does SFA shape up when evaluating them?  First, I'm writing this as of 3:30 PM on Saturday afternoon.  At Figstats, as of this time, SFA has a Futures RPI of 36 and only the Big West Championship game remains in terms of automatic bids.  The winner of that match will still RPI below SFA no matter the outcome.  So, there are 11 teams that have automatic bids that RPI higher than SFA.  If RPI were the straight dividing line on at-large bids, that means that that the last team in would be at 43.  Here are the eight teams above (at) / below RPI 43 as of this writing (again, depending on Figstats here).  I'm using "eight" slightly arbitrarily, but it creates a span of 16 teams - a full fourth of the potential field.  That seems like a reasonable window.

34. Missouri (SEC)

36. SFA (WAC)

37. Texas A&M (SEC)

38. UC Santa Barbara (Big West)

39. Texas State (Sun Belt)

40. TCU (Big 12)

42. Minnesota (Big Ten)

43. NC State (ACC)


45. Miami (FL) (ACC)

46. Georgia (SEC)

47 St. John's (Big East)

48. Loyola Marymount (WCC)

50. Drake (MVC)

52. UCLA (Pac 12)

54. Loyola Chicago (Atlantic 10)

55. Kansas State (Big 12)

Note that Hawaii is 56 of this writing and if they win the Big West Championship later today would leap into that bunch below the cut line.  The teams just above 34 are Houston, Baylor, South Alabama and USC.  I think they should all be "in".  I know the debate comes with South Alabama, but let's let RPI do its work.  A ranking of 32 seems too high to ignore.  Plus, South Alabama has a KPI of 34, so that seems to solidify their "ranking".  If there is a number you see missing from the above list it is because that team at that rank is an AQ.

We know that Power 5 clubs tend to have stronger schedules, so the candidacy of Mizzou, Texas A&M, TCU and Minnesota seem pretty strong.  While Minnesota ranks five spots lower than SFA on that list, their pedigree seems hard to deny.  They are a household Big 10 name and it seems unlikely they will be kept out.  

That leaves the non-power 5 teams above the cut line as SFA, UCSB and Texas State. There are those that will make the argument that SFA should be singled out and teams like Georgia, St. John's or Drake just straight up replacing them as an at-large bid.  To that, I say no.  No, that's double jeopardy.  You don't like RPI or KPI as a ranking, fine.  I know it's not perfect.  But, to span 10 or more spots in the ranking and single one school out and replace #36 with #50?  No, that's not okay.  The measure (RPI/KPI) isn't THAT inaccurate that we should NOT allow the final two or three at large bids to span 10-15 spots.  For what it's worth, KPI has SFA at 39 with Drake and St. Johns at 55 & 56 respectively.  Georgia does much better in KPI, however.

Point being:  If we are going to use these rankings at all, then there is enough "space" for SFA to fit in. Barely.

Overall, if you do the same sort of cut-point ideas with KPI, you'll shuffle some teams of course, but again, I see the space for SFA to get in.  Barely.

Some of the teams that Stephen F. Austin is competing with for an at-large bid play more "Top 25" and "Top 50" (in quotes because of the RPI circular reasoning point before) teams simply because of conference affiliation.  Our ranking systems take strength of schedule into account, so let that point lie.  Don't double penalize mid-major teams because of this issue.

An honest reflection is really needed here.  The "Power 5's get all the love" card can't be OVERPLAYED by those of us that watch, support and work around mid-major conference volleyball.  At the same time, the "You didn't win any Top 50 games" card can't be overplayed by the Power 5 supporters either. 

Baylor (my alum, mind you) was 0-7 against the "Top 25" and 3-11 against the "Top 50". Missouri, by nature of being in the SEC was 0-7 against the "Top 25" and 5-8 against the "Top 50".  Look, if you know you are going to play 12-15 matches against the Top 50, then by virtue of your conference you have a strong schedule.  Had SFA won against South Alabama - on the opening day of the year AFTER having already played that day, they'd have one Top 50 win having only played three total such matches.  But 1 of 3 is the same ratio as 5 of 15?  The metrics ALREADY have schedule strength built in.  STOP overplaying that card.  Just cite it for what it is, not give it twice the weight in at-large bid arguments.  That's my point.

If we are being honest, SFA is either one of the last two or three teams in or one of the last two or three teams out.  I am clearly acknowledging that "bubble".  I just believe a Top 40 RPI and KPI is too strong to ignore, no matter the other criteria and no matter the faults of those ranking systems.