High School Sports

Some prep coaches say this RPI ‘sucks.’ But maybe state basketball rankings aren’t so awful

Abe's head coach Aubrey Shelton protests a call during Lincoln High School's thrilling 68-62 win against the Spanaway Lake Sentinels at Spanaway Lake Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Winner takes over atop the 3A Pierce County League standings.
Abe's head coach Aubrey Shelton protests a call during Lincoln High School's thrilling 68-62 win against the Spanaway Lake Sentinels at Spanaway Lake Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Winner takes over atop the 3A Pierce County League standings.

So maybe this state ranking system is a little bonkers in some cases. And maybe it’s not perfect.

And maybe you can look at it like Bethel High School girls basketball coach John Ainslie did this weekend.

“The RPI system sucks,” he said, just after his Braves lost to Lincoln.

Or you can look at it like Lincoln boys basketball coach Aubrey Shelton.

“I’m ready for RPI to go away just because I’m tired of trying to explain it to everyone and their mom,” he posted to his Twitter.

Prepare yourself because here comes a big but.

But — RPI is a good thing. The one the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association adopted at the beginning of last season just needs some tweaks next year.

The problem with the current Ratings Percentage Index system is what it values. Currently, it’s better for teams to lose to a really good team — no matter how badly — than it is to beat a weak team.

Teams shouldn’t be docked so much for winning games, which this current model does — with 75 percent of a team’s RPI dependent on opponents and opponents of opponents.

So only 25 percent of a team’s RPI is dependent on what it does in the win-loss column.

That can, and should, be adjusted.

I interviewed Brian Bolitho of the Arizona Interscholastic Association two years ago because Arizona schools had already been five years into their RPI formula for seeding state tournaments. He said they had tinkered with it each year.

“Obviously, you are going to get questions from people wherever they are ranked,” he said. “In the very beginning, we got that a lot because it was new.”

Sound familiar?

“But now that we are five years into it, those questions have subsided a lot,” Bolitho added. “It’s more when you get later into the season and you have teams on the bubble.”

And the WIAA had already made some tweaks entering year two of its RPI, with out-of-state games and district-tournament games counting toward RPI this season after it didn’t last year.

But why, as Ainslie put it, does it still suck?

Bethel John Ainslie
Bethel head coach John Ainslie during the game. Lincoln played Bethel in a basketball game at Bethel High School in Spanaway, Wash., on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

That’s because Bethel is somehow ranked No. 10 and Gig Harbor is ranked No. 2 in the 3A girls poll, even though Bethel is 21-3 (with its only losses being to No. 1-ranked Lincoln) and Gig Harbor is 18-6.

Oh, yeah, and Bethel beat Gig Harbor, 55-47, in the 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict semifinals last week.

And No. 2 vs. No. 10 is a big distinction. Because the top eight teams in the WIAA’s rankings are guaranteed a spot in the Tacoma Dome, while the bottom eight teams have to play a loser-out game in the regional round of state this weekend.

Fortunately for Bethel, it moved to No. 8 because Timberline and Snohomish are ranked ahead of it and those two schools didn’t qualify for state through their district tournaments.

But North Thurston’s boys (21-3) weren’t so fortunate. The Rams are ranked 12th and have to play Seattle Prep in a winner-to-Tacoma Dome, loser-out game on Saturday, with Seattle Prep coming off a win last week over No. 1-ranked Garfield.

That would probably be fine for the North Thurston faithful if they didn’t have to see the RPI playing favorites with district-rival Timberline. The Blazers (18-6) are guaranteed a spot in the Dome with their No. 5 ranking — and North Thurston has beaten Timberline … twice.

“I’m not really concerned with it just from the standpoint there is nothing I can do about it,” North Thurston coach Tim Brown said on Monday. “I mean, why cry over spilled milk? I didn’t have anything to do with (the rankings), so it is what it is. We’re just focusing on Seattle Prep.”

A mature response, for sure.

Now, talk about how he’s had to respond to his parents and fellow staff and teachers. Then he sounds much more like Aubrey Shelton.

“My goodness,” Brown chuckled. “I get more tired of my voice having to explain all of this: Are we in the Dome? What did we qualify for? What are regionals? Why aren’t we in the Dome?

“Well, our RPI isn’t high enough. Then I get, ‘Well, where’s Timberline?’ Why are we behind Timberline?’

“I just kind of look at my parents and I go, ‘I don’t know what to say anymore.’ Literally, I’ve had to explain this 100 times in the past week or so since we beat Spanaway Lake and qualified for state. Literally, 100 times, without question — from the administrators and kids to the cheerleading coach, you name it.”

North Thurston basketball
Rams' head coach Tim Brown gets his team ready for the start of the 4th quarter against Timberline Wed. Jan. 24th. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Or you could be White River girls basketball coach Chris Gibson. His team is ranked No. 8 and just beat No. 4-ranked Port Angeles in the 2A West Central District title on Saturday.

But most of this comes down to opponents records and opponents’ opponents records.

Gig Harbor girls might have lost by 39 points on Dec. 9 against No. 3 (4A) Kentridge, a day after the Bethel girls had beat No. 36 (3A) Lakes by a score of 66-16. But Gig Harbor’s loss was good for its RPI, no matter if it got crushed, while Bethel pounding Lakes did little for its ranking.

And it didn’t matter for the Federal Way boys (24-1) that they beat Union (20-5), 82-62, in the district semifinals. Because Union is still ranked No. 3 and Federal Way No. 6.

“That’s what’s bad about RPI,” Brown said. “Because even if we had beat Timberline the other day (which would have been North Thurston’s third win against them), we still would have been behind them.”

And it had Brown wondering what he does about scheduling games. He said Auburn and Enumclaw had dropped North Thurston from his schedule before the season, which left him filling one of those spots with Mount Tahoma, which finished 1-19 and has the No. 62 ranking out of 65 3A teams.

“And I’m not going to tell teams, ‘I’m not going to play you because I don’t think your RPI is very good,’” Brown said. “I refuse to do that.”

So the solution is make a team’s win-loss record matter more than 25 percent of the RPI, something the WIAA will have to research in the offseason. The problem is that might make more schools seek out weak teams to add to their schedule, but that’s not going to help them when the district tournament comes around and they have to qualify for state.

The example of that is the Redmond girls basketball team. It was 19-1 entering postseason play, but won’t play in the state tournament because it didn’t qualify through its district tournament. So teams with pumped-up records wouldn’t necessarily be rewarded.

Same with the Anacortes boys. It is the No. 1-ranked RPI team in 2A, but it lost back-to-back district-tournament games against Liberty of Issaquah and Mountlake Terrace, so it’s not playing in the state tournament.

Oh, and after Liberty beat No. 1 Anacortes, it then beat No. 2 Lynden for the district title. But Liberty (19-4) is entering state as the No. 16-ranked team, while Lynden is now No. 1.

No wonder Brown has had to answer so many questions.

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677, @tjcotterill

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