Since New Mexico entered the rankings for the first time this week (No. 18 AP, No. 21 coaches), it's appropriate to begin this week's mailbag with a blast from the past regarding the Lobos' coach:
I am curious about Steve Alford. How is it he can coach so well at New Mexico after having been so inept at Iowa? Has the Iowa experience improved his ability to coach or did he just give up and get out when he could? Seems like he should have been able to parlay the Big Ten tourney championships into something better.-- Travis, Ypsilanti, Mich.
If Travis was trying to pay Alford a compliment, he did a pretty lousy job. Frankly, it doesn't take a whole lot of guts to rip someone from the safety of your cubicle in Ypsilanti, especially if you're not going to provide your last name. You want to show some guts? Voice that opinion to Alford directly.
I'm not sure if it showed guts or foolishness, but I decided to reach out to Alford myself on Tuesday and read him Travis' e-mail, word for word. Steve accepted the backhanded compliment with typical good cheer -- winning tends to put a guy in a good mood -- before offering up a feisty defense of his eight-year tenure at Iowa.
"We had seven winning seasons and we won two Big Ten [tournament] titles," he said. "If you look at the history of Iowa basketball, I think they've won four or five Big Ten titles of any kind. Yet, the perception is we weren't successful there."
Travis' e-mail is yet another example of just how misguided criticism of coaches can be. If fans aren't happy with their program -- and at some point, most of them aren't -- their reflexive reaction is to call for a coaching change. In the grand scheme of things, however, the coach is not nearly as fundamental to a program's success as many fans want to believe. All you have to do is look at Alford's record before and after his Iowa tenure, not to mention Iowa's record before and after Alford coached there.
It starts with unrealistic expectations. If Alford were the coach at his alma mater, Indiana, and he took the team to the NCAA tournament three times in eight years and failed to reach the Sweet 16, that could rightly be characterized as a disappointment. At Iowa, however, that was very impressive. After Alford left, he was replaced by Todd Lickliter, who had just been named National Coach of the Year after taking Butler to the Sweet 16. Lickliter won 38 games in three years and never finished higher than eighth in the Big Ten. He got fired and was replaced by Fran McCaffrey, who had just gone to three straight NCAA tournaments at Siena. In his nearly two years at Iowa, McCaffrey's teams have gone 10-22 in Big Ten play. Those guys didn't forget how to coach upon arriving at Iowa any more than Alford remembered how to coach once he got to New Mexico. Success and failure is about much, much more than the man on the sidelines.
Remember, too, that Alford didn't get fired at Iowa. He voluntarily left for New Mexico. Why? In the first place, he was undercut by his then-athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, who refused to stand up to the message-board crowd in Alford's defense. In addition, New Mexico offered Alford a commitment to basketball that Iowa couldn't. When Alford got to Albuquerque, he had a new practice facility and a full-time strength coach, two things he didn't have at Iowa. (Iowa just completed an expensive renovation of its arena last year, which included an upgrade of its practice courts, weight room and other facilities.) The Lobos get great fan support year in and year out, which helps recruiting. (It also encourages unreasonable expectations, but that is the nature of fandom.) During his five years at New Mexico, Alford's teams have never won fewer than 22 games.
Keep in mind that the year before he came to Iowa, Alford had piloted Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16. That's right, Southwest Missouri State. He is, by any standard, one of the finest college basketball coaches in America. He also got out of Iowa at exactly the right time, just as fans like Travis from Ypsilanti were getting the eight-year itch. Ask Illinois coach Bruce Weber about the eight-year itch. He's in his ninth season in Champaign, and he's about to get canned.
"In this profession, it's hard to stay long-term at one place," Alford told me. "Unless you're winning 20 games and advancing in the NCAA tournament every year, which is hard to do, it becomes very difficult. With all the social media and everything else, you need to have a total commitment from the administration, not just in publicly backing you but also providing the help you need. I feel like I have that at New Mexico."
In return, New Mexico has a winning basketball team and one very happy coach. We'll see if things turn out as well at the place Alford left behind.
On to the rest of the Bag ...
I appreciate that you finally showed some love to Tony Wroten of Washington, who is one of the top freshmen in the nation. However, he is not the best player in the Pac-12. In fact, he is not even the best player on his own team. That distinction goes to Terrence Ross, who in addition to frequently guarding the opposing team's best player has been unstoppable on the offensive end recently and is grabbing clutch rebounds as well. Do you think this could be a dangerous team come tournament time?-- Elie Amkraut, Seattle, Wash.
I got a lot of tweets arguing that Ross is having a better season than Wroten, so there must be some merit to it. Based purely on the numbers, Wroten has the edge. He has a higher scoring average than Ross (16.5 to 15.6) as well as a higher field goal percentage (46.5 to 45.3). Ross is ranked fifth in the conference in rebounds, but Wroten is second in steals and eighth in assists.
However, several coaches I've since spoken with around the Pac-12 say that Ross is, in fact, this team's best player. So I'll concede the point. No doubt Ross is the more steady of the two. If both guys enter this year's NBA Draft (which I think they will), Ross will probably get picked higher.
As for the Huskies' chances of reaching the NCAA tournament, I'm hopeful but skeptical. They have three games remaining in the Pac-12 regular season, and they're all on the road -- at Washington State, at USC and at UCLA. Washington is currently 12-3 in the conference, but with no wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, it has little margin for error. However, at the end of the day I do think the Pac-12 will get two teams in somehow, and if that's the case Washington will probably be one of them. Of course, a team that doesn't play D or make free throws isn't usually a threat to advance in the tournament, but stranger things have happened.
How can the selection committee say it does not take conference affiliation into account? Syracuse would not have all those top RPI wins without the Big East schedule. No Mountain West school has that opportunity unless it's on the road.-- Patrick, Albuquerque, N.M.
People find this hard to believe, but conference affiliation really is not a factor when the committee compares teams. Of course, if you play in a top conference that means you are going to have more opportunities to play top 50 teams, and on your own home court no less. Mid-major schools typically only get those opportunities on neutral courts during Thanksgiving and Christmas tournaments. Or, they have to hit the road and play guarantee games. That's a game where the home team pays an opponent in the neighborhood of $75,000 to come to its home arena, with no return engagement the following year.
I wish all the BCS teams would play road games against mid-majors, but that's never going to happen. BCS coaches tend to want to keep their jobs. On the other hand, I also believe that too many mid-major coaches have gotten cautious about scheduling themselves. It's better to play the occasional guarantee game than to play a weak nonconference schedule, which forces the mid-majors to run the table in their own leagues or leave themselves at the mercy of the committee if they falter in their conference tournaments.
Comparing schools from different leagues will always be the committee's greatest challenge. As I've always said, the best thing a team can do is win enough games to take its fate out of the committee's hands. If you head into selection weekend on the bubble and don't get in, you've got no one but yourself to blame.
I have a question about Indiana: What do you do with a team that has beaten four top-25 teams (and three in the current top 11) earlier in the season but cools off considerably? Take Louisville, a team you had cracking the top 25 this week. Yes, they've won eight of their last 10 in the formidable Big East, but their best "win" in that stretch looks to be their one-point loss to Syracuse at home. Indiana's loss at Iowa was terrible, but how does that jibe with their wins over Nos. 1 and 2 (at the time) Kentucky and Ohio State? To be clear, I'm not saying I agree with or disagree with you, I'm just curious how you, as a pollster, handle early-season success vs. late-season fatigue.-- Kyle Tennant, Chicago
This is an excellent question, and I have no answer except the usual fallback: It depends.
My basic job as an AP voter is to submit my list of who I think the top 25 teams are. Such subjective analysis should not be overly constrained by niggling details like final scores and won-loss records. Thus, I tend to weigh my vote more heavily on what has happened in the recent past -- which is why I move down the Hoosiers, whose loss at Iowa dropped them to 8-7 in the Big Ten. Indiana's wins over Kentucky and Ohio State came at home, in December, by a total of five points. The Buckeyes waxed 'em by 17 points in Columbus. Arguing that Indiana's overall body of work merits a ranking is a lot easier than arguing that it is genuinely one of the 25 best teams in America right now.
When it comes to selecting and seeding the NCAA tournament, however, the men's basketball committee has tried to argue that all games should count exactly the same. The committee used to have a separate category of the last 10 games as part of its criteria. It increased that scope to 12 games but has since dropped the category altogether. Still, since these are actual human beings making these decisions, I don't believe they really treat every game the same. If a team is hot or cold down the stretch, that is likely going to influence someone's thinking.
In your last mailbag you said it would be difficult for a coach to recruit in Chicago without cheating. Could you clarify what you meant by that? I'm not here to say you should or should not have said it. I just simply don't understand what you meant.-- Dan, Cincinnati
It's probably unfair to generalize, but there's also no reason to dodge the truth: There's a lot of cheating going on in big cities. The reason is simple: there is more of everything there. More players, more high schools, more AAU teams, more media outlets, more sneaker money, more agent runners. I would never say it's impossible to recruit successfully in a place like Chicago without cheating, but if you ask anybody in this business, they'll tell you that they agree with me that it's hard.
My specific context here was in reference to the soon-to-be-open Illinois coaching job. The prevailing wisdom is that the most important qualification is the ability to recruit Chicago successfully. I disagree. Hey, it's a big country! Even if you can get good players out of Chicago without breaking rules, those kids come with a lot of advisers, relatives, friends, AAU coaches and other hangers-on who will get in their ears and complain about their lack of minutes and scoring opportunities.
A coach should never limit himself to a single geographic area, especially at a prominent place like Illinois. In fact, often times that coach is better off recruiting players from somewhere else. The players are often better off getting away from home, too.
Finally, I was pleased, but not surprised, to get a lot of e-mails reacting to my column defending the RPI. I realize this debate is overwrought and more than a little geeky, but given how much misinformation there is about the RPI, I'm glad to have spurred some more discourse. Here's a smattering:
Your assessment of RPI was well-considered, but I do wish to take issue with one thing you wrote: "I still don't believe VCU's remarkable run to the Final Four validated its inclusion." This position seems a bit hardheaded to me. What could better serve to validate inclusion than success?-- John Fusco, Ellicott City, Md.
I admit this is not an easy position to defend. Still, I have to be consistent. I have argued that the decisions on selection and seeding should not be made with an eye to predicting the future. The NCAA tournament is by definition unpredictable; it's what makes the dang thing so much fun. So while it may be true that other mathematical models are better than the RPI at predicting success in the tournament, that is totally irrelevant. A team earns its way into the tournament by winning games. Nothing more, nothing less.
It is equally misguided when the committee members try to validate their choices by pointing to tournament results. When all four number one seeds reached the Final Four for the first time in 2008, members of the committee puffed out their chests, as if that meant they did a good job. It didn't. So they have to be consistent, too. Remember, last year the committee also got criticized (including by me) for giving UAB a bid. The Blazers got destroyed in their first game. That doesn't by itself mean they didn't belong.
However, the VCU case brings up another, more important point: Just because we in the commentariat disagree with the committee's decisions doesn't mean we're right. The criticism over VCU's inclusion was incredibly vitriolic. That debased all of us. Our criticism may or may not have been on target, but the Rams' success should at least teach all of us not to be so vehement with our opinions. In the final analysis, this is a very subjective exercise. There are no definitive answers.
While I agree with most of what you wrote, the one tweak I would make to RPI to improve it would be to add margin of victory, but only to a point. For example, each game would factor margin of victory into one of three categories: 1-3pt win/loss, 4-9pt win/loss and 10+ win/loss. This would take margin of victory into account without coaches needing to run up the score. Or quite simply, you "cap" the margin of victory to a maximum of 10 points.-- Kyle Dell, Winnipeg
With all due respect to Kyle, it boggles my mind that anyone would attempt to make this argument. Understand: We are not arguing over whether a member of the committee should take margin of victory into account. If the members are evaluating two bubble teams, and one team won the first meeting by a point and the other won the second by 30, that is rightly going to impact their thinking.
What we're arguing, instead, is whether scoring margin should be a component of the basic, underlying metric the NCAA uses to organize its information. That would mean, for the first time in the history of basketball, coaches will be forced to manage a game with an eye on the scoreboard. The fact that anybody could seriously suggest that is incredible to me. Fortunately, the folks who actually run this sport are smarter than that. I think.
With the RPI, the problem isn't WHAT they include, it's how they include it. Weighting the opponent's record by 50 percent (instead of 25 percent for example), was done to favor big-conference teams who nowadays try to pad their nonconference record with patsies. If the weighting in the RPI was 50 percent YOUR record, 50 percent your opponents' opponents' record, it would be significantly different -- and much less weighted toward the power conferences.-- Jason, Ithaca, N.Y.
First of all, it doesn't make sense to completely eliminate your opponents' record. That must be factored in somehow. Second, Jason has it exactly backward. The intent behind giving so much weight to opponents' records (and opponents' opponents' records) is precisely so major conference teams can't schedule patsies. That is even more evident in the strength of schedule rankings.
Look at Cincinnati right now. The Bearcats are 9-5 in the Big East and have four wins against teams in the top 50 (including two on the road). However, their nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 321st nationally, which is why their overall RPI rank is 80th -- which is further why they are on the outside of the bubble looking in right now. Mick Cronin loaded up on horrible teams in November and December, and his team lost to one of them (Presbyterian) at home. You might believe the Bearcats are one of the 37 best at-large candidates, but they deserve to be punished for that kind of schedule.
Your column defending the RPI is a complete mess. By excluding scoring margin, you remove a tremendous indicator of how good teams actually are. You appear not to fully understand what "efficiency" actually means. Sokol has shown in detail that his method is a better predictor than the RPI, and I'm not sure why you just dismiss his work or question that conclusion. Why WOULDN'T a system incorporating more data in a more thoughtful way be better at measuring team strength or predicting results? You seem to be saying that you don't care if other metrics are better at measuring how good teams are, you will still defend a system which has obvious and huge flaws. Is that accurate?-- Martin Smith, Brooklyn
Let's set aside the debate over which metric works best and focus on something that is getting lost in all of this: The RPI is far from the only piece of information the committee uses.
Besides the 10 members of the actual committee, there are several NCAA staff members in that conference room who are assigned to provide the members with every piece of information you can imagine. If someone is trying to decide between two bubble teams, he or she is free to consult efficiency numbers, the Sagarin rankings, the Sokol rankings, or anything and everything under the sun.
That's what is so frustrating to me about all of this. At the heart of this entire debate is a fundamental misunderstanding of how and why the RPI is used. The only thing it does is organize a team's schedule. That's it. It's a starting point, not a finishing point. If nothing else, I would hope this back-and-forth with my readers and media colleagues clears up that misunderstanding. My fear, frankly, is that it is just making everyone more confused.