RPI: What Is It, And Does It Matter For Our State-Bound Teams?

If you’re a high school basketball fan, you’re going to hear a lot about “RPI” over the next two weeks. So it would be nice to know what in the world RPI is and what it means to our Whatcom County teams.

Well, you’ve come to the right place, because Whatcom Hoops has all the answers … except for the ones it doesn’t. So here goes …

What is RPI? It stands for Rating Percentage Index, which sounds like a fancy term used by stock brokers to grade your portfolio. But according to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which overseas the state’s high school sports programs, RPI is “a statistical system used to comparatively rank teams.”

OK, so what does that mean? It means that teams going into basketball state tournaments are ranked by a statistical formula rather than by coaches, sportswriters or media bloggers. It is especially important if you want to fairly “seed” teams in the regional and state tournament brackets.

What formula is used? It’s been tinkered with each of the past two years, but now it is RPI = (40% x WP) + (40% x OWP) + (20% x OOWP). If you want the complicated explanation, go to http://wiaa.com/subcontent.aspx?SecID=1186 but the simple answer is that it takes into consideration the team’s record, the record of the team’s opponents, and the record of the team’s opponents’ opponents.

Huh? Yeah, it’s complicated. Squalicum boys coach Dave Dickson, who has coached for 25 years and has two state titles on his resume, said it best: “I got A’s in calculus in college, and I can’t figure it out.” Let’s just say that the results of every game are fed into a computer, which immediately spits out a number (for example, the Lynden girls team’s rating is .071268). This is done all through the season, but only really counts at the end when teams are seeded for the regional tournaments.

Why was the RPI needed? Well, in the old days (before the RPI was started in 2017), basketball teams were seeded into state tournaments by virtue of their district placings. That meant a team’s “ranking” was often determined by one game in the district playoffs rather than the whole season’s work. So, an upset in district could mean a team that was, say, 20-0 coming into the game might be seeded lower than a team that was 12-8 but had one good game. Combine that with the “blind draw” for state tournaments (which is even more complicated), and you often had two of the top teams in the state playing in early rounds. This was especially bad when the regional system was set up (don’t get us started on that) to include loser-out games and two topped ranked teams were forced to meet even before the “state” part of the state tournaments. Just ask the 2016 Lynden Christian boys team.   

So is the RPI system better? It’s not perfect, but it is much better than what we had. In past years, everyone could see that at least one state matchup or side of a bracket was unfair. One thing RPI does not take into consideration is the classification of the opponents, so smaller schools that play in leagues with bigger schools (like LC, Meridian, Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley) are not rewarded. Of course, bigger schools (like Ferndale and Squalicum) are not penalized by playing the smaller schools either.

Does it affect any of our teams this year? We have six teams going to state, and three of them are rated No.1 — the Lynden boys and girls (2A), and the Lynden Christian boys (1A). So none of them are complaining. The Lummi Nation boys (1B) and Lynden Christian girls are rated No. 3 and could make a case for being higher, but they are probably pretty happy with their ranking, too. If there is a team that can complain, it is the No. 7 Meridian girls (1A). Four of their five loses are to two top-three 1A teams, a 2A state qualifier, and a 3A playoff team. The good news is that by being in the top eight, the Trojans’ regional game this weekend will not be a loser-out game, and they will be playing in Yakima next week, where they can show everyone how good they are.

Are the RPI ratings a good way to predict how teams will do at state? Again, probably better than in the old days because brackets are now seeded rather than basically picked out of a hat. There will always be a 2017 Foss boys team, which had a double-digit rating (because it played in a league with bigger schools) and still won the 2A state title. But last year, everyone around the state complained when the Lynden boys were rated No.1 with a less-than-impressive 19-6 record … and we all know who won the 2A state championship. Chalk one up for the Lions (and the RPI).

Any last words? Yes. Just remember that RPI ratings are only to seed teams for regionals (the regional outcomes do not affect the state tournament seedings), and once the games start, seedings mean nothing. You still have to win on the court … and not in a computer. Which is always good news for Whatcom County teams.
Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.

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