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MVC Set to Change Tiebreaker Rules

80. 120. 162. 197. 244. 268. 282. 299. 311. 329.

Are those winning numbers in some bizarre masochistic triple-digit lotto? Sadly, they’re not — those are the collective non-conference strength-of-schedule rankings for the ten MVC teams in 2009-10. It’s not pretty. Only one team was in the Top 100 (Northern Iowa), and half the conference came in at 250 or higher. Creighton, incidentally, came in at a robust 197. Lets put some names next to those numbers, and see who the guilty parties are in the 250-and-up Club, shall we? (Rankings courtesy of www.kenpom.com)

Northern Iowa // 80
Bradley // 120
Indiana State // 162
Creighton // 197
Wichita State // 244
Missouri State // 268
Drake // 282
Illinois State // 299
Southern Illinois  // 311
Evansville // 329

Its a damning list, because the non-conference portion of the schedule has very little to do with how good or bad your fellow MVC teams are, and everything to do with the other teams you choose to play. In other words, you completely control who you play, so if your rank is low, you have no one to blame but yourself (the old chestnut of blaming your conference, as some schools in other leagues are known to do, does not apply here.)

Some schools, like Creighton, thought their non-conference slate would be much better than it wound up being (thanks, Michigan). Ditto for Wichita State, thanks to TCU and Texas Tech underachieving. As for Illinois State and Southern Illinois…well, I’m not sure what their excuse is.

WBR’s own Patrick Marshall had a great breakdown before last season, showing the trends of each MVC team and the conference as a whole. Suffice it to say, the trends are not promising. What a change from 2006, when the MVC famously got four bids to the NCAA Tournament. Lets look at what the non-conference strength-of-schedule rankings looked like that year, and see what we can learn by comparison:

Missouri State // 69
Bradley // 74
Wichita State // 95
Northern Iowa // 102
Drake // 104
Southern Illinois // 110
Creighton // 144
Illinois State // 291
Indiana State // 298
Evansville // 302

We see that there were three teams in the Top 100, and three more just a few spots below that. In other words, over half of the conference played the rough equivalent of a Top 100 non-conference schedule. Creighton came in seventh, at 144, with a steep dropoff to the bottom three teams below them. Its worth noting that in 2006, the MVC still had financial incentives in place to “persuade” its members to play tougher non-conference schedules. Those incentives do not exist anymore. Read into that what you will.

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The MVC realizes it has a problem here, and as Creighton SID Rob Anderson first broke on Twitter earlier this week, on Monday the MVC took a step towards incentivizing teams to “schedule up.” This time, however, instead of dangling a monetary carrot in front of its members, its going to use non-conference strength-of-schedule as the second tiebreaker in seeding Arch Madness. The tiebreaker will NOT take into consideration won-loss record in those games, merely the strength of the schedule you played out of conference. Final details are still being worked out, but our sources tell us that the basic framework of the new tiebreak formula has been voted on and recommended for approval by the leagues’ athletic directors and presidents.

Our sources also tell us there may be some exemptions made by the time the rule is officially signed into law — specifically, there is still a debate raging over whether to exclude games out of a program’s control, such as the Bracket Buster, the Bracket Buster rematch, and the MVC/MWC Challenge.

Dave Reynolds in the Peoria Journal-Star wrote a piece yesterday with some additional info and quotes from Doug Elgin and Bradley coach Jim Les, but indicates in his article that it will be non-conference RPI that will be used. Clearly there is some confusion here, but we’re hearing this isn’t the case and that despite what that article says, the tiebreaker will be non-conference strength of schedule with no regard for W-L record.

Is that a good thing? Well, RPI can, and often is, a very different picture than simple strength-of-schedule, so let’s take a look at those rankings from last year and compare just for fun.

Indiana State // 82
Bradley // 142
Creighton // 153
Drake // 239
Northern Iowa // 260
Missouri State // 268
Southern Illinois // 288
Wichita State // 292
Illinois State // 312
Evansville // 322

Its even uglier than the simple strength-of-schedule rankings, isn’t it? Two teams in the Top 150, and six teams at 250+.

The lesson to be learned here is that if you schedule a slate of cream puffs, you’ll likely lose a seed tiebreaker in Arch Madness (unless the team you’re tied with scheduled more cream puffs, of course.) That’s a good thing in my opinion. I’ve seen the concern raised on message boards that, without a W-L component factored in, a lower-rung team could conceivably schedule a slate of Top 50 “buy games”, lose every game, and hope to win a tiebreaker that may or may not come to exist. Well, the only way that makes any meaningful difference for a low-revenue bottom-tier team is if a tiebreaker would move that team from a 7 to a 6 seed, avoiding the play-in round. Otherwise, its splitting hairs between who they’d match up against in the play-in round.

The first tiebreaker will remain the traditional, head-to-head matchup tiebreak scenario. If that doesn’t settle the tie, though, then the new rule will come into play. The old, complex “ratings points” tiebreaker is history.

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That’s all fine and good, you might say, but did that complex ratings points tiebreaker really come into play often enough for the new rule to make a difference? Well, since 1999, there have been 29 instances where two teams had identical records at seasons end. 12 of those instances could not be settled by head-to-head record, meaning they were settled by ratings points. That’s slightly more than once per year.

Jays fans, in particular, should sit up and take notice — the last two conference tournaments might have had much happier endings under this new system.

In 2008-09, Creighton and Northern Iowa tied for first place with 14-4 records. Because they split their two regular season meetings, the complex ratings points system was used to determine who received the top seed in Arch Madness. Northern Iowa came out on top, took the number one seed, and went on to win the automatic bid. However, if the new system was in place, Creighton would have earned the top seed because their non-conference RPI was higher than UNI. Creighton’s non-conference SOS was 170, while UNI’s was 250; even under a more stringent system factoring in RPI, the Jays would still have come out ahead, as Creighton’s RPI against those teams was 62 versus Northern Iowa’s 145. Remember, the Jays went 11-2 out of conference while the Panthers were just 6-6 outside the MVC.

That’s the difference between playing an Illinois State team that had their number on Saturday, and perhaps playing a Bradley team the Jays matched up much better with instead. (It also would have meant the Booker Woodfox shot would never have happened; instead of playing a pesky Shocker team on Friday, they would have played Indiana State.)

The Jays would also have been affected last year by the new system. Bradley and Indiana State tied for fifth place, and split the season series. Bradley earned the fifth seed based on the ratings point system, drew Creighton in the first round — and thumped the Jays. However, based on Indiana State’s higher non-conference RPI, the Sycamores would have earned the higher seed.

Rewarding teams who play — and succeed — against stronger competition in the non-conference with the tiebreaker is a great move by the MVC. Hopefully the incentive pushes the MVC back to the days when the top half of the league played non-conference schedules in the Top 100.

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