Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 1/15/12

RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is an algorithm based on opponents’ winning percentage, opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage, and opponents’ opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. This is the truth, I’m not trying to sound like Dr. Seuss here. So RPI is like the BCS, a very controversial number that certains groups of people ascribe meaning to; other groups of people resent.

That fact is, RPI is taken very seriously by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and from a numerical standpoint, it’s all about “who have you played?” Then there’s the eye-test with RPI, which asks “who have you beaten?”

And these numbers are what gives the Northwestern Wildcats a stronger than you think tourney profile. A 12-5, 2-3 in conference team with two 28+ point losses doesn’t seem like a good candidate to go dancing at first glance. But when you look at their #30 RPI and strength of schedule, the picture completely changes.

As you might have heard 799, 654, 000, 765, 890, 324, 450 times, Northwestern is the only school from a power conference never to have never made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve come much closer in each of the past three years, making the NIT every time and breaking the school record for season wins twice.

The ‘Cats have just been hampered by a lack of ability to close. Closing out a couple more Ws in ’10-’11 and ’09-’10 and they might have secured a berth. Same problem arose last week, when NU blew a lead at home, falling by 1 to the rival Illini and then again at Ann Arbor in overtime; when they had led for all of regulation. Illinois has an RPI of 10, and Michigan 24, so closing either of those would have been huge for the tournament resume.

They finally got the job done yesterday, beating RPI #5 Michigan St. 81-74. (Hence the picture of the fans storming the court in Welsh-Ryan Arena yesterday.)

“Just really happy for our guys and proud of ‘em cuz we’ve had two agonizing losses- 1 pt here versus Illinois, and the overtime game against Michigan, two possessions from being 3-1 and you’re 1-3, so that makes it rough,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody.

Maybe the Cats should wear those all black uniforms more often? Perhaps a good omen?

“The fans were unbelievable tonight, it was great to have such a great showing from the students supporting us,” said junior wing Drew Crawford who overcame the stomach flu to score 20 points.

“And the black uniforms were great.” Crawford continued.

So why is Northwestern’s RPI so good? They have a signature win over MSU yesterday, and another over Seton Hall (RPI #6) from the Big East in an early season tournament. And even though the Baylor Bears utterly destroyed them, BU is one of the nation’s three remaining unbeatens, and it helps to have played the #3 RPI team in college basketball in your non-conference schedule.

It was important to improve the non-con scheduling this year, which had been exceedingly weak the past couple years. This year, NU’s non-con helps instead of hurts their tourney resume.

And then there’s the Big Ten schedule itself- very strong. In addition to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana is #13 in RPI, Ohio State #14, Minnesota #37, Wisconsin #48, and Purdue #51. The league itself is very robust. The teams at the top may not be nationally top 5 units, but the soft under belly of the league is much much stronger than in other leagues. In other conferences, the best teams are extremely separated from the pack, and you’re only chance to get signature wins comes against the top heavy two or three.

In this league, even the bad teams aren’t all that bad, and the middle of the road group (where Northwestern squarely finds itself) are much better than in other leagues. Beating them=quality wins. Therefore, NU will have plenty of chances, and all they have to do is win to get in.

“Northwestern- this is a pretty good basketball team, I don’t have to defend myself, to say we got beat by a good team” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said after the loss.

“They did go into Creighton and give them a game, they lost a game where they got blown out by Baylor, but probably all of us might get blown out by Baylor, so it’s a good basketball team and we did not play consistently good enough to beat them.”

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio shows all across the world. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.

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