Fresh off its first five-game winning streak in Pac-12 play since the 2006-07 season, Washington State men’s basketball has finally entered the NCAA tournament bubble, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. WSU’s March Madness resume is typically devoid of the jaw-dropping wins that bracketology loves, but his current No. 36 NET ranking likely has him on the radar of Lunardi, other bracketologists and the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
NET, which stands for NCAA Evaluation Tool, replaced RPI as the primary committee evaluation metric in men’s basketball beginning with the 2018-19 season. It has evolved slightly since its initial launch and this is how the NET is officially described by the NCAA:
The NET has two components: the team value index, which is based on the game results and takes into account the result, the place of the game and the result. The other component is net effectiveness (offensive effectiveness minus defensive effectiveness), which is adjusted for opponent strength and match location.
The difference between NET and RPI
How does NET differ from RPI? There are two main differences. First, the NET takes into account the location of games played, giving different weights for home, away and neutral site contests. Second, while the Team Value Index factors in wins and losses like the RPI did, the Adjusted Net Effectiveness is the massive change.
Adjusted Net Efficiency, also known as Adjusted Efficiency Margin, is how KenPom evaluates and ranks teams, and it’s what has largely influenced the move to NET. The efficiency margin takes the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions and subtracts the number of points they allow per 100 possessions.
This changes the way teams are rated as it removes the binary value from each game, assigning more of a sliding scale value. A one-point WSU win is not as valuable as a 15-point WSU win. The NET limits margins, as does KenPom.
The difference between NET and KenPom, aside from the potential coefficients in the formulas, is that KenPom doesn’t consider gains or losses, it just evaluates based on the efficiency margin.
The reason for this is that KenPom is meant to be a predictive tool rather than a resume assessment tool. The NET acts like both, and this creates slight differences. The Cougs currently sit at No. 33 on KenPom and No. 36 on NET.
What would WSU be if the old RPI system was still in use? Wazzu would be seated 74th, according to CBS Sports. This illustrates the impact of the adjusted efficiency margin. In the RPI system, WSU’s 27-point win over Colorado would carry the same weight as its 5-point loss to Colorado. In the NET, the Cougs get more credit for the big win and get less punishment for the narrow loss.
The seven losses on WSU’s resume are a combined 29 points, while many of the Cougs’ wins are in double digits. This imbalance gives Wazzu a positive overall efficiency margin and is why the NET ranks them so much higher than the RPI.
How does the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee use NET?
The NCAA describes the NET as one of several assessment tools used by tournament selection committee members. It is also possible that some committee members like it more than others. However, it does provide a baseline ranking that can help narrow down their list of potential NCAA Tournament teams.
The committee is also looking at other factors beyond the NET, such as key players missing games and travel challenges, as well as other metrics like KenPom. It also emphasizes quality wins, and that is why it created the quadrant system to categorize the value of specific wins and losses.
The NET quadrant system puts each game in a box based on team ranking and location. There are four quadrants and they break down as follows:
Quadrant 1: Home 1-30, Neutral 1-50, Away 1-75
Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Away 76-135
Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Away 135-240
Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Away 241-353
The quadrant system for judging wins is why WSU is still outside of most tournament projections. The Cougs have only played two Quadrant 1 games (USC and Boise State) and lost them both. Although WSU has the NET ranking of a tournament team, chances are they still need to add a few Quadrant 1 wins to their resume for overall selection.
There will be plenty of opportunities in Quadrant 1 for WSU before the Pac-12 tournament begins: Arizona at home with Oregon, UCLA and USC on the road. Winning a few of those games would be very beneficial to WSU’s NCAA Tournament odds.
What are WSU’s chances of adding wins to Quadrant 1?
While WSU’s NET and KenPom rankings certainly put him on the radar of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, it also provides reason for optimism. These ranking systems are intended to be predictive, especially in the case of KenPom. WSU’s ranking means they’re probably good enough to compete against Quadrant 1 teams on their schedule.
Currently, KenPom gives WSU a 29% chance of beating Arizona, a 44% chance of beating Oregon, 22% of UCLA, and 37% of USC. These probabilities add up to 1.32 Quad 1 expected wins.
Obviously, these odds predict that WSU will lose every game, but that’s the beauty of odds: they provide a range of possibilities. KenPom thinks the Cougs win 29 of 100 times against Arizona. It’s far from long.
If you want to drink deeper crimson Kool-Aid, check out Bart Torkvik’s grading system. Torvik’s formula ranks the Cougs 17th. It gives WSU a 43% chance of beating Arizona, 43% of beating Oregon, 25% at UCLA and 46% at USC. That’s 1.57 expected wins in this all-important subset of games.
Torvik’s system resembles KenPom’s old Pythagorean grading system before KenPom moved to adjusted efficiency margin. The main difference that gives WSU a boost is Torvik’s incorporation of a State of Play metric that gauges a team’s average margin throughout a game, meaning the Cougs get credit for the many big leads that turned into smaller wins or losses on their ledger.
Based on predictive systems, the Cougs should win between one and two of his four Quad 1 NET opportunities. If WSU slightly beats expectations with two Quad 1 wins while winning most or all of its remaining Quads 2-4 games, that would likely put it on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.