I Guess What You Do In November Really Does Matter!


On Sunday, the Washington Huskies became the first team ever from a Big Six Power Conference to win their regular season conference championship and still be denied a spot in the NCAA tournament. This despite the tournament expanding to 68 teams last year. On one level it makes perfect sense. The Huskies had no RPI Top 50 wins. No real “marquee wins” unless you consider beating Arizona twice (another NIT team) as “marquee”. They had an RPI of 69 in the final rankings. They had a number of bad losses including blowouts at home to South Dakota State, on the road at Saint Louis, Colorado, and Oregon, and an overtime loss to Nevada.

Yet, they also had two chances to sew up a spot in the Big Dance if they could have beaten UCLA or Oregon State when they had leads late in those games. They also had their chance at a marquee win when they lost by two points to Marquette, who finished #9 in the RPI. Had the Huskies won any one of those games list above, I think they would have made the NCAA tournament.

But, it also wasn’t as if they didn’t have their chances to be even worse off than they were. They barely beat lowly Utah and Arizona State on the road; both with RPIs in the mid-200’s. They let Seattle U get close late in the 2nd half. They struggled against Oregon State in Corvallis and UCLA in Seattle before barely pulling them out. They were behind in the 2nd half to WSU in both games. This was a suspect team who almost seemed to “accidentally” win the conference title and were in the conversation for an at-large berth almost by random chance rather than stellar play that screamed “take me”.

But, if there are lessons to be learned from this season, not just for the Washington Huskies, but also for the entire Pac-12, it is that GAMES IN NOVEMBER MATTER! The RPI overall and the national perception of a conference are established in November, not January and February. The reason the Pac-12 has struggled the past three years to get teams into the tournament and seeds above 10 is because of lackluster play in the non-conference part of the season.

There are many who complain that it is not fair to judge a young team full of freshmen on what they do on the road against Duke or Saint Louis in November. Rather, teams need time to gel and what they do during the meat of their conference schedule matter more. Shouldn’t it matter more how a team is playing in the 2nd half of the season than the 1st half? Well, from December 22nd until the Pac-12 tournament, the Huskies went 16-4. It is not their fault that the conference got such a bad wrap early on or that other young teams (Arizona I am looking at you) underperformed expectations. Nor is it their fault that Utah and USC were historically bad.

But, fair or not, what happens in November matters! When an entire conference struggles to win games in November, then the RPI for everyone is set in stone. It doesn’t matter what a team does in conference play because there is no way for the conference to raise its overall RPI because 50% of the RPI is based on the winning percentage of their opponents. Once slow in the beginning, teams can not raise it since they are only playing each other and thus everyone’s conglomerate winning percentage can not improve. For every team that is successful in conference play, others are losing. Thus, by definition, the overall conference record combined is .500.

In fact, in terms of RPI, the best way for every team in the conference to have a high RPI would be to only schedule the weakest teams possible out of conference. Then, if all 12 teams in the conference were 12-0 going into conference play, everyone’s RPI would be greatly elevated. Now, I realize that the NCAA tournament selection committee does not ONLY look at the RPI. They also look at things like strength of schedule, marquee wins, etc. But, let’s be honest, perception is everything. What do they call it? The “eye-test“.  So, when UCLA lost games to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State or when USC lost to Cal Poly (42-36 by the way) or when Arizona State lost to Northern Arizona or yes; UW losing by 21 to South Dakota State, they were screwing the rest of the conference. Those loses didn’t just look bad to the national media, they hurt those team’s winning percentage and by extension the RPI of their conference brethren.

I used to not buy into the idea that I should root for other teams in the conference just because they were in the same conference as Washington. I used to think, why should I root for Oregon or USC? I have no allegiance and love for those universities! But, now I realize, because what they do DIRECTLY affects the Huskies. But, you certainly could argue that such a system should not exist. Why should it matter what Arizona State did in November to whether the Huskies get into the Big Dance? Why should it matter what Utah (losing to Montana State and NC Asheville) did in November for the Huskies?

But, one could argue that had these teams simply beaten the teams they should have in November, then everyone’s RPI would have been elevated. More wins by Utah, USC, and Arizona State would raised the RPI of teams like Arizona and Oregon, which would have made victories over those teams more significant. It would have improved the number of “Top 50” wins for the conference simply by playing each other.

But, this is the system we have. And, as such, it must be dealt with. No longer can coaches afford to have teams be so “young”. Team chemistry needs to come together soon. Scheduling needs to take into account the importance of racking up wins earlier, regardless of what may or may not come of it in January and February. As the Huskies learned this season, it isn’t enough to start slow and “come on” during the conference season. Winning the conference is not a guarantee of a spot in the NCAA tournament. So, instead of playing in the Big Dance, the reward for going 14-4 in the Pac-12 is a home game against the Texas-Arlington Mavericks (RPI 108).

So, Lorenzo Romar, the moral of this story is that games in November do matter. You must win them! Your fellow coaches must win them. Or else, for the rest of the season, no matter what else you do come January, your fate will be sealed.