Today the NCAA released the first rankings produced by its NCAA Evaluation Tool, the NET. It did not go well.
Ohio State is No. 1, Loyola Marymount is No. 10 and Belmont is No. 12.
As for Kentucky, you'll find the Wildcats down at No. 61.
What in the world just happened? Better still, how in the world can this happen in 2018?
College basketball fans today are the happy beneficiaries of an information economy that's never been more plentiful. Throw a stick at the internet and you'll hit several trusted and robust yet independent and distinct rating systems for college basketball teams.
Certainly, the NCAA deserves credit for, at long last, doing away with the Ratings Percentage Index. But once the RPI was finally shown the door, all the NCAA had to do was throw open the analytic window, so to speak, and let the sun shine in. A composite index made up of several preexisting and proven rating systems, for example, would have been one possible course of action.
Instead, the NCAA chose to build something entirely new from the ground up. And the NET is what we got.
Sure, it's early. Yes, these ratings will now be updated daily, and, presumably, they'll correct toward something more closely approximating actual reality.
Granted, the RPI, even by RPI standards, was customarily a mess early in the season too. Indeed, the NCAA has been saying for years -- decades, actually -- that its rating system is "just one tool" for the use of the selection committee.
Goodness knows, if the NET really does stagger into March with a random evaluative spray pattern like what we see now, the men's basketball committee will take the "just one tool" mantra to heart and ignore the thing entirely. That would be the correct decision.
In the meantime, the worst-case scenario here is that coaches will look at these rankings and conclude that they should run up the score whenever possible. It would be hard to blame them.
Despite the NCAA's pledge to "cap" scoring margin at 10 points, this first cut of NET rankings appears to correlate pretty well with raw per-possession scoring margin. And, in this case, "raw" means without factoring in the quality of the opponent.
Again, look at Ohio State, the best team in the country to this point in the season according to the NET. Sure, the Buckeyes won road games at Cincinnati and Creighton by eight and nine points, respectively. That's impressive, no doubt about it.
Still, what may have given Chris Holtmann's team an additional boost is the fact that OSU won home games by 27 (against Cleveland State), 28 (South Carolina State) and 46 points (Purdue Fort Wayne). To put it bluntly, this would be the worst possible incentive structure for the sport.
If the NET were to be taken at face value, major-conference coaches would be forgiven henceforth for scheduling nothing but home games in the early season against the weakest opponents available. Build that scoring margin in November and December, and then hold on as best you can in conference play.
Surely it won't come to this, but, again, the question is why are we even having this discussion? More to the point, why are we having this discussion during the season?
When the NCAA announced in the offseason that it was rolling out its new rating system, the men and women in Indianapolis should have released retrospective NET rankings for, at a minimum, the 2017-18 season. The fact that this didn't happen meant the new system was something of a mystery heading into 2018-19.
Now that mystery's being dispelled, but in the worst way imaginable. So, once more, here is a request for the NCAA:
Release the NET rankings as they would have existed on Selection Sunday 2018. Who knows, maybe we'll see that this November mess will all blow over, and that the rankings really will sort themselves out. That would be good to know.
If, on the other hand, it turns out that Virginia Tech would have been a No. 1 seed (the Hokies beat The Citadel by 39), then it will be time to put the NET up on the same shelf as the RPI. Yes, it's only been out for one day. We may look back and say it was one day too many.
We have rating systems that rank college basketball teams quite well. The NCAA should feel free to use any or some combination of all of them. This does not have to be a problem.