Bracket analysis: Is NCAA's new tournament ranking system helping or hurting Hawkeyes, Cyclones?

Danny Lawhon
The Des Moines Register

Oh, what a tangled net we weave, when these first rankings do deceive.

As Sir Walter Scott probably turns another revolution in his grave, our weekly attempt to bring bite-sized breakdowns of Iowa and Iowa State's NCAA Tournament realities needs to stop and explain a new rankings system that a lot of folks briefly talked about a couple months ago and then promptly forgot.

The NET Rankings (short for NCAA Evaluation Tool, because how cute and clever, right?) has replaced the much-derided RPI system (short for Ratings Percentage Index, because how boring and informative, right?) beginning this season in an attempt to streamline the criteria for how a team stacks up in the selection process for the Big Dance.

What's in this rankings formula? Think results, strength of schedule, location of games, victory margin (capped at any kind of double-digit win), and offensive and defensive efficiency.

The first edition of these rankings was released in late November and sent analysts into a confused stir. As the conference seasons are unfolding and schedules are leveling out, there appears to be gradual clarity into what kind of wins are the most rewarding.

The rankings are being updated a couple times a week in the conference season. The most recent set, released Wednesday morning, had 14-5 Iowa State ranked No. 17, third in the Big 12 Conference behind Texas Tech (11th) and Kansas (16th).

Iowa, in spite of its gaudy 16-3 record and a head-to-head win over the Cyclones, is 25th. Six Big Ten Conference teams — Michigan State (third), Michigan (sixth), Purdue (15th), Wisconsin (18th), Maryland (20th) and Nebraska (21st, and that ought to be a real sore spot, which we'll discuss later) — are ahead of the Hawkeyes.

Penalty of a softer schedule

But what's the streamlined way to digest all of this? In recent years, bracket junkies may have heard plenty of talk about what "quadrant" a victory fell in. That categorization is still being used, too, as follows:

  • Quadrant 1: Home wins against teams ranked 1-30; neutral wins against teams ranked 1-50; road wins against teams ranked 1-75.
  • Quadrant 2: Home 31-75, Neutral 51-100, Road 76-135.
  • Quadrant 3: Home 76-160, Neutral 101-200, Road 135-240.
  • Quadrant 4: Home 161-353, Neutral 201-353, Road 241-353.

These schedule sets are helpful visual aids in creating a one-page look at a team's season to date (known as a team sheet).

Those early-season gimme games are laid bare in this summary. So there's no hiding the half-dozen Quadrant 4 wins for both Iowa and Iowa State that serve as numerical window-dressing.

I emphasize this factor because that's the numerical difference as to why 13-6 Nebraska, which just came off an ugly road loss to Rutgers on Monday night, gets more love than Iowa, in spite of the Hawkeyes' two-game advantage in the league standings and a head-to-head win.

Nebraska played just four of those cupcakes, and they've also played out all of their Q3 game, too (going a combined 7-0). The Hawkeyes have already played eight games in those two quadrants, and have at least one more coming up (home, against the same Rutgers squad). Moreover, those early victories against Oregon (NET 68) and UConn (NET 88) at the 2K Sports Classic in New York that had analysts frothing at the mouth are turning out to be less and less impressive over time.

Iowa appears to pass the eye test more so than Nebraska, and the weight of the season may still let that play out. For now, all the major computer rankings favor the Cornhuskers, who are slated no lower than 16th in any of the three systems in which the NCAA puts its stock. (ESPN's Basketball Power Index, plus Ken Pomeroy's and Jeff Sagarin's individual computer rankings).

The value of a big road win

From another angle, these measurements also emphasize those truly cream-of-the-crop triumphs.

Take, for example, Iowa State's 68-64 victory last week at Texas Tech, then ranked ninth in the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll. The Red Raiders are the highest-ranked Big 12 Conference team in the NET system, and that Cyclones win came on the road. Such a victory accounts for a bundle of brownie points in this constant jockeying for seeding, as those top-quadrant games are even further divided.

  • Quadrant 1A: Home 1-15, Neutral 1-25, Road 1-40
  • Quadrant 1B: Home 16-30, Neutral 26-50, Road 41-75
  • Quadrant 2A: Home 31-55, Neutral 51-75, Road 76-100
  • Quadrant 2B: Home 56-75, Neutral 76-100, Road 101-135)

Iowa has had two such "1A" opportunities as the rankings stand now, and have lost them both (at Michigan State, at Purdue).

Overall, the Hawkeyes and Cyclones are both 3-3 in Quadrant 1 games — a .500 record in this metric is more than safe when it comes to NCAA Tournament recognition. Moreover, Iowa has a whopping eight Q1 games to play, beginning with Thursday's home clash against Michigan State. The Cyclones have seven more to go, starting with Saturday's trip to No. 24 (NET) Ole Miss as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Continue to hover around .500 in these contests, and both schools will find themselves in the 4-6-seed range come mid-March. 

Coincidentally, that's the general range in which Iowa State and Iowa find themselves as we near the halfway point of the conference season.


(All rankings and projections as of Wednesday)

NCAA NET: No. 17

Ken Pomeroy: No. 12, 22-9 projected overall record

Jeff Sagarin: No. 15

ESPN BPI: No. 12

ESPN projection: West Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Wofford in Jacksonville, Florida

CBS Sports projection: West Region, No. 4 seed, vs. Yale in San Jose, California

Bracketville projection (the top-rated metric with a history of 10-plus years predicting brackets, according to the Bracket Matrix): South Region, No. 5 seed, vs. Murray State in San Jose


NCAA NET: No. 25

Ken Pomeroy: No. 24, 22-9 projected overall record

Jeff Sagarin: No. 27

ESPN BPI: No. 25

ESPN projection: South Region, No. 6 seed, vs. Arizona in San Jose

CBS Sports projection: South Region, No. 7 seed, vs. Temple in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Bracketville projection: West Region, No. 4 seed, vs. Marshall in San Jose