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NET Nitpicking: What Do We Make of Arizona?

The Wildcats No. 7 NET ranking underlies the lack of transparency in the NCAA’s beloved new ranking tool

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at Arizona
Nico Mannion and the Arizona Wildcats are a clear outlier in the current NET rankings.
Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The general consensus among the college basketball community is that the NET rankings, although imperfect, are a clear improvement over the antiquated RPI. Consider that, under the old RPI system, Auburn would find themselves at No. 5 (notably ahead of Duke at No. 6), while mid-majors like Rhode Island and Northern Iowa would find themselves in the Top 25. All three teams are much more appropriately ranked in the NET.

But this begs the question: what’s going on with Arizona?

The Wildcats find themselves ranked No. 7 in the current NET, ahead of teams like Maryland, Louisville, and Villanova. Arizona has eight losses on the season, and you have to look down the list to No. 13 to find a team with at least that many losses (Michigan State, with 9). Moreover, Arizona is the top ranked Pac-12 team, ahead of teams like Colorado (No. 18) and Oregon (No. 20), who are consistently ranked higher than the Wildcats in most polls (the Wildcats are currently unranked in the AP poll) and both have one less loss than Arizona. The Ducks even completed a season sweep of Arizona this weekend (a loss which didn’t seem to affect Arizona’s ranking, despite it coming at home). Moreover, the current consensus is that Arizona would be a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament, behind not only those two Pac 12 schools, but at least a dozen other teams ranked below them in the NET.

So, what can we learn about the notoriously intransparent NET rankings from this clear outlier?

A closer look at Arizona’s team sheet makes the situation all the more perplexing. The computers don’t love the Wildcats: while their BPI is high (No. 7), Arizona ranks no higher than 14th in any of the other computer rankings included on the team sheets, and notably has a very poor strength of record (No. 36). The quadrant system also isn’t kind to the Wildcats: they only have 3 Q1 wins and 1 win in the “top-half” of Q1. They also have an average road record (4-4), and two poor losses weighing down their resume: a loss to St. John’s on a neutral site and a home loss to UCLA.

The only part of Arizona’s resume that isn’t mediocre at best is their strength of schedule. Arizona currently holds the No. 5 overall SOS, including a No. 15 non-conference SOS. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated to many wins, as Arizona lost their marquee non-conference games at Baylor and home against Gonzaga. Their best non-conference win was at home against Illinois, which currently falls in Q2.

As mentioned, the NET rankings are notoriously mysterious: the NCAA has told the general public what goes into the NET rankings, but not how each piece of the puzzle is weighed. And it appears Arizona has found the first major flaw in the system.

For years, certain teams were known to try to “hack” the RPI to inflate their ranking, knowing that this was a key tool used by the selection committee: this typically involved scheduling a multitude of “average” non-conference opponents while eschewing top-tier games. But at least it was clear when this was happening, and the selection committee did a reasonable job taking the clear instances of this into account.

Now, we’re presented with the possibility that this problem is rearing it’s head in the new NET. Ostensibly, it appears Arizona has inflated it’s NET ranking through it’s challenging non-conference schedule, even if that schedule didn’t result in marquee wins. But this is a potentially more dangerous situation, as given the mystery behind the NET no one can say for certain how this element of the Wildcats’ resume played into their inflated ranking. At least the RPI, while flawed, was 100% transparent.

It’s worth keeping an eye on Arizona down the stretch to see how their NET ranking correlates with their seeding come March. If they end up with a better seed than expected, we could see a rash of new “NET hacking” coming into play next season.