It's conference tournament time. The automatic NCAA Tournament berths are at stake. Little that has happened up to now really matters, except in the lives of college basketball's top 10 percent, those 33 out of 330 Division I teams who can fake their own deaths in the next few days and still be invited to the NCAA party.
Among the top 10 percent are a few local favorites -- the University of Cincinnati, Kentucky, Louisville and, yes, Miami.
That might sound odd, but that's the new RPI, pressed into service this year because the NCAA Tournament selection committee evidently wants to even out the playing field. For Miami, it's evening out nicely. That is, if the committee leans at all on the new RPI formula it's cooked up for this purpose.
Through March 6, basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's RPI duplication puts the Redhawks 30th, despite a 17-9 record entering the MAC Tournament. But that 17-9 includes a hefty 4-5 against the RPI top 50 and another 5-2 against the next 50, adding up to the 55th toughest schedule in the country.
If the Redhawks aren't called Sunday, when the the NCAA brackets are announced, then the new RPI is no more than show. Under the new formula, road wins and home losses count more, while home wins and road losses count less, presumably to help so-called mid-major leagues like the Mid-American Conference, of which Miami is an esteemed member.
By Pomeroy's reckoning, Miami is one of the leading beneficiaries. The Oxford five would be ranked 58th under the old system. If the old ways were in place, Miami would go dancing only by winning the MAC Tournament. Under the new ways, Miami must be a lock.
The committee has made a lot of noise in recent years, saying who you play and where is as important as how many you win.
The new RPI is supposed to reflect that. So even if Miami were to lose its MAC Tournament opener, at least 15 teams trying to angle in would have to crash the party in front of the Redhawks. One win and Miami definitely is in. That is, if the committee is seriously leaning on the new RPI.
So that's one of the bits we'll learn Sunday. Because if Miami doesn't go, regardless of how it fares in the conference tournament, then a lot of other teams shouldn't be invited either. Several teams thought to be mostly secure -- Charlotte, Texas, Stanford, Pittsburgh and Texas Tech -- were ranked below Miami in the RPI. On this card, Miami is barely a lock but a still a lock, while the others need just a little work.
It's interesting the NCAA would contrive to elevate the mid-majors, since economic forces (read: the NBA) are diminishing the so-called Big Six conferences by taking their best players early. One of the big guys always ends up winning the championship anyway, but we could be on the way back to times like UC's most glorious, when the Missouri Valley played the best basketball in college.
The only way to make the NCAA Tournament bigger, since that's all there really is to college basketball anymore, is to add more Cinderella stories. The path is parity, manufactured or otherwise. Even when a college basketball team almost runs the regular season table, as Illinois almost did this year, suspicions arise.
The Fighting Illini ate in an unusually weak Big Ten this year. The only other Big Ten teams with any kind of national profile are Michigan State and Wisconsin, both around 20th in the RPI. Illinois fans, by the perverted expectations common to college basketball, thought a loss would be good for the Illini entering the tournament, figuring they'd learn something from it.
By that reckoning, tiny Longwood University of Farmville, Va., No. 330 and dead last in the RPI, would be the best prepared team. Alas, the Lancers aren't going, 1-29 as they are with losses to UC, Illinois and Wake Forest.
Sunday's 65-64 buzzer-time loss to Ohio State at Value City Arena won't do a bit of good for Illinois, which finished the regular season 29-1. More unfortunately, it won't do any good for Ohio State, which rocketed in the RPI from 73rd to 53rd, straight to a position where a couple wins in the Big Ten Tournament would make the Buckeyes 21-12 when the suits start negotiating tournament brackets.
But the Buckeyes already are out because Ohio State University's administration, in fits of panic and self-loathing, decided to take themselves out of the mix earlier this year. Athletic department scandal, including former hoop coach Jim O'Brien's alleged $6,000 cash payment to a recruit, already has told outgoing Athletic Director Andy Geiger his time is up.
It's believed the NCAA, so proud of its self-regulating ethos, won't punish those who punish themselves. So there's always next year at Ohio State.
Where's this year? One prominent location is U.S. Bank Arena, site of this year's Atlantic-10 Tournament. Rarely does it happen that the championship in a well-regarded league's tournament means anything, but it means everything this year in the A-10, where Pomeroy reckons no team is higher than 63rd in the RPI.
In other words, no one in this group is going to the NCAA Tournament without winning the conference tournament, so all the marbles are on the line this week for the X-men and all their league brethren. We might actually see stiff competition after the quarterfinals, when it figures the true weaklings will be weeded out.
Five A-10 teams -- Fordham, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, LaSalle and Duquesne -- are ranked No. 200 or lower in the RPI. The best mark, that coveted No. 63, belongs to St. Joseph's. But only George Washington shows up anywhere in the polls, receiving one point each from the writers and the coaches.
So the Musketeers need to win all three this weekend, but it's not like they'll take on the Argentinian national team. First up Thursday, they get the winner of Massachusetts-LaSalle. The tournament won't light up a lot of TVs, but it's going to be all basketball with purpose. John Chaney won't be running goons out there, and no one in his right mind should make remarks like, "This quarterfinal win against Fordham puts GW in the Big Dance!"
It's also a nice opportunity for Xavier, young as it is, playing in its own town with a winnable path to the NCAA Tournament. An NCAA berth would be a wonderful achievement for first-year coach Sean Miller and his kids, who could come back next year with a real push.
That's next year. Luckily, though, it's also this year.