Will garbage time ever be the same?
Men's college basketball coaches are adjusting this winter to the NET rankings, which will help the NCAA tournament selection committee stock its 68-team field in March. The NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) has replaced the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) standings, which were established in 1981, and it includes offensive and defensive efficiency metrics throughout an entire game.
"You've got to be somewhat aware of it, because it does become a factor, especially if a game has been decided," Florida's Mike White said on a recent conference call of Southeastern Conference coaches. "Whether you're about to take a 'W' or an 'L,' with your last few possessions both offensively and defensively, you've got to finish as strong as possible because every possession counts.
"The rules are what they are, and they're going to evaluate what they evaluate."
Overall winning percentage, strength of schedule and the location of wins and losses are factored into the NET formula as well, as is scoring margin up to 10 points. Yet with offensive and defensive efficiencies being tracked for the full 40 minutes, the handling of the game's waning moments has taken on added interest.
It sounds ridiculous, but imagine a team getting left out of the NCAA field and a coach claiming it was due to him letting a deserving 5-foot-10 walk-on fire up a couple of unsuccessful 3-pointers during the final minute of a December blowout of Little Brother State.
"When the rankings first came out, I think there was some confusion, because we all thought that 10 was the cap and that it didn't really matter," Vanderbilt's Bryce Drew said. "With the efficiencies coming in, obviously if you win by 30 or 40, your efficiency is probably going to be better than if you win by 15, but we've told our team that we're never going to try to run up the score.
"We're going to play the game as hard as we can, but there is obviously something in the system that the more you win by, the more your efficiency goes up and helps your NET ranking."
The NET has been mostly welcomed by SEC coaches, with Alabama's Avery Johnson claiming the metrics reflect what he and his staff discuss with their players in an effort to improve on each end of the floor.
Mike Anderson of Arkansas admitted he hasn't delved into the formula, saying, "We're just trying to win games. Sometimes you can get too smart."
Coaches expect tweaks to the NET, with South Carolina's Frank Martin hoping strength of schedule will carry far more weight than the efficiencies. Martin took the Gamecocks to the NCAA Final Four in 2017, but his team is 7-7 so far this season, having played consecutive games last month against Michigan, Virginia and Clemson.
"Teams that play average teams are going to have better numbers than they actually are," Martin said, "and teams that play Virginia, Clemson and Michigan will have numbers that aren't going to be nearly as good. Metrics should be a source of reference. They shouldn't be something that you live by.
"Computers don't understand opponents. Our offensive and defensive efficiency numbers against the three worst teams we've played — I am willing to bet you they look pretty good."
The SEC had 12 of its 14 members in the top 100 of the NET rankings as of Thursday, with Tennessee leading the way at No. 5 and followed by Kentucky (No. 11), LSU (No. 22), Auburn (No. 23), Ole Miss (No. 29), Mississippi State (No. 33), Florida (No. 38), Alabama (No. 53), Georgia (No. 70), Vanderbilt (No. 71), Missouri (No. 74) and Arkansas (No. 87).
Texas A&M was just outside at No. 105, with South Carolina at No. 152.
Playing league games alone could benefit SEC teams in the weeks ahead, given that the conference had eight NCAA tournament participants last year. How several of these games end will be followed with more interest by the coaches, both close calls and blowouts alike.
"Efficiency is important," Drew said, "but at no point do you want to make college basketball where you're running up scores or trying to increase your efficiency to get tournament bids. That's not good for the game."
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