There is a potentially interesting test case brewing near the top of the NCAA tournament bracket as Selection Sunday draws closer.
New Mexico ranks No. 2 in the RPI, according to CBSSports.com. The Lobos entrenched themselves in the top 10 of the metric about a month and a half ago and have remained there, rising steadily as they've pieced together a 26-4 record overall and 13-2 in the feisty and deep Mountain West.
The RPI is not the alpha and omega of the selection process, but ranking in the top five is generally a ticket to a No. 1 or No. 2 seed based on the archives over at CollegeRPI.com. And that would tend to favor New Mexico, who are a startlingly good 17-4 against the top 100 in the RPI and have lost only once to a team outside the top 50 (and that was against Summit League leader South Dakota State).
Over the last 19 seasons, there have been 95 top-five RPI teams (because 19 multiplied by five is 95). Of those, only eight did not earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and one of those (2003 Georgia) was ineligible in part because it had an assistant coach (who happened to be the head coach's son) craft an exam where a question asked how many points a 3-pointer was worth --- to a class that included basketball players.
As for how the rest of that group fared:
|Year||Team||RPI||Seed||NCAA result (lost to)
|1994||Temple||5||4||Second round (No. 5 Indiana)
|1996||Villanova||5||3||Second round (No. 6 Louisville)
|1999||Kentucky||4||5||Regional final (No. 1 Michigan St.)
||5||3||Second round (No. 6 Southern Cal)
|2005||Kansas||1||3||First round (No. 14 Bucknell)
|2007||Pittsburgh||5||3||Regional semifinals (No. 2 UCLA)
||5||3||Regional semifinals (No. 2 Florida)
Five of the seven teams received a No. 3 seed, which is probably the floor of what New Mexico is realistically going to get at this point. And five of those teams also had an RPI of 5.
But do the Lobos warrant a No. 2 seed, or even a No. 1? In my own projections over at USA Today, I've had New Mexico as a No. 3 seed (the top No. 3 seed at the moment, for what it's worth).
It can't be the work away from Albuquerque (8-3). It can't be bad losses, since there are none. It's can't be the nonconference schedule (No. 6). It can't be the top-50 record (7-3).
(It's worth noting that New Mexico'snonconference slate belongs in the pantheon of brilliant scheduling right along with 2004 Saint Joseph's. Eight of the Lobos' 15 out-of-league foes have RPIs between 50 and 150, with No. 46 Connecticut, No. 49 Cincinnati and No. 152 George Mason just outside that range. New Mexico played only one game this season against a 200+ RPI team --- No. 227 Portland).
The only logical conclusion in this self-assessment, and it isn't a particularly fun admission, is that either consciously or subconsciously, the victories over UNLV and San Diego State and Colorado State and Boise State probably aren't being weighed enough. At the same time, the Lobos' profile is bolstered considerably by all of those second 50 victories.
The guess here is New Mexico winds up as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed when Selection Sunday arrives, and that fate will depend both on their own conference tournament work and if power conference favorites wind up improving their already high stock in their league tourneys. A case can be made for either, and the Lobos probably warrant a little extra attention for their work than they've received to date.
--- Patrick Stevens