On Monday evening, I went straight from first word about the brackets for the NCAA men’s soccer tournament to the most recent RPI ranking. I carried a question in my mind: If the University of Akron Zips went from No. 2 in the ranking (a more objective rating system) to the fifth seed in the tournament, what happened to the other seeds?
What did I find? The selection committee likes the Big East, and understandably so. The conference has four schools in the RPI top 10, with Notre Dame at No. 1. The committee placed five Big East schools in the top 10 seeds of the tournament. No doubt, the teams face rugged conference play. In all, eight Big East schools made the 48-team tournament.
Now look closely. Of the five seeded Big East schools, each improved its position, its seeding higher than its RPI ranking. (That is, except for Notre Dame, which had no room to go higher.) Georgetown moved up one spot. So did Marquette. Louisville leaped ahead three, along with Connecticut.
And while all those Big East teams were receiving attaboys from the committee? Somebody had to give way, and the most conspicuous fall was pinned on the Zips, dropping three spots.
Much of that reflects the weakness of the Mid-American Conference, West Virginia, the next highest school at 57 in the RPI ranking. Yet Akron made a point of playing the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. The Zips went 5-0 against the Big Ten. What Coach Caleb Porter and his team had in mind is positioning themselves to gain one of the top four seeds in the tournament, ensuring home-field advantage through the quarterfinals.
So the difference between the fourth seed and the fifth seed is significant. If they meet in the quarterfinals, they play on the home field of the higher seed. And which school is seeded fourth? Connecticut — after vaulting those three places as Akron fell. Connecticut gained the advantage. Logic, and my rooting interest in the Zips, suggest a shift of two places would have been sufficient, UA in the fourth spot.
The difference-maker? Akron at No. 1 in the coaches poll. Connecticut at seventh.
Ideally, the tournament selections would have been left to Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, say, sometime in late October. For their part, Porter and his players handled the news well, the coach relaying his appropriate shock and then moving forward. There are few more effective motivational tools than having something to prove.
I confess that my acute obsession with the RPI ranking reflected no small amount of self-interest. Of my many years watching assorted games and matches, few have been as enjoyable (or as absorbing) as the controlled daring of Porter’s teams. Soon the coach heads to Portland to lead the Timbers of Major League Soccer. I wanted a greater probability of seeing three more home games.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor