During the state basketball tournaments last March, Glacier Peak girls coach Brian Hill and the coaches of several other top programs discussed the idea of scheduling non-league games against each other this season.
Those conversations ultimately sparked the creation of a holiday tournament in Spokane Valley later this month that’s loaded with elite programs. The eight-team field features seven teams that reached the Tacoma Dome last season, including five of the top six placers in the Class 4A state bracket.
For many coaches of top programs, scheduling difficult non-league competition is nothing new. By facing a challenging non-league slate, teams can gain experience that prepares them for postseason play come February and March.
But ever since the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association implemented the Ratings Percentage Index basketball rankings prior to last season, there’s been added incentive for teams with state-tournament aspirations to beef up their strength of schedule.
“We know playing each other is only going to help us in the very end, (and) not just skill-wise,” Hill said of the Spokane Valley tournament. “We should hopefully all have decent records, (so) playing each other helps the RPI part.”
“You’re out looking for the best opponents you can (find) to try to help out your RPI,” added Stanwood girls coach Dennis Kloke, whose team also is heading east for the Spokane Valley tournament.
“That’s why we set up the (non-league) schedule that we have this year. All of them are pretty good teams, so they should help our RPI.”
Implemented in September 2016, the RPI rankings were created to more accurately seed teams for the state tournaments.
Teams can still only reach state by qualifying through their district tournaments. But the 16 teams that qualify in each classification are now seeded based on the RPI rankings, as opposed to the draw system of years past.
Under the RPI format, there’s considerable benefit to being one of the top eight seeds.
Seeds 1-8 play non-elimination games in the state regional round, meaning they are guaranteed a trip to their classification’s domed championship venue — the Tacoma Dome for 4A and 3A — as one of the final 12 teams in the bracket. Seeds 9-16, meanwhile, must win a loser-out state regional game to reach the championship venue.
Furthermore, seeds 1-8 can earn a bye into the state quarterfinals with a victory in the state regional round.
“If you’re one of those top eight — win or lose — you get to go to the dome,” Kloke said. “That’s how important that top-eight (seed) is.”
The RPI formula is computed using a 25 percent weight for winning percentage, 50 percent weight for opponents’ winning percentage and 25 percent weight for the winning percentage of opponents’ opponents.
Because opponents’ winning percentage accounts for half of the formula, teams with state-tournament aspirations are placing a priority on scheduling strong non-league opponents to boost their RPI.
“You definitely want to give yourself as strong of an out-of-conference schedule as you can,” Glacier Peak boys coach Brian Hunter said.
“You’ve got to do your due diligence,” Lake Stevens girls coach Randy Edens added. “It’s that important.”
And because opponents’ winning percentage is given twice as much weight as a team’s own winning percentage, even a loss to a top team is often more beneficial in the RPI rankings than a win over a lower-caliber team.
“Playing against good teams and losing is almost better than playing against a bad team and winning,” Hill said.
Multiple local coaches pointed to instances where their teams have moved up in the RPI rankings immediately after losing to a team with a strong win-loss record.
“Whether you win or lose the game, it’s going to help you if (the opponent is) a good team record-wise,” said Snohomish girls coach Ken Roberts, who serves on the WIAA’s RPI Committee.
“Win or lose, you want to (schedule) as strong as you can,” Edens added. “And obviously if you can win one of those games, it’s almost like a double-bonus.”
Yet as some coaches pointed out, creating a challenging non-league schedule is sometimes easier said than done. For instance, opponents can vary greatly in talent level from season to season.
“It’s really tough to know if you’re putting yourself in a good position, or if it’s just kind of luck of the draw sometimes,” Hunter said.
Also, the implementation of the RPI rankings wasn’t announced until two months prior to last season — after most teams had already finalized their schedules. And with last season being the first of a two-year scheduling cycle, many teams already were more or less committed to playing opponents for two seasons.
With next season marking the beginning of a new cycle, teams likely will have more flexibility to schedule top opponents in an effort to improve their RPI.
“I think going forward you’re going to see that more and more, where teams are trying to position themselves against opponents that will potentially help their RPI,” Hunter said.
Roberts and Stanwood boys coach Zach Ward, who both already had a tendency to compile tough non-league schedules, said the RPI system hasn’t affected their scheduling strategy.
“I’ve always tried to challenge (my team) with non-league games and put together the most challenging schedule I could anyway,” Ward said. “And so it really hasn’t changed my thought on scheduling.”
Some coaches said the RPI rankings have impacted their approach to non-league games.
Prior to the RPI rankings, non-league contests carried no postseason implications. They counted toward a team’s overall win-loss record, but had no impact beyond that.
But now, given that overall winning percentage is factored into the RPI rankings, every game counts.
“We used to play 10 kids or 12 kids early in the season and kind of let kids play themselves into positions to see who’s where,” Roberts said. “We don’t have as much time to do that now, because each of those (non-league) games are so important.
“The first game of the year has just as much RPI impact as the district championship.”
However, since RPI is only used for state-tournament seeding, the increased significance of non-league games only applies to teams with realistic state-tournament aspirations.
“The RPI is not going to matter for teams that aren’t going to qualify for state,” Roberts said.
Even for state hopefuls, RPI ultimately means nothing if a team fails to qualify for state through its district tournament. Last season, the Bothell girls team was ranked No. 1 in the final 4A RPI rankings, but missed state after being upset in district.
“No matter what your ranking is, you don’t get to go to Tacoma unless you win the right games,” Hill said.
Nevertheless, the RPI rankings have added significance to non-league contests and incentivized top teams to schedule challenging opponents.
“You’re going to find some non-league games that are really big now,” Hill said, “because people are trying to get better and boost their RPI at the same time.”