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The darkest Selection Sundays are behind us

A recent trend could lead mid-major fans to believe that they may finally get the respect they deserve.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-North Carolina vs Indiana Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NCAA Tournament expansion in 1985, mid-major conferences have endured painful heartbreak and inexplicable snubs every Selection Sunday.

Let me be the first to tell you that these days are behind us.

After a leaked bracket was released midway through CBS' two-hour selection show debacle this March, Steve Fisher and the 25-9 San Diego State Aztecs came to the realization that their tournament aspirations - despite a near-perfect Mountain West record - were all but shattered. Unfortunately for the MW, this wasn't even the most egregious snub in the last 365 days. The 2015 Colorado State Rams were handed what many consider the biggest snub in tournament history, missing the bracket in spite of a 27-6 record coupled with the 29th best RPI in the country.

Thankfully, for mid-majors across the country, the selection committee is slowly departing from its love affair with the RPI. A highly flawed statistic that has abruptly waned in importance in recent years may finally be on its way out.

The RPI is solely comprised upon three factors: 25% is based on a team’s winning percentage, 50% on the opponents’ winning percentage, and the remaining 25% on the winning percentage on the opponents’ opponents. In short, teams that stack up a loaded schedule (regardless of whether they win, lose, or get blown out) will always have a higher RPI than teams who win against lesser teams. This provides a heavy advantage to power-five teams that have the available spending money to compete in neutral site games against other powerhouses, or host up-and-coming teams in the comfort of their home arenas.

The effect on mid-majors and low-majors is substantial. Because high-major teams will want to steer clear of lesser-known teams that could pull of an upset at home, these small schools are left with no choice but to beat up on teams that will eventually finish up with dismal RPI rankings.

However, there is hope. In the past decade, we have seen a building resistance by the NCAA selection committee throw all of its eggs in the “RPI basket.” As explained by Matt Norlander on a CBS Sports NCAA podcast in March, a team that has ranked in the top 30 in KenPom (an increasingly popular analytical ranking site created by Ken Pomeroy) hasn’t missed the tournament since 2007. However, two top 30 teams in the RPI have missed the tournament in the last two seasons.

One of the biggest snubs from this past March was St. Bonaventure, a 22-win team that was firmly placed in 124 of 144 brackets on Bracket Matrix. Bonaventure’s RPI of 30 would typically be enough for a bid given a strong conference and a few signature wins, but the Bonnies had a lackluster 74th KenPom ranking, which ended up being the thorn in the side of Mark Schmidt’s squad. On the other hand, Syracuse, who most believed (at the time) did not belong in the tournament with its 72nd ranked RPI, had a significantly higher 41st ranking in KenPom, 33 spots higher than St. Bonaventure. In the end, Bonaventure was upset in the first round of the NIT and Syracuse reached the Final Four as a 10 seed.

Even well-known bracketologist Joe Lunardi - who is employed by the RPI-hungry network ESPN - was caught glancing at KenPom rankings during a segment prior to Selection Sunday.

What does this mean for the Mountain West and other mid-major hopefuls? The highly flawed RPI, which can be manipulated only by power-five teams, is becoming a thing of the past. This opens the door for stronger mid-majors to grab NCAA bids that have been traditionally given to larger schools. Strong fundamental basketball that affects offensive and defensive efficiency will be rewarded on Selection Sundays in the future, rather than coaches of teams that are able to manufacture noteworthy schedules.

Last season’s Wichita State Shockers, for example, bounced around the bubble for almost the entirety of this past season. The main knock on WSU’s resume was the lack of a signature win. Luckily for Gregg Marshall and co., Wichita State ranked as high as 10th in KenPom and Sagarin (another analytical ranking site), which made it impossible for the selection committee to keep the Shockers out of the bracket.

Will there still be questionable decisions by the selection committee every March? Of course there will. The committee has one of the toughest jobs in sports, and fans and media have always been critical of their decisions. However, because of the uptick in analytical awareness by the committee in recent years, the mid-majors may finally get the respect they deserve come Selection Sunday.