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Looking Ahead: Optimism, and case study of the RPI, at Oregon State

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. During the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what’s ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Oregon State.

In recent seasons, the NCAA men's basketball committee -- and more specifically, the NCAA tournament selection committee -- have signaled, in ways both subtle and overt, that the RPI isn't the only evaluative tool at work. Each year, the NCAA invites media members to participate in a mock selection exercise. Every year, the RPI question is asked. And every year, the NCAA insists that it has changed, that newer and vastly more respected systems (such as Ken Pomeroy's and Jeff Sagarin's and ESPN's own BPI) are now regulars, too, that the RPI is just a metric. Not the metric. Not anymore.

There is evidence to support this argument. There is also Oregon State. And the next time someone tries to tell you the RPI doesn't matter -- or hey, sure, it matters, but is it really that big of a deal? -- kindly point them in the direction of the 2015-16 Beavers.

There is no escaping the scene of optimism wafting about the Oregon State men's basketball program these days, and for good reason: In March, in just his second season on campus, coach Wayne Tinkle took Oregon State to its first NCAA tournament in 26 years. The previous summer, he landed one of the better recruiting classes in program history (including his son, Tres Tinkle). Gary Payton II, the son of a program icon, was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in both of his post-junior-college seasons in Corvallis; he's now headed to the NBA. On Tuesday, the school announced a two-year extension to Tinkle's contract, which will take him through the 2021-22 season, a deal agreed to shortly after Tinkle interviewed for the vacant Stanford job.

That tournament bid was a big deal. And hey, it's not like the Beavers snuck in. They were a No. 7 seed! That brings us back to the RPI, which doted on the Beavers in ways more accurate rankings engines never did. Tinkle's team finished the season No. 29 in the RPI; they were No. 67 in KenPom. The last time a No. 7 seed ranked that low was in 2009, when Boston College ranked No. 70. From 2010 to 2015, the average KenPom rank of the "worst" No. 7 seed was 40.8.

In Pac-12 play, the Beavers scored 1.03 points per trip. They allowed 1.05. Getting outscored across 18 games by your own league is generally considered a bad thing. But the RPI so loved Oregon State -- and the Pac-12 generally -- and so thoroughly dominates the way the committee organizes and processes its discussion, that Oregon State (and Colorado!) weren't even on the bubble. Both teams lost in the first round.

Want to know why the RPI matters? There you have it. The NCAA tournament defines a program's progress; NCAA tournament hopes are defined by the RPI. The 2015-16 Beavers were, above all, a helpful reminder of this fact.

Not that Oregon State fans will mind. If you haven't been to an NCAA tournament in nearly three decades, you don't really care about the nitty-gritty details that got you there. More importantly, the reasons for optimism -- for continued program growth under Tinkle -- are genuinely well-founded.

The coach's son, Tres, is at the top of that list. A highly sought-after recruit, he had a very promising freshman season as a stretchy scoring forward/interior defender -- No. 2 on the team to Payton in both scoring and rebounding -- before a foot injury ended his campaign prematurely. After surgery and rehab, Tres Tinkle should be back to full-contact workouts in August or September and will be a vital part of whatever the Beavers accomplish next season.

Likewise, Tinkle's classmate and fellow four-star recruit, Stephen Thompson, was thrown into big minutes and touches as a freshman. He looks capable of much more. Sophomore Drew Eubanks is a valuable piece. Gligorije Rakocevic might develop into a reliable big man, or at least a rim-protecting body. All of the above are products of the 2015 class, the one that laid the groundwork for what Wayne Tinkle could get done in Corvallis. Their best days are still ahead -- and the same might be said of seniors Malcolm Duvivier and Cheikh N'diaye. While the 2016 class isn't as splashy, it does fill key positional needs with apparently Division I-level players. This is something Oregon State hasn't always been able to say.

The task ahead will hardly be easy. The Beavers, after all, are bidding farewell to five players, including the league's two-time defensive player of the year, who also happened to be their leading scorer. That sounds bad on its face, but the primary departure -- particularly for a team that overall didn't defend that well last season -- is replacing one of the nation's most active, pressurizing turnover artistes.

The 2015-16 Beavers offered a fantastic study for bracket nerds. They were proof that the RPI's flaws -- its circular schedule-strength logic, its blindness to per-possession performance -- can still have a major impact on the course of a team's season and the trajectory of a program well after that season is over.

Yet the optimism in Oregon State shouldn't be tied to the 2016 NCAA bid alone. Tinkle already has offered many other reasons, on and off the court, to be excited.