The Day After ... Reaction to the NCAA Pairings
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
For the first time since the inception of the 12-team bracket in 1988, the Division I NCAA tournament has a strict regionalized arrangement.
Years ago, college hockey put in a series of bracketing rules in order to get away from regionalization, mandating, for example, that the bottom two seeds in each region should flip-flop with each other.
The playing field changed, however, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedies. This year, the directive came down from the NCAA Championships and Competition Cabinet to avoid air travel if possible. Any team within 400 miles of a regional site must stay in that region and travel by bus. Every Eastern team is within 400 miles of Worcester, Mass., site of the East Regional.
The result: Six Eastern teams, including three automatic bids, all staying in Worcester; and six Western teams, including four that will fly anyway, all in the West Region in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Ultimately, it means the tournament's bottom three seeds are in the East bracket, which, most agree, creates an undesirable imbalance.
"I agree with that," said Jack McDonald, chair of the NCAA Division I men's ice hockey committee, and athletic director at Quinnipiac. "I'm not saying we like it, but with the parameters that were given to us, it worked out. The only leeway we had was in the top four [seeds]. Or if Harvard was not in, then someone from the west would've had to go east."
A simple switch of either Quinnipiac or Harvard to the West, with Colorado College (a team that's already flying) coming East, could have resolved most of the problem. But, again, the committee said it did what it was told.
"It was re-affirmed after the fall sports were done," said McDonald.
Now, had Michigan State won the CCHA championship, it would have received a bye over BU, meaning one Western bye team would have had to go East, and a bottom East team would have flown West.
One otherwise likely candidate to go East was St. Cloud State.
"My only official comment is that we're happy to be in the tournament and we're excited to be playing Michigan again on Friday night," Huskies coach Craig Dahl told the St. Cloud Times.
The team most negatively affected — at least on paper — is Michigan State (27-8-5), the No. 3 seed in the West. It has to face Colorado College (26-12-3), No. 9 in the Pairwise, in the first round, as opposed to Harvard or Quinnipiac, which would have been the opponent under past years' guidelines.
Cornell (24-7-2) winds up as a beneficiary — again, on paper. The Big Red was the last at-large team to make the field, and will play MAAC champion Quinnipiac in the first round. Nevertheless, if Cornell wins, the "reward" is facing No. 1 New Hampshire (29-6-3).
"We're happy to be in the tournament," said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. "Obviously Quinnipiac is a good matchup. When you look at it, things could've been worse. ... We could have had to play Michigan in their building.
"But the bottom line is, whoever you play, you gotta play. People thought Michigan would have an easy time with Mercyhurst [in 2001]. But it didn't happen. It's a one-game format and anything can happen. Our guys already know what happened last year [with Mercyhurst].
"We just have to worry about ourselves."
Quinnipiac is making its first NCAA appearance after defeating Mercyhurst in the MAAC tournament final.
"We're obviously excited to go to the NCAA tournament," said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. "It's an added bonus we're a five seed above Harvard. I certainly didn't expect that.
"Cornell has a storied program going back to the days of Ken Dryden. They're a top-10 team in the nation and I don't think they are, or there was going to be, an easy draw for us. You can analyze it up and down about who you want to play and not want to play. We were going to have to play a top-10 team no matter what."
Quinnipiac and Cornell met last year, and tied.
"We haven't seen them this year ... but they're a much better hockey team this year than last year," Pecknold said.
No. 3-seeded Maine (23-10-7) missed out on a bye to Boston University (25-9-3), despite defeating the Terriers in the Hockey East semifinals.
"I kind of expected it after I saw the PairWise and I know that the committee goes pretty much with those PairWise Rankings," said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. "Obviously, we would have loved to have that bye after stealing the five out of six points from BU over the last three weeks. But it's a full season you have to look at so we were not surprised by the seeds. BU's earned that opportunity."
Maine gets Harvard (15-14-4), because of the Crimson's improbable ECAC tournament run. Otherwise, Alaska-Fairbanks was the likely opponent for the Black Bears. If Maine wins, it would mean another meeting with BU, whereas, in the past, that rematch would likely have been avoided by flip-flopping seeds.
"We're excited to be in the East. That was the big thing we worked very hard for," Whitehead said. "As far as the matchups, we know we have our hands full with Harvard because they're playing very well right now. If we're fortunate to get past Harvard, we know it's a tough challenge the next night."
The other major gripe has nothing to do with the regional philosophy: No. 1 seed Denver (32-7-1) may have to face No. 4 seed Michigan (26-10-5), winner of the CCHA tournament title, in the Wolverines' own building in the second round.
"If you can fault us for anything, it's Denver perhaps having to play at Michigan," said McDonald. "We struggled with that. But there's not much we could do. We need more schools to put in bids [to host]."
Denver, the WCHA tournament and regular-season champions, awaits the winner of Michigan and No. 5 St. Cloud. Minnesota (29-8-4), the No. 2 seed in the West, will face the Michigan State-Colorado College winner.
"No question that Michigan has the home-ice advantage in Ann Arbor, but as I told our team and anybody who would listen [Saturday] night, we have trained and prepared for this for the last year or so," DU coach George Gwozdecky told the Denver Post. "This team is ready, prepared and excited, and no matter who we'll play, we're looking forward to that opportunity."
"I think we proved last weekend, after walking into Minnesota and beating them in front of 18,000 people [in the WCHA final], that will have the ability to overcome whatever we have to go through in Ann Arbor," DU goalie Wade Dubielewicz told the Post.
Still, with men's basketball teams traveling all over the country for the NCAA tournament, there remains a lack of explanation why college hockey and other sports were forced to be so strict with their brackets.
"I can't speak to the comparative," McDonald said. "Our field hockey team [at Quinnipiac] had to fly to Cal-Berkeley for a play-in game [in the fall]. ... We have to rely on the NCAA for what are we doing."
Despite the potential controversies, McDonald is putting a positive outlook on the situation.
"For the first time in history, there will be three sellouts [both regionals and the Frozen Four]," said McDonald. "The sport is growing, but what regionalization does is maximize the fan interest at each regional.
"It's a good bracket. We're pleased and I think in the midst of all that's gone on in the world, the regionalization for this year is going to ensure safety and, hopefully, sellouts."
Jim Connelly also contributed to this article.