Between the Lines: Feb. 25, 2005
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The surest sign that there's six more weeks of winter is not when the groundhog comes out of the ground and sees his shadow, it's when the Pairwise ignorant start coming out of the woodwork to complain about the selection process.
We all must admit that things are far better than they used to be. Specifically, at least it's not the coaches themselves who are complaining anymore. It seems as though the hockey community at large is completely up to speed and on board with the Pairwise Rankings. It's a beautiful thing.
But there are still those out there who have no idea how it works.
There is a lot of room to criticize the Pairwise Rankings and the selection process. Believe me, I've done it plenty. But if you criticize it, you should do so from a position of knowledge, and debate the right points.
The Pairwise is still a good system. It's objective, which doesn't necessarily make it better than a subjective committee-picked system, but it does make it transparent — everyone knows, generally, what they have to do to make the tournament and where they stand. So that makes it better right off the bat.
And, for example, the rankings of Cornell and Minnesota — two that are regularly criticized — are completely appropriate. Cornell is highly ranked (6) because of the best winning percentage in the country, with a mediocre strength of schedule. Minnesota is there (4) despite playing mediocre for over a month, but with the best strength of schedule in the country.
However, this year, when you look at the Pairwise, you do see some things that stand out — such as Wisconsin being so low at around 11 (with the RPI "good-win" bonus factored in) and Dartmouth around 14 and in line for a spot. And these anomalies point out some of the flaws in the Pairwise that make it less than perfect system.
The whole idea of Pairwise Rankings and other ranking systems is to adjust a team's record for their strength of schedule, since everyone doesn't play the same slate. The question is, how effectively does it do this?
The Pairwise has RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) as a component, which factors in the records of opponents and opponent's opponents. The Pairwise further takes into account records against good teams (Teams Under Consideration), and record against common opponents. It compares every team against every other, and ranks the teams by how many of those comparisons are won.
The problems are multi-faceted, but lie most specifically in two areas.
Teams Under Consideration are defined as any team with an RPI of .500 or better. As a result, the TUC criteria is won or lost depending on which opponents qualify as TUCs. The problem here is that not all TUCs are created equal. Some are barely a TUC, some are Top 5 teams. Also, the cutoff is arbitrary. If a team has a .500 RPI, then games against that team count in your TUC criteria. If that team has a .4999 RPI, games don't count. When you consider RPI is arbitrary to begin with, it compounds the problem.
The problem with RPI is legendary. Essentially, the RPI was concocted without any basis in meaningful mathematics. The fact that it does an OK job is more a case of never-ending tinkering than anything real.
As a result, the Pairwise is prone to anomolies. Again, this usually comes out in the wash in the end, but this year, the Wisconsin and Dartmouth issues stand out. And if you look closely at the criteria between those two teams in particular — which Dartmouth wins — you'll see why.
If two teams didn't play that season head-to-head, you're basically down to three criteria. Wisconsin will beat Dartmouth on the RPI. But on common opponents, the difference comes down to Wisconsin tying Yale, while Dartmouth beat them twice. That criteria goes to Dartmouth. Not much to go on. Then the TUC criteria: Dartmouth barely wins. Why? Because Dartmouth's strength of schedule within the TUC criteria is not as strong as Wisconsin's. Plus, Wisconsin loses some wins from its record vs. TUC criteria every time Alaska-Anchorage bounces out as a TUC. If UAA pops back in, Wisconsin shoots upward.
You can see how this arbitrary TUC level is wreaking havoc with with Wisconsin, and explains why they keep bouncing up and down.
The point is that Dartmouth benefits from some PWR quirks while Wisconsin gets hurt.
The solution to all of this is to use a system that better represents strength of schedule, and therefore doesn't need to take anything else into consideration. That system continues to be KRACH, something we've touted here now for years. It's mathematically pure, and it works.
In that, Wisconsin is third instead of 11th, and Dartmouth is 26th instead of 14th.
And this no offense to Dartmouth, by the way, a team I like and hope makes its first NCAA appearance since 1980.
As we said, the PWR usually works fairly well. But every now and then these anomolies point out its flaws. So why not just go to the best system that's tried and true?
By the way, the KRACH also validates Cornell's PWR rank (6 PWR, 7 KRACH), and Minnesota's (4 in each).
The beauty of KRACH, and why it bears out these rankings, is that it clearly shows why a team is ranked where it is. The fact of the matter is, if Minnesota is losing to teams that are ranked highly, then it's not going to drop them. They are expected to lose to teams that are ranked above them — i.e. Wisconsin, CC and Denver.
Is there anyone that can help Phil Kessel make up his mind? The poor kid tried to delay making a college decision because he didn't want to get caught up in it during his season with the U.S. Under-18 team, and meanwhile, the frenzy has been non-stop for months as everyone tries to follow the saga and guess what he's going to do.
The scouts are calling him the best American-born skater in a long time, and think he could be a No. 1 overall pick in 2006 (if there's ever a draft again). And he's reiterated a number of times that he wants to play college hockey. But he's put off making up his mind — though the consensus seems to be that the choices are basically up to Minnesota and Wisconsin, with Michigan and BU possibly in the mix.
Word is, he'll make a choice in the next couple of weeks. In a way, this hoopla is great for college hockey. When ever has anyone been this interested in someone's college election? It doesn't happen in college hockey. It's likely he'll only stay a year or two, but what the heck. He's been described as a happy-go-lucky, carefree kid, and he may just feel like he has better things to worry about. But, c'mon Phil. It's time. We're waiting.
Dog (Cat/Eagle/Bear/Hawk) Fight
What a time in Hockey East, with three teams at the top separated by three points, and the best team in the conference may be in fifth place — Massachusetts-Lowell. Coming off a home-and-home sweep of Boston College, the River Hawks are, can we say, dominant right now. Yes, it's true that Boston College was missing some key players — again — including defenseman Andrew Alberts. And on that score, we're willing to give BC a little break. But the sweep is impressive for Lowell nonetheless, which continues to get huge contributions from junior Ben Walter — who should be a Hobey finalist — and freshman goalie Peter Vetri. It's too late for Lowell to crack the top three, but it does have a chance to surpass Maine for fourth and get home ice in the playoffs — though does anyone doubt at this point that Lowell could go up to Orono and win a couple games if need be? We'll find out, somewhat, this weekend.
Meanwhile, it looked like the real trick was going to be for the "big four" to avoid fourth place and having to play Lowell, but it seems as though Maine has already cemented that. On the other hand, now we might have to say the same thing about third place, because Northeastern is playing decent hockey right now and could be a pain in the neck for BU, BC or UNH.
UNH is the oddball this year. The Wildcats really haven't fared that great against top opposition this year, but meanwhile find themselves in first place. They do have a lot of reason to be optimistic, though, because the defense, while still not spectacular, is no longer a sieve, and freshman goalie Kevin Regan has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender.
Which brings up another point ... the young goalies in Hockey East. Vetri at Lowell, Regan at UNH, John Curry (though really a sophomore) at BU, Cory Schneider at BC. Throw in freshman Joe Fallon for incoming Vermont, and you're looking at quite the sophomore group next year in the league.
Whenever anyone passes away, it's an emotional moment to those who knew the person. So this isn't to minimize anyone else, or to say that somehow the passing of someone I knew tangentially from the hockey community is any more important than anyone else. That said, when I heard about the horrific accident that caused the death of 53-year old Gloria Halpern, I was extremely shook up. And this is my way to acknowledge it.
You may have heard about the accident in Florida, where a truck hit a car and killed three people. One was Halpern, the mother of former Princeton star and current Washington Capital Jeff Halpern. While I was broadcasting Princeton games, Halpern was there and I got to know his family fairly well. Gloria Halpern, and her husband Mel, were two of the nicest people you would ever want to meet on this Earth. They were like surrogate family to me on the road. I spoke to them much more than I spoke to Jeff, and kept in contact over the years, mainly through e-mail. I'd since learned of the work Gloria did in the Washington community. She lost her brother and sister-in-law as well, two prominent members of the Cherry Hill, N.J., community, and people I'd also met before.
My thoughts are with the Halpern family as they struggle to get through this.
There was lots of hoopla this week with the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic team's 1980 gold-medal win and triumph over the Soviet Union. Former BU defenseman Jack O'Callahan, a member of the 1980 team, summed up the irony, however, when noting how it came right at the time when the NHL was cancelling its season (twice). Yes, the event responsible for the explosion in interest in American hockey being honored at a time when the NHL is possibly writing its own death certificate — thus harming the growth of American hockey immeasureably.
All of a sudden, there's been a bevy of stories about plans for outdoor games. Everyone seemed to perk up all of a sudden when it became known that Detroit's Ford Field was considering a bid for a Frozen Four. Next thing you know, plans are being made for Wisconsin to play at Lambeau Field, BU-BC to play at Fenway Park, and Minnesota at the Metrodome (OK, not exactly outdoors).
ESPN's NCAA tournament selection show will air Sunday, March 20 at 11 a.m. This is a major switch from past years, when it aired around dinner time. With the way the selections are fairly cut and dried, this shouldn't be an issue, except perhaps for those of us wishing to be at the ECAC tournament final and Bristol at the same time.