NCAA Bracket ABCs
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It's time for the CHN's first Bracket ABCs of the new year. As in past years, this is an attempt to analyze where teams stand and what may happen to them. Analyzing where things are "if the season ended today" is a fruitless exercise, since it doesn't end today. So instead, we try to decipher the Pairwise's mysteries.
Of course, everything is in flux, and despite years of experience doing this, it's not always easy to account for every possibility in the crazy machinations of the Pairwise. Often, something occurs somewhere which has an effect down the line that was difficult to anticipate — like the old story of a butterfly flapping its wings.
Last year, in CHN's inaugural year, we accurately selected the field and the brackets for the NCAAs — although it is also our long-held belief that it's silly to take too much credit for this, since the NCAAs system is so objective, anyone can do it once they understand the ins and outs.
What we have taken credit for over the years is, first, educating the masses on how the system worked. In the early days, this included coaches themselves. Then, just as importantly, media and fans. Later, we continued to support the objective system, while also advocating for various causes and changes — including an endorsement of KRACH as a better system for ranking teams than the NCAAs flawed RPI.
The Gophers are jockeying with New Hampshire for the top overall seed. Although Minnesota is pretty secure in the top spot in KRACH, the Pairwise is more dicey. The difference between No. 1 and No. 2 is likely to be meaningless, except for potential last line change in a championship game. New Hampshire will play in the Manchester regional, and Minnesota will be in Grand Rapids. But right now, Minnesota and UNH have identical records vs. common opponents (COP), and records vs. teams under consideration (TUC), meaning the Gophers are ahead because of a slight edge in RPI.
UNH will likely need to overtake Minnesota in both TUC and COP in order to take the No. 1 seed. The TUC is subject to week-to-week fluctuation, since both teams will play mostly TUCs from herein. The COP is also subject to fluctuation, but is more precise, depending upon what happens in the conference playoffs. Both teams are 4-1 in COP — with Minnesota losing to Maine in the first game of the season, and beating CC four times. UNH swept CC as well, and is 2-1 against Maine. This will be impacted by potential conference tournament playoff games among the foursome.
2. New Hampshire
3. Notre Dame
The Irish could flip ahead of New Hampshire, thanks to early-season wins over Providence and Boston College. In COP, Notre Dame is 3-1, thanks to a loss to Western Michigan, while UNH is 3-0. But UNH plays BC in the last weekend of the season, and if it loses both or gets only a point, it will lose the COP to Notre Dame and lose the comparison.
Again, the effect here would be minimal, since Notre Dame is likely to wound up as the No. 1 seed in Rochester, no matter what. If surpassed by St. Cloud State again, Notre Dame would still go to Rochester, since then the Huskies would go to Denver. The only way this apple cart is upset is if Clarkson manages a No. 1 seed.
4. St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State is almost assured a No. 1 seed thanks to a pair of wins over Clarkson, and its superior comparison with Boston University. It would take a complete meltdown not to get it. The only COP with BU is Vermont, and so the Huskies are 1-0 in the COP and will not play another team BU has played or will play.
Clarkson's best hope of a No. 1 seed is to surpass Notre Dame, but even that is difficult to foresee. But so long as Clarkson plays in Rochester, it will probably be happy. Thing is, this is no longer guaranteed by geography after the No. 1 seeds — at least, that's not the way the committee has done things since going to 16 teams. The committee has essentially foresaken geography entirely once getting past the top four seeds, instead trying to match things up in a serpentine order, i.e. 1-16-8-9, 2-15-7-10, etc... This means that in order to play in Rochester, Clarkson would have to be matched up, theoretically, with Notre Dame (based on the above). That means Clarkson is subject to the whims of where the Irish wind up.
This is one of the problems many of us have with the strict adherence to the serpentine order. While it makes things clean and less subjective, there should be wiggle room for the committee. If the Golden Knights finished No. 5 overall, for example, and are thus the top No. 2 seed, some thought should be given to them getting preference for where they would like to be. If that means that No. 5 overall (Clarkson) is matched with the No. 3 overall (Notre Dame) instead of 5-4, then so be it.
6. Boston University
Looking like a solid No. 2 seed right now, and like Clarkson, where it winds up will be subjected to the whims of the top seeds.
7-12. Maine, Miami, BC, Michigan, Denver, North Dakota
This is an amorphous middle ground right now. Because it's still early, and because where teams wind up are as dependent on where the top seeds go as anything else, it's tough to say anything beyond the fact that these teams are looking pretty good for the NCAAs. It would take a lot to keep them out, and whether it's as No. 2 seeds or No. 3 seeds, and what the matchups will be, that's very much up in the air. Denver, of course, will definitely get to play in the Denver regional.
13. Michigan State
The Spartans currently lead the comparison with CC, 3-0, but it has a very precarious hold on each of those three criteria. Michigan State's next few games will likely not be against TUCs, which means CC will get the opportunity, with some wins, to move past MSU. Conversely, the Spartans won't necessarily hurt themselves with a couple stumbles. But if Vermont, St. Lawrence and/or Cornell get hot, and especially if any of them win their conference tournament (which is very possible) then MSU could be in danger. At the same time, Michigan State has very little opportunity to gain ground on teams above it.
14. Colorado College
Unlike Michigan State, CC has a strong chance to get up to 12 without too much effort, especially if it can defeat North Dakota in the WCHA playoffs. Looking downward, though, Cornell and St. Lawrence can both flip comparisons if they defeat TUCs in the ECAC playoffs, while CC loses to a TUC. Against Vermont, CC is more secure because of Vermont's difficulties against WCHA teams this year. Also, if St. Lawrence or Cornell win the ECAC tournament (or someone other than Clarkson) the 14th slot will go to that champion and not to whatever team is No. 14 in the Pairwise.
The Catamounts' upward mobility is limited. A disaster this weekend at BU could spell the end of the Cats' at-large hopes. A sweep in Agganis would be a big boost, but still probably not enough without a sweep in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. The Catamounts last made the NCAAs in 1997, and went to the Frozen Four in 1996.
16. St. Lawrence
The best bet, obviously, for the ECAC leaders is to win the ECAC tournament, which is certainly very possible. The Saints' last trip to the NCAAs was 2001, and it was in the Frozen Four in 2000. Otherwise, we see the quirks of the Pairwise, with St. Lawrence getting comparison wins over Boston College and Vermont, largely on the strength of having beaten Boston University on a penalty shot in overtime earlier this season. That keeps the Saints within sniffing distance.
The team that has lost — on the road, essentially — in overtime each of the last two seasons in the regional final, is back with a younger team, looking to sneak into the tournament. That will be exceedingly difficult without winning the ECACs. But the Big Red do have a chance to make life miserable for the teams right above them at the moment — St. Lawrence, Vermont and CC.
The Badgers' record vs. TUCs is a major factor in keeping them down, and it's probably too much ground to make up.
19-20. Michigan Tech, Massachusetts
These teams are not far from flipping some interesting comparisons, but probably not capable of flipping enough to make up the ground necessary for an at-large bid. Will be interesting to keep an eye on, though, if either gets hot.