ECAC Playoff Madness
Of Parity, Drama and Infinite Loops
by John Whelan/Special to CHN
Leave it to the ECAC to once again cause odd looks and fits when figuring out its final seedings. The league that always seems to have a lot of teams bunched up, requiring the denizens of its hallowed institutions to get out their trusty slide rules (or CGI scripts) to figure out postseason possibilities in the closing weekends, came through again with ties for fourth, sixth and a three-way tie for eighth. And in many cases, one set of ties couldn't be deciphered until another set was broken.
Thus, after talking about it for years, it finally happened, much to our masochistic glee. The ECAC had to use its "infinite loop fix" to break the fourth-place tie between Cornell and Quinnipiac (which went down to record vs. the top eight) and the eighth-place tie among Colgate, RPI, and Yale (which went down to record vs. the top four):
Turning to the human rather than computer explanation:
Cornell and Quinnipiac tied for fourth. Head-to-head is a wash. So, on to the Record vs. Top 4 tiebreaker. Each team had 3 points vs. the top three (leaving out the pair tied for fourth). On to the Record vs. Top 8 tiebreaker. Uh Oh! Colgate, RPI and Yale tied for eighth, so that tie has to be broken first in order to help break the Cornell-Quinnipiac tie.
Colgate, RPI and Yale each split their season series with each other, so they had 4 points each head-to-head. On to record vs top 4. Uh Oh! Cornell and Quinnipiac are still tied for fourth. Doh!
Believe it or not, the ECAC actually spelled out a couple of years ago how to handle this infinite loop. The first step is to do the best you can in defining Record vs. Top 4 for the eighth-place tie. For that purpose we expand "top 4" temporarily to include everyone tied for 4th place as well, i.e., the top three plus Cornell and Quinnipiac. Colgate and RPI have 5 points against the top 5, but Yale only has 3. So Yale gets 10th place.
We've broken a tie, so we start over, with Cornell/Quinnipiac still tied for 4th and Colgate/RPI still tied for 8th. Cornell/Q still needs the top 8, and Colgate and RPI split their series head-to-head, so they need the top 4, and we're back in the infinite loop. Doh!
Okay, we know from before that Colgate and RPI each have 5 points vs. the top 5. So the next step is to compare Cornell and Quinnipiac's records versus the "expanded top 8," i.e., the top seven plus Colgate and RPI. Cornell has 16 points, Quinnipiac 14, so Cornell wins the tiebreaker and gets fourth place.
Got all that?
With the fourth-place tie broken, we can start over on Colgate and RPI; against the actual top four, which we now know to be Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Dartmouth and Cornell. Colgate has 5 points and RPI 3. So Colgate gets eighth.
With the top 4 and top 8 sorted out, it's straightforward to break the 6th-place tie between Harvard and Princeton.
One amusing note: If Cornell had beaten or tied Harvard, rather than losing Saturday, the order of the top seven teams in the standings would have been the same (Cornell would have finished alone in fourth rather than winning the tiebreaker with Quinnipiac, and Harvard would have finished alone in seventh, instead of losing the tiebreaker to Princeton), but the three-way tie for eighth would have been broken
That's because the actual top four would have been available to break the tie; Colgate would still have taken eighth with 5 points against the top four, but Yale and RPI have the same number of points (3) against the top four, and Yale has more points than RPI against the top 8 (13 vs 9).
But because Cornell and Quinnipiac were still tied for fourth (pending determination of the top eight) when the tiebreaker was applied, it was record vs. the top five that mattered, and RPI's split with Quinnipiac improved it to 5 points against the top five, even with Colgate, dropping Yale to 10th place.
So the outcome of the Cornell-Harvard game, while it didn't change the final makeup of the top 4 or top 8, changed the outcome of the RPI-Yale tiebreaker, switching ninth and 10th place. But only because they were part of a tie for eighth that triggered the infinite loop tiebreaker.