Q&A With Committee Chair Marty Scarano, Part II
by Jim Love/Special to CHN
(Also see Part I of this Q&A)
Marty Scarano is the current chair of the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee. Among its many functions is selecting the teams for the NCAA tournament, a process that is largely objective, in that it's based upon a system that has come to be popularly-known as "The Pairwise." Though the system is objective, it does leave open many interesting topics of discussion, many of which are covered here.
Portions of this article first appeared in BLUElines, the newsletter of the Friends of UNH Hockey, and are reprinted here with permission.
JL: The women's hockey RPI had its weights changed over the summer as well, to values similar to those adopted by the men [NOTE: 35-50-15 changed to 30-24-46]. Is this part of a more comprehensive plan to standardize the ranking systems for both the men and women?
MS: No, not at all. For several years my office was just down the hall from Steve Metcalf, the chair of the Women's Division I Ice Hockey Committee. He's off the committee now, but even though we had offices in the same building we talked very little about issues affecting our respective sports. The women do things quite a bit differently than the men; there's this firewall between the Committees, and other than getting together at the National Meeting to share ideas — since we've been doing it longer — we don't have a lot of contact with each other.
JL: Let's talk a bit now about how these recent changes to the RPI weights, etc. might impact the sport. ... A perhaps unintended consequence of the new RPI weighting scheme is that teams will now be judged on the strength of their opponents' schedules (54 percent) more than their own record plus their own strength of schedule combined (46 percent). Over half of the RPI will now be based on games which a team has absolutely no control over and plays no part in. Rather than playing and beating quality non-conference opponents, teams will now be better off playing and beating opponents who simply have a quality schedule, even if the opponents themselves are a terrible team. Is that really the way to go?
MS: We think so. Our intent in doing this was to level off the relative top to bottom strength of the various leagues, and to make them more comparable. A persistent concern has been that wins by a lower-tier team vs. the better teams in its own league didn't always affect the RPI the same way; it varied between the weaker and stronger conferences. We wanted to standardize that effect if we could, and the statistician we use ran thousands of different scenarios with different ratios to try and achieve that goal. I don't know if you realize that even though the numbers stretch out to infinity, the overall change is rather minuscule. We took the existing system and lined it up against the new one with the changed percentages, and of the 16 teams in last years field, all that changed was that two adjacent teams swapped positions. Bottom Line: even though the percentage change to the RPI ratio looks really radical, it won't make too much difference. But philosophically we feel this new ratio does a better job of accounting for the whole body of work of every team, regardless of what league they're in.
JL: From a scheduling standpoint, it's clear that these new RPI weights tip the balance towards the 'Big 4' conferences. For Hockey East schools like UNH, schedules that avoid 'Little 2' teams benefit the entire conference, since it's (statistically) better now for the weaker HEA teams to lose to a strong school in a 'Big 4' league than beat a team in the AHA or CHA. Shouldn't the Committee be throwing these leagues a life preserver, not an anchor?
MS: Well, again, I think that perhaps you're over-estimating the effect of just a handful of games, at least mathematically as we saw this past summer. But, there's no question that we needed to find a way to eliminate the over-inflation of wins. The Holy Cross-Bentley scenario in last year's Atlantic Hockey Championship Game really horrified us. [note: in last year's nigthmare scenario, first pointed out by College Hockey News, a win by Bentley in the AHA final would've made it a TUC, thus automatically boosting the TUC record of Holy Cross high enough to get Holy Cross in at-large.] I don't want to minimize Bentley's season or their athletes, but they came precariously close to knocking UNH out of the NCAA Tournament. We closed that loophole over the summer by excluding Conference Champions from automatically becoming a TUC (Team Under Consideration) if they don't otherwise qualify. The whole process is a work in progress, but we're not too proud to learn from our oversights.
JL: What's more important to the Committee right now: preserving over-all bracket integrity (1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc.; regional seeds should ideally sum to 34) or 'adjusting' the geographic distribution of teams to ensure that each regional has an attractive line-up of teams and will sell a lot of tickets?
MS: Now that's interesting, because that's where the Committee has exhibited varying degrees of commitment over the years. Some Committees have adhered strictly to the brackets, matching up 1-16, 2-15, etc..., but others are more interested in geographic 'fairness,' if you will, to help fill arenas. You know we can't switch teams across seeding bands, but we can shift teams within the four bands. Last season we seeded teams 1-16 and matched them up the same way, and I don't know whether we'll ever see it that 'pure' again. But, if we CAN do it, my sense is that we will. Now, there are some Committee members who don't believe that's necessarily the right thing to do, but right now at least they're in the minority. I think that if we're committed to using RPI and PWR to select the Tournament teams, then the bracket should adhere strictly to mathematics as well. If we're not arbitrary when we start, why be arbitrary at the end? We should strive to be as consistent in our philosophy as we possibly can.
JL: Has the Committee ever considered re-seeding teams prior to the Frozen Four (as Hockey East does for its Tournament when one/more higher seeds are upset in the early rounds) to ensure that the highest remaining seed plays the lowest remaining seed?
MS: No, not since I've been on the Committee. As I've said, we start with a base philosophy of strict adherence to the math, we select teams and place them in the regionals based on math, so to then purposefully break from that seems to me a bad idea. Why would we abandon our principles on the eve of our sport's biggest games?
JL: The Committee is on record as wanting to take steps to eliminate tie games no later than the 2008-09 season. As athletic director of a Hockey East school where shoot-outs were tried — and abandoned — do you think we're really headed back to the future?
MS: Speaking just for myself, I personally don't like shootouts; I think the shooter has too much of an advantage, and it shifts the outcome of the game from team play to a one-on-one showdown.
JL: We agree, and in fact, most fans we talk to aren't overly bothered by tie games; why are they perceived by the Committee to be so detrimental to the sport?
MS: Frankly, we've pretty much abandoned that discussion for now. We might not like ties because they mess up the RPI, but we haven't yet figured out a good way to fairly resolve them. I think any coach would happily take a 3-point weekend any chance he could. That's not to say that some future Committee won't revisit the issue, but at least for now it's on the back burner.
JL: There are rumblings afoot that the NCAA would like to shift the dates of the Women's basketball Final Four forward a week to take it out of the shadow of the Men's Tournament. This would place it in direct conflict with the Men's Frozen Four, which has already been shifted once before for the same reason. How concerned are you that in a time when the NHL has been exiled to the Vs. Network and NHL 2Nite was cancelled by ESPN that our sport's premier event may have to again fight with basketball for attention and TV time?
MS: Without singling out women's basketball, I can tell you that our contracts with NCAA Productions and ESPN for television coverage of the Regionals and Frozen Four is a dominant concern in our ongoing discussions. We don't want ESPN to dictate how we run the Tournament, but as a fan you know we schedule some obtuse start times to ensure that the games don't overlap very much and we can provide comprehensive coverage. Any fan with a dish and DirecTV can watch every game, and we go to extremes to allow that. I think we've grown the sport over the last decade to arguably its greatest point; the Frozen Four is a spectacular event with guaranteed sellouts in pro venues, and I'd hate to see the minimization of that. Once the coverage wanes, and attention shifts, then you start to worry about corporate support, a topic the NCAA treats very seriously. I'm biased of course, but I think that college hockey is one of the greatest intercollegiate sporting activities, and we can't afford to lose momentum.
JL: Hopefully college hockey has a champion in the ESPN boardroom who can speak on behalf of the sport ...
MS: They're very interactive with us, and I expect we'll work out any disagreements that might crop up. But, I want to make it very clear that they have no influence on our Tournament selection/seeding deliberations; there's an absolute firewall of secrecy between the two groups. We're sensitive to their needs, of course, so while they don't dictate matchups or anything like that it's an important part of our discussion process.
JL: The WCHA is now in its first year of an ongoing 'experiment' to provide overhead video replay cameras (installed directly over the goal line) in all its rinks. The cost is borne by league revenues derived from the Final Five Tournament; has there been any talk of initiating a similar plan here in Hockey East?
MS: [Hockey East Commissioner] Joe Bertagna has talked to us about it, and it's clear that it's an expensive proposition, moreso for some schools than others. I think it's fabulous to have video review capability during Tournament games, and I'm a big fan when it's installed/used correctly; the athletes deserve to have the calls made the right way. But, I'm not a big fan of the technology per se, since it's very expensive to buy the necessary equipment, and that's only a part of it. There are added production costs to the host school — personnel, cabling, etc. — every time the camera is turned on and made available to TV viewers and the officials; not every school is prepared to bear that expense.
JL: OK, but what about the situations such as happened recently at Vermont, where CSTV was televising a game and its cameras clearly showed that a BC goal waved off by the on-ice official should've counted. The argument that's used in cases like this is that since not every game is televised, it's unfair to selectively use TV replays if they can't be used universally. We've never understood that logic; shouldn't making the right call take precedence?
MS: Before I answer that, I'm taking off my 'Chair of the Ice Hockey Committee' hat and speaking strictly as a hockey fan like you. My personal opinion is that any time you have the technology in place to better the playing of the sport, then use it. Even if you televise just one game per year and there's a controversial goal, let's go to the videotape. But I'm guessing that at Vermont, where they don't routinely televise games, they didn't have all the necessary pieces in place to link the on-ice officials with the CSTV shots. You need a monitor and headset in the scorer's box, plus the ability for the referee to look at it and make an official ruling. That takes some doing. At the Frozen Four there's a minimum of 7 cameras following the action, all hooked up to a bank of Tivos so the referee can review any controversial play. Most cameras follow the puck, but one covers the trailing action behind the play that's often missed by the on-ice officials. If every game had that much coverage we'd eliminate bad calls, but it's just too expensive for everyday use.
JL: You may have heard that having hired a new athletic director, Syracuse is now considering the feasibility of adding men's and women's hockey in the near future. With your background in upstate New York at Colgate, do you think this will eventually happen, and, if so, would they be a good fit for Hockey East or the ECAC?
MS: When I worked at Colgate we ran the Syracuse Invitational at the War Memorial, and together with Cornell we'd invite two other teams and put on a good show every year. Unfortunately, the gentleman — I can't recall his name just now — who provided much of the Tournament's financial support passed away, and it just lost momentum after that. I won't presume to speak for Syracuse, but I think a University with the size/reputation of Syracuse could probably pull it off and be successful. But could they compete for recruits with the likes of Colgate, Cornell, Renssalaer, etc. in Central N.Y.? I don't know. But it's clearly a hockey market with passionate fans. My guess is that they'd start small — perhaps in Atlantic Hockey — to keep costs in line and test the waters, and then look to ramp up their commitment once they have a better handle on the bottom line. Having said that, I'm not sure they could turn a buck in hockey there, especially starting from scratch and competing head-to-head with Orange basketball and the Syracuse AHL team. People only have so much discretionary income to spend on sports, and I'd think it'd be an uphill battle to attract enough fans to make a go of it financially. As I'm sure you know, there are only a very few Division I programs that derive any revenue from hockey; the best most schools can hope for is to break even. It's an expensive labor of love, really, just like I-AA football.
(See bracket selection follow up article)