NCAA tournament Bracket ABCs
Analysis, Breakdown and Comparison for March 10
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Less than two weeks now before we know the field for the NCAA tournament. And you'll be able to figure it out right along with us. In particular, soon you'll be able to utilize our "You Are The Committee" application to put in your predicted results for upcoming conference tournament games, and see how that would affect the Pairwise (i.e. the selection and seeding for the NCAAs).
Before we get into the rundown of the current situation, I wanted to point out something that I see as pervasive among the online chatter about the NCAA tournament selections. Things have come quite a long way in regards to education on how the process works, even with all the changes over the years. The education process that those of us currently at CHN first started when with USCHO in 1997, first educated coaches themselves and media members. The public was ahead of the curve. Later, the "insiders" got it straight mostly, and the fans are way up to date — the occasional conspiracy theorists notwithstanding. When anyone doesn't get it, the online community is usually quick to make a correction.
But I still see a common error.
Last year, we were the only publication to accurately describe how the Pairwise tie would be broken. But that's not the error I refer to.
(See our primer on what the Pairwise is, and how it works to select the NCAA field.)
What I see is many people still trying to arrange their predicted brackets by placing too much emphasis on attendance concerns. They'll flip this team and that team, and assert that the committee will do this because of attendance. Then, invariably, they are surprised that the committee didn't. Sometimes, this even leads to cries of "conspiracy."
This was most notable in 2003, the first year of the 16-team field. At first, no one could figure out what the committee did, because it went against many past practices. Soon we discovered that the committee simply laid the teams out in a strict 1-16 seeding (according to Pairwise), and placed them in a 1-16, 8-9, 2-15, 7-10, etc... pattern — adjusting for first-round intra-conference matchups and other sacrosanct issues.
Since then, the committee has steadfastly stayed true to this principle. It wavered only slightly last year when it kept Air Force in the West for a 1-15 matchup against Minnesota, instead of having it be 1-16.
It is certainly possible the committee will waver from this philosophy this season. It can do anything it wants. But we have seen no evidence in five years that the committee will care at all about attendance concerns, as it used to do in the 1990s. Until we see that happen, we'll assume the committee will just go with the truest brackets possible.
Remember too, though — we have argued this isn't necessarily wise. I'm just saying what the committee has done. There is still merit in tweaking the seedings to get better matchups, avoid second-round intra-conference games, and so on. We support such tweaking when it makes sense (subjectively, of course), because the Pairwise is too imperfect a system to be so beholden to it when it comes to seeding.
But this is what the committee has done every year for five years now.
On to the current list ...
1. Colorado College
The only change over the top four from a week ago is CC flip-flopping places with North Dakota at No. 1 and No. 4. Colorado College's two-game sweep of Denver pushed its RPI up enough to surpass that of idle Michigan and North Dakota (two ties vs. St. Cloud State). That alone wouldn't have flipped CC's comparison with North Dakota — but CC also gained on the Sioux in Record vs. Common Opponents.
This flip-flop points out the precarious nature of these seeds right now, as they certainly can all easily switch around again. None of the teams in the top four will play a TUC (Team Under Consideration) this week, but if any of them stumble, the RPI will be affected. Because No. 5 Miami also doesn't play a TUC this week, the top four should stay stable, though that will change down the road if Miami beat a TUC at The Joe (more below). But placement within the top four is in flux.
2-3-4. Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota
There's very little New Hampshire can do to lose comparisons to CC or North Dakota, or to win comparisons it's currently losing to Michigan and Miami. The only possibility is if North Dakota plays and beats CC, while UNH plays and beats Northeastern or BC. Neither will happen this weekend, but could happen the week after.
Assuming this is the top four, then we deal with placement. Colorado College must be in Colorado Springs for the West Regional, by rule. By logic, New Hampshire will be in Worcester at the Northeast Regional. That leaves the other two. At this point, I believe this will come down to whether Wisconsin makes the tournament, and which team, Michigan or North Dakota, ends up higher seeded overall. That's because Wisconsin must be in the Midwest Regional in Madison; and Wisconsin is a likely No. 4 seed. Then we run into what's become a relatively common scenario since the 16-team tournament: Do you "protect" the No. 1 seed? The answer has generally been "yes," and we agree.
In other words, the difference between a 4 seed like Wisconsin and a 4 seed like Army is, no offense, pretty big. So if a team like, say, Michigan, is the No. 1 overall seed, it should get "protected" and not have to play Wisconsin in Madison. If that means moving Michigan to the Albany Regional (slightly farther away but still a flight), then so be it.
But here's another wrinkle ... North Dakota and Wisconsin are in the same conference. This complicates matters. Now it's not just about protecting Michigan, but also about avoiding first-round intra-conference matchups. In 2003, the first year of the 16-team tournament, this exact scenario happened, and the committee pitted No. 1 overall Cornell against Minnesota State instead of switching Minnesota State to play a WCHA first-round team, or changing its seed. Cornell went ballistic — though it made the Frozen Four anyway.
If Michigan were the No. 1 overall seed in this scenario, the committee could pull New Hampshire out of Worcester and solve the problem. But that's another ball of wax. Should be interesting to keep an eye on this.
Any way you slice it, with six or seven WCHA teams poised to make the NCAAs, there will be all sorts of issues to deal with.
Now, take everything we wrote above, and scrap it, because Miami is poised to be a "savior" to the semi-nightmare scenario explained above. First, Miami must get past Bowling Green this weekend. Then, it must split at The Joe, as long as the win comes against a TUC.
Why does this matter? Miami's record vs. TUC is currently 6-2-1. Since it doesn't meet the 10-game minimum threshold, then that portion of the comparison doesn't count. If it counted right now, then Miami would flip the comparison with both Colorado College and North Dakota, and would be the No. 2 overall seed.
All Miami needs to do to become a No. 1 seed is split at The Joe. Why? Because once it does, it will pass either CC or North Dakota, or both, depending. Why? Because CC and North Dakota can't both win out. One of the two will lose a game vs. TUC, whether that be in the semifinals, or to each other in the WCHA final — and that will keep the record vs. TUC of one of those teams below Miami's.
However, here's another rub. North Dakota plays Michigan Tech this weekend. If North Dakota sweeps that series, then splits in St. Paul, then that's a 3-1 record to the record vs. TUC, and keeps them above Miami no matter what. So both teams could then stay ahead of Miami, unless Miami wins the CCHA tournament.
However, if North Dakota sweeps Michigan Tech this weekend, that is likely to knock Michigan Tech out of TUC status (A TUC is a team in the Top 25 of RPI). Tech is currently No. 23 on the list, with other teams on its heels. If that happens, that wipes out what would be 5 wins vs. TUC for the Sioux, and, again, they would lose out to Miami.
Of course, there's another scenario — Miami passes CC individually, but still loses out to it in the overall Pairwise.
But, if Miami cracks the top four, it solves some issues expressed above.
6-10. Denver, Clarkson, Boston College, St. Cloud State, Michigan State
Let's take a breather here. These guys look safe for the tournament, except, necessarily St. Cloud. The thing that insulates the non-WCHA teams from trouble, is that four of the five teams just below this range are WCHA teams. They can't all go on a run in the playoffs. These teams are all going to lose games, in some cases to each other. Unless any of these teams — BC, Clarkson, Michigan State — get swept in their best-of-3 series this weekend, you can pencil them in.
St. Cloud State, on the other hand, could lose an awful lot of comparisons in a hurry if it gets swept by Wisconsin this weekend, and things break right elsewhere. It would take a big drop and some upsets to fall out of it completely, though.
11-13. and 15. Minnesota State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Minnesota-Duluth
There's four WCHA teams here, with three on the positive side of the bubble. It's virtually impossible to sort all of the combinations out, because there are so many, depending on what happens in the WCHA playoffs. It's not rocket science to suggest that those teams which win this weekend will be in good shape, and those that lose may be in trouble.
Without a bunch of upsets in other conferences, it does seem almost a lock that six teams will get in, and probably seven. That's because there's very little downside pressure on teams like Minnesota coming from those just outside the bubble — i.e. Vermont, Providence, Harvard, Notre Dame.
Certainly, one of these will not make it. With the right mix of wins and losses, another will get bumped out. But it's hard to see three of these slipping.
14. Boston University
The "TUC Cliff" (see the primer) comes heavily into play here. Remember, again, that a TUC is any team in the Top 25 of RPI. And "Record vs. TUC" makes up one of the four Pairwise components. The last two teams in the Top 25 of RPI are Northeastern and Providence, and BU is a combined 6-0-1 against those teams. If those teams stumble this weekend, they could drop out of the Top 25, and BU's 6-0-1 goes out the window.
Two things could help BU, one in its own control.
First off, the No. 26 team in RPI is currently Massachusetts-Lowell, which is the team BU plays this weekend. By beating Lowell, BU can help keep Providence and Northeastern in.
The other thing is, at No. 27 is Union, which plays Cornell (No. 21). BU defeated Cornell this year, so it wants to keep Cornell in the Top 25, and it wants to keep Union down below Northeastern and Providence. So BU is rooting for Cornell this weekend.
To the upside, BU has very little chance of catching many teams, other than Minnesota.
16-18. Notre Dame, Vermont, Harvard
The best chance is for one of these teams to catch BU. Basically, it just means, these teams need to play better than BU over the next couple of weeks. These teams don't have a real shot of catching any of those WCHA teams.
When you look at things like Common Opponents records, it's easy to see why the WCHA has that Pairwise superiority. It strikes me as completely legit. There is merit in the committee deciding that each conference should have a five-team cap, or something like that. But as it stands now, there's no reason to suggest that putting seven WCHA teams in the tournament is a sign that the Pairwise is flawed.