NCAA Tournament ABCs
Bracket Analysis, Breakdown, Comparison
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Well now, we're two weekends' worth of games away from knowing who will be in the NCAA tournament. Not a lot has changed in the top half of the Pairwise, but things are shuffling around furiously around "the bubble," that amorphous, mysterious, organic thing where Pairwise magic takes place.
And, as always, be sure to check the NCAA Tournament Pairwise Primer for an understanding of how it works, and the process/history for selecting/seeding the NCAAs.
1-2. Denver, Miami
The only thing that has changed with these two is the order, and that is liable to change again. As we said last time, these two are all but locked into the top two spots, and there's nothing to suggest any other possibility at this point. The only question is where Denver would go. Going by rote procedure, Denver gets placed first, because it would be No. 1 overall, and then gets the "closest to home" spot, which would technically be St. Paul. But the committee has proven to take the more logical approach in the past, using the "a flight is a flight" philosophy. In other words, since Denver has to fly to St. Paul anyway, if it's better for "bracket integrity," it can be shipped East.
A couple of factors come into play. If Holy Cross somehow wins the Atlantic title (unlikely as a No. 7 seed, but possible), it hosts the Worcester regional and would have to be there. In that case, Denver would most definitely be sent there. Assuming that isn't the case, you then weigh the Boston College factor. If BC is a No. 1 seed, Worcester if logical for the Eagles, so you'd be looking at Denver in St. Paul, BC in Worcester, and Wisconsin in Albany.
Then again, if St. Cloud State, Bemidji State or even North Dakota grabs that final No. 1 seed slot — you could see the committee keeping one of them in nearby St. Paul and shipping Denver to Worcester anyway.
Other than the Holy Cross thing, there are no host teams to worry about, unless somehow Minnesota qualifies. Union could qualify, but it's not technically the host for Albany (though there's a good chance it would stay there anyway).
Nothing has changed for the Badgers. As mentioned in the last article, they have a sizable edge over any team after them, and it will be next-to-impossible to catch Miami or Denver.
Lock it in ... Wisconsin will be the No. 1 seed in Albany, a place where it has a somewhat — interesting history. (edit: OK, not a lock. Wisconsin is within driving distance of St. Paul, so could stay there, while Denver becomes the only team flying — to Albany.)
4-5. Boston College, North Dakota
These two have been so intertwined in the NCAAs over the last 10 years, it's only fitting they currently sit 4-5 — which would set up a regional final matchup if things stayed the same. It doesn't look like North Dakota can flip any comparisons with teams above it that would allow it to move up. But it's possible, if it plays and defeats Wisconsin next week, that it could grab that one, which could then be enough to surpass Boston College despite losing the individual comparison with BC. So that will be an interesting drama — whether BC has to go West, or North Dakota has to go East. But it looks like the stars are aligned for these guys again, just not at the Frozen Four like usual.
6. Bemidji State
Bemidji State really can't do itself many favors in winning this weekend's CHA tournament. That's because it won't be playing a Team Under Consideration (defined as a team in the top 25 of the RPI), which is one of criteria for comparing the teams to each other. So its hopes for a No. 1 seed rest on Boston College and North Dakota getting swept in their quarterfinal series this weekend. Unlikely. On the flip side, says here that the farthest Bemidji State could slip is probably about No. 8. So a No. 2 seed is most likely.
7-8. Alaska, St. Cloud State
If it plays well, Alaska could move up to No. 5, mainly because it could pick up comparisons against teams below it that it currently loses to — Yale and Massachusetts. The St. Cloud State comparison is very much in play as well. The Nanooks have a tough series this weekend, however, at Northern Michigan, while St. Cloud State and Yale should have an easier time. Meanwhile, two losses this weekend could send Alaska hurtling towards the bubble — especially with CCHA brethren Michigan State, Ferris State and NMU sitting there at 12-13-14. So Alaska, looking for its first NCAA at-large bid, is not assured a spot quite yet.
Meanwhile, SCSU's chances at a No. 1 seed took a severe hit last weekend when it only got one point. And if somehow the Huskies lost games this weekend in the WCHA playoffs, it could send them tumbling — though its NCAA chances are more secure than Alaska's, mainly because there are few WCHA teams below that can swoop in and grab comparisons.
Given that Yale is playing Brown this weekend, it appears like its NCAA chances are pretty safe. There's not much upside remaining, however, since it wouldn't play a TUC until the ECAC final, maybe. To avoid going West in the Denver/Miami brackets, Yale would need to finish No. 6 or No. 11. So the Elis are in a weird spot. But Yale is insulated by two things: a) having beaten Cornell twice this season, a team a couple spots down in the Pairwise ... and b) having only eight games vs. TUC at this point. You need 10 games vs. TUC for that criterion to count. This is supposed to penalize such teams, by not counting very good records in a small sample size — such as when a team from a weaker conference racks up a 7-0-1 record, for example, against TUC. The thing is, however, it doesn't allow for other teams nearby the chance to win that criterion.
10-11. New Hampshire, Cornell
About the best either team can do is probably No. 7. That would be significantly easier for New Hampshire than Cornell, though it's still possible for the Big Red if they win out. Likewise, Cornell cannot afford to stumble against Harvard this weekend, and/or lose twice in Albany at the ECACs; whereas UNH has more cushion and should be OK, barring a number of conference upsets.
12-13-14. Michigan State, Ferris State, Northern Michigan
The 2-3-4 teams in the CCHA regular season are all bunched up here. The good news for the trio as a whole is that none of them play each other this weekend. So that still leaves open the possibility of all of them making the NCAAs. All three are also playing TUCs, although Michigan could drop from that distinction if it loses two games to Michigan State this weekend. Minnesota-Duluth, which sits at No. 15, actually wins the comparison with all three of these teams — but that's precarious in each case. That gives this trio a carrot hanging out there, an easily flip-able comparison if Minnesota-Duluth stumbles against Colorado College this weekend. As you could imagine, the three are also tightly bunched with each other in the individual comparison, so who emerges a rock solid NCAA pick, and who will struggle to make it, depends on the amount of losses respective to each other in this weekend's games.
Northern Michigan, theoretically, has the toughest road, facing Alaska, which is No. 7 in the Pairwise right now. But Michigan State is playing rival Michigan — never easy — and Ferris gets surging Nebraska-Omaha, which sits at No. 16 in the Pairwise.
As mentioned above, a slip this weekend could majorly cost UMD, since it's hanging by a thread to three comparisons to CCHA teams just above it. Even one loss to CC in the best-of-3, with sweeps by those other teams, could be a problem — unless Duluth makes another improbable run to a Broadmoor Trophy. ... On the flip side, a loss to Vermont early in the year is killing Duluth against four Hockey East teams down below in the Pairwise. But, that also allows for some pickup opportunities, which can happen with a good weekend combined with stumbles by Maine, Vermont and/or Boston University.
16. Nebraska-Omaha, Vermont, Mass.-Lowell, Massachusetts
This is surely a mish-mosh mess. All four teams are going on the road to play best-of-3 series this weekend. Their job is pretty clear — get wins, and root for those CCHA teams ahead of them to lose. Vermont has been the focus of derision for being in 8th place in Hockey East, yet close to making the NCAAs. But UMass was seventh, and Lowell was fifth, all separated by three points. And at this point, it would take two wins at UNH this weekend, and perhaps then some, for Vermont to make it — a pretty tough road.
Meanwhile, UNO plays at Ferris State, so two wins there will go a long way. That would get UNO to No. 15 even if nothing else happened, so the Mavericks are the only ones hanging on this bubble bunch that have fate in their own hands, so to speak. This assumes that No. 15 will make it, and it will so long as Bemidji doesn't lose the CHA tournament, and there are no other autobid upsets.
Among this group, UMass has the worst chance, mainly because it's getting the benefit of three comparison wins against teams way up ahead in the Pairwise — which means those are more easily flipped against it. For example, it defeats No. 7 Alaska in the comparison because it defeated Rensselaer in a game earlier this season while Alaska tied. That also helps against Yale, which lost to Rensselaer twice this season. Even if UMass wins its series at Boston College in three games, if Alaska sweeps at Northern Michigan, Alaska will flip the comparison. So he can see on what kind of shaky ground UMass is on.
Let's call this the outer limits. Maine plays Lowell, so you can see a path where the Black Bears flip a good 3-4 comparisons just by sweeping this weekend. If other things break right, that could get them right to the No. 15 fringe. Last week's two losses at home to UMass were obviously a killer, however. Note: No team ranked this low at this point has made the NCAA tournament at-large since the field went to 16 teams (in 2003).