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March 14, 2012 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Tournament Bracket ABCs: Conference Tournament Edition

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

The final Bracket ABCs before the weekend. You can follow how the games are affecting the Pairwise through our Pairwise Live Blog, starting Friday afternoon.

Until then, use You Are the Committee to run different scenarios and see how it affects the final Pairwise.

There are 17 schools battling for 15 at-large spots. The at-large slots will dwindle if teams that aren't currently in the top 15, win their conference tournaments and get the automatic bid.

With 19 games remaining before the Pairwise is locked, there are 1,179,648 scenarios still possible. Believe it or not, we're not going to demonstrate all of them. But we can get a sense at the range of possibilities and the more likely scenarios.

A point to keep in mind — the committee will try, in a perfect world, to keep a strict serpentine order to the seedings. In other words, put 1-8-9-16 in one bracket, 2-7-10-15 in another, and so on. So when you see us referring to the teams and how they'll go wherever their correlating No. 1 seed is located, that's what it means. The No. 1 seeds are placed first, and No. 6 overall will be placed, theoretically, where No. 3 overall is, and so on. That makes everything inter-related and more complicated to predict, but then easy to predict once the final games are played.

Special thanks to Jim Dahl's invaluable Pairwise probability chart. One note: He ran all of the scenarios based on each team having a 50/50 chance to win any given game. As we know, it's more complicated than that, since, for example, Michigan has a better than 50/50 chance, in theory, to defeat Bowling Green. But for these purposes, the data works well.

Other resources to keep an eye on:

* Current Pairwise Grid of Comparisons
* Pairwise Primer (How it Works)
* You Are the Committee
* Pairwise Live Blog
* Coming Saturday night: Our Final Projections, after the final game

1. Boston College

Right away, some goofiness to address. If Boston College was going to lose a game this weekend, it would be better off losing the semifinal to Providence than losing in the final to Maine/BU. That's because Providence is not a Team Under Consideration (TUC), so a loss there is not as harmful. You can see this by viewing Dahl's chart: If BC goes 0-1, it has a 81.0% chance of getting the No. 1 overall seed. If it goes 1-1, it has a 79.8% chance. Of course, these differences are very slight, so BC doesn't exactly have much to gain by losing to Providence. In fact, even two wins don't do much to improve BC's odds of being No. 1. It appears as though BC will be No. 1 unless Minnesota-Duluth wins the WCHA Tournament, in which case, UMD is No. 1 no matter what and BC is No. 2.

So, expect Boston to be hosting the Worcester Regional, no matter what happens this weekend.

2. Michigan

If Michigan wins one game in Detroit, it's pretty locked into its spot. It can move to third with UMD winning the WCHA Tournament, but can't really move up past Boston College no matter what. Michigan can dip as low as No. 6 if it loses two games. But the most likely scenario has Michigan hosting the Green Bay Regional. However, if Miami wins the CCHA title and moves ahead of Michigan, Miami could be No. 3 and then it would get priority in Green Bay, moving Michigan to Bridgeport — where it lost a first-round game in 2009 to Air Force. Another scenario — BC and BU could get No. 1 seeds and be at the Eastern Regionals. Then, if neither UMD, North Dakota or Minnesota wins the WCHA, and Union doesn't win the ECACs, then Miami could be No. 3 and Michigan No. 4, in which case Michigan would go to St. Paul. But that's a lot of ifs.

3. Minnesota-Duluth

If the Bulldogs win the WCHA Tournament, they will be the top overall seed. Then things get interesting. Would the committee move UMD to Green Bay in order to "protect" it from having to play host Minnesota potentially in the second round in St. Paul? Or would the committee keep UMD closest to home. If UMD loses a game at the Final Five, it will most likely be a No. 2 seed somewhere, possibly even in St. Paul with a potential Minnesota game anyway. But it all depends on how things fall elsewhere.

4. Miami

According to Dahl's chart, Miami has the widest range of any team, still able to finish anywhere from No. 1 to No. 14 — although the chances on those fringes are minuscule. Basically, winning the CCHA Tournament will get Miami a No. 1 seed somewhere, most likely, probably Green Bay. If it loses one or two, it will be a No. 2 seed somewhere, with a small chance of being a No. 3 seed if it loses two games.

5. Boston University

If BU loses one game in Boston, it could easily be in the 8-9 area, which could set up a second-round matchup in Worcester with Boston College. Is that good or bad news to Terriers fans? Winning the tournament would make the Terriers a No. 1 seed, probably in Bridgeport because BC is almost assured of still being ahead of the them.

6. Union

Union is all but assured its second straight NCAA bid at this point, and could be a No. 1 seed if it wins the ECACs and things break right. If it gets at least a win in Atlantic City, the Dutchmen will be a solid two seed, just like last season.

7. Ferris State

Currently No. 7, FSU can benefit, somewhat, by doing nothing. That's because someone between Miami and Michigan has to lose at some point, and same with teams like Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth. If none of those teams wins the conference title, Ferris State could actually still slip into a No. 1 seed spot. But most likely it will be a No. 2, and then get slotted dependent upon where its correlating No. 1 is.

8. Minnesota

Losses to Notre Dame and Michigan State this season are limiting the Gophers' ability to move up relative to CCHA teams. That's in contrast to Duluth, which did well, sweeping Western Michigan, for example. Few teams can catch Minnesota either, meaning the Gophers are in reasonably secure shape to finally return to the NCAAs. A win at the Final Five would most likely put Minnesota in as a No. 1 seed in St. Paul, but it's not a guarantee.

Basically, BU and Miami could win their tournaments, while BC and Michigan stay in the top four, and Minnesota would stay as a No. 2 seed even if it won the WCHA Tournament.

Either way, of course, the Gophers will be in St. Paul because they are the host team. The intriguing issue is whether Minnesota-Duluth would also be there as a high No. 1 seed if the Bulldogs win the Final Five.

9. Massachusetts-Lowell

Another case where a team has limited range because it's not playing this weekend. Lowell can actually move up a spot or two, particularly if Maine loses, since that would flip a comparison that Lowell is not currently winning. Another that could flip is with Union, if Union loses two games. But most likely, Lowell is locked into a No. 3 seed. Just last week, it looked a whole lot better for the RiverHawks. But there isn't much difference between being a 2 or 3 seed anyway.

10. Maine

Maine is a near-lock to make the NCAAs for the first time in five years. If it loses its semifinal, and there's a slew of upsets elsewhere, that could change. But chances are unlikely. Interesting in that Lowell and BU could be No. 2 seeds, while Maine is a No. 3 seed, which would limit the options of which opponent Maine would get in the first round (since teams from the same conference can't play each other ... or can they? See below).

11. North Dakota
North Dakota is in pretty good shape. According to Jim Dahl's chart, the lowest it can drop is to No. 14. It would take upsets (i.e. teams winning the conference title and NCAA autobid that wouldn't have otherwise gotten in) in two of the four conferences to keep the Sioux out. To the upside, a win at the Final Five and North Dakota has a very good chance at a No. 1 seed.

12. Denver

Denver is in the same boat as North Dakota, though with a slightly more precarious hold on its spot. The thing with both teams is that, in order to win the whole thing, it must win three games. The positive to that is, if one of them does manage to do that, that's three very good wins that will be recorded. That's why both teams have the capability to grab a No. 1 seed if it manages to win the Final Five.

13. Cornell

Here's where things start to get really dicey. Cornell is in decent shape, and will be in the tournament with one win at Atlantic City. But two losses, and it's in very bad shape. Here's where having a consolation game can be a problem. Now, so long as Western Michigan loses somewhere, the Big Red can still be OK. But they certainly don't want to take that chance. On the other hand, winning the ECAC Tournament could move the Big Red into the top seven, and even, very remotely, a No. 1 seed. The most likely spot for Cornell is a No. 3 or the best No. 4 seed.

14. Michigan State

Michigan State, which isn't playing this weekend, drops down to 15 if Western Michigan wins the CCHA Tournament. There are other funky factors that drop MSU lower, but they are rare. So, if there are no upsets, Michigan State will still make the NCAAs. But even one "upset," and it will be pins and needles.

15. Western Michigan

Western was not great out of league this season. Two ties against Union and getting swept by Minnesota-Duluth limit how far WMU can go, even if it wins the CCHA Tournament. Unlike other schools that can make huge jumps, the Broncos will probably only get to 13 even if winning the whole thing. Conversely, losing two is disastrous, although even then, it could hang on. A split will likely be OK for WMU, barring upsets elsewhere.

16. Northern Michigan

Despite losing in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, Northern Michigan could be this year's Rensselaer if Cornell loses both games at Atlantic City. That would be enough to move up to No. 15 in most cases. Northern can also move above Western Michigan, and even, in rare cases, Michigan State.

The really interesting thing, though, about MSU, WMU and NMU all being bunched here, is the possibility of all three making the tournament. If that happens, and if Miami and Michigan are both No. 1 seeds, it sets up a situation where two CCHA teams must play each other in the first round. This has only happened once before since the tournament went to 16 teams in 2003.

There is another related wrinkle. Let's say Boston College is the No. 1 seed. It would normally play the Atlantic Hockey champ in the first round. However, instead, in order to avoid two CCHA intra-conference first-round matchups, BC would have to play one of the CCHA teams. Would the committee do that, or would it just let BC play the AHA champ to "protect" them, and just have Miami and Michigan both play CCHA teams? This happened in 2003 when Cornell was No. 1 overall but had to play Minnesota State in the first round. Cornell wasn't happy about it at the time, but won the game anyway and went to the Frozen Four. Of course, no one on the current committee was on the committee then, and there isn't a lot of institutional memory on these things.

17. Merrimack

Finally Merrimack, the lowest Pairwise team that still has a slim chance of the NCAAs. According to Jim Dahl's chart, it's a 0.8 percent chance of coming in the No. 15 slot, and thus making the NCAAs with no other upsets. Essentially, Merrimack needs Cornell and Western Michigan to lose twice, and some other factors go their way too, so the RPI all breaks the right way. Actually Western could tie the CCHA consolation game and still be helpful enough to Merrimack, again, under the right circumstances. Another caveat, Cornell must lose two and Union must win the title — or else that means Harvard or Colgate will have done it, which would take away an at-large slot and Merrimack would be out anyway.

Everyone else would need to win its conference tournament to qualify, though if teams like St. Cloud State and Harvard win it, they could actually get to the top 15.

Bottom Line

I always hate doing a bracket "as if things ended today," because they don't end today. Slightly more palatable is doing a bracket if every higher seed won the 19 games this weekend. It won't happen, so it's somewhat useless. But we'll do it to illustrate how the process works, and to give a feel for how things might break down.

If all higher seeds win every game this weekend, the final 1-16 Pairwise would look like this:

Boston College, Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth, Boston University, Minnesota, Ferris State, Union, Miami, Mass.-Lowell, North Dakota, Maine, Denver, Cornell, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Air Force.

Which, incidentally, is a lot like how the current Pairwise looks.

In that scenario, Boston College would be the top seed in the Worcester Regional. Michigan would get No. 1 in Green Bay, Minnesota-Duluth in St. Paul and Boston University in Bridgeport. The committee could choose to swap Michigan and UMD, but it's less inclined to protect a No. 1 seed when it's third overall. It could really go off the charts here by making the "natural" alignment of 4-5 and put BU in St. Paul. But that would hurt attendance in Bridgeport so drastically that it's unlikely to do that.

So, in trying to keep the perfect 1-16, 8-9 symmetry, you'd have:

Worcester: 1. Boston College vs. 16. Air Force / 8. Miami vs. 9. Lowell
Green Bay: 2. Michigan vs. 13. Cornell / 7. Union vs. 10. North Dakota
St. Paul: 3. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 14. Michigan State / 5. Minnesota vs. 11. Maine
Bridgeport: 4. Boston University vs. 15. Western Michigan / 6. Ferris State vs. 12. Denver

The biggest issue here is that Cornell and its fans get cheated out of staying East in Bridgeport, and of getting a delicious rematch with BU in the first round. Those teams played a few national championships back in the day, but haven't played each other in the NCAAs since the early 1970s. This is an unfortunate luck of the draw for Cornell, simply because Michigan could not play either of the CCHA teams that are 4 seeds. But that won't stop Cornell from being frustrated by it, especially since similar things happened in 2005 and 2006, when Cornell lost Regional Finals to a "home" team in overtime each season.

Otherwise, things fall into place, except Minnesota and Denver couldn't play each other, so you have the flip with Maine.

But, like I said, don't count on this being the final bracket.

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