Bracket ABCs: February Edition
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Another spring has almost sprung, and so returns our Bracket ABCs.
This is also the time of year where we again lament the folly of demonstrating how the bracket would look if the season ended today ... because it doesn't. So we'll leave that to others.
What we try to do is to look beyond today, to see what teams need to do to earn a bid, or lose one. And we can also forecast some potential pitfalls for the committee.
Of course, it's still too early to fully grasp all of the possibilities out there, but there are trends that can be spotted.
To get a refresher course on what the Pairwise is, how it's calculated, and how it's used to determine the selection and seeding of the NCAA Tournament, head over to our Pairwise Primer.
In addition, we have a revamped Pairwise page, which includes a "Customize" button, that allows you to see the effects of tweaking the Pairwise in various ways, particularly in changing results of previous or upcoming games for any team and seeing what happens.
With that, here we go...
It's doubtful at this point that Quinnipiac will not be a No. 1 seed. The only way Quinnipiac won't be in Providence is if Boston College and New Hampshire both become No. 1 seeds also, and BC is ahead of Quinnipiac. But the latter is most doubtful of all. There is but a minuscule chance that BC winds up ahead of Quinnipiac — Quinnipiac has defeated Maine and Providence, while BC is 1-2-1 against those teams at the moment.
Odds are very high that Minnesota is essentially locked into the two slot. There is a fair amount of certainty to this, despite all of the games that remain to be played. That would put the Gophers in Grand Rapids as the top seed. The main contributor to Minnesota's difficulty in moving up is its 1-1 record against Nebraska-Omaha. That's the only common opponent with Quinnipiac, and Quinnipiac defeated the Mavs twice.
Because of common opponents, Miami is much more likely to wind up ahead of New Hampshire than Boston College. If Miami keeps winning, it won't matter, since the RedHawks will be a No. 1 seed in nearby Toledo. If Miami slips, it would likely stay out West unless it's paired up with New Hampshire.
4-5. New Hampshire, Boston College
This is where it gets interesting, because, up to this point, the teams are all but certain to make the NCAAs. Realistically, so are New Hampshire and Boston College, but they are much less certain than the teams above them. The teams won't meet again until at least the Hockey East semifinals, if at all. The key here is that New Hampshire is hosting the Northeast Regional again this year, so that will have a big impact on placement. If somehow New Hampshire and BC wind up as top seeds, BC will be sent out West. If it stays similar to how it is now, you could see Boston College playing in New Hampshire's regional, in what would amount to road games. The only way that wouldn't happen to BC is if it's the top seed overall, in which case, the committee has shown a propensity to "protect" that seed. But it's unlikely BC winds up there.
6. North Dakota
North Dakota is in good shape. It has the simple task of winning to move up, and avoid losing or move down. There is otherwise nothing special about its circumstances at the moment.
7. Minnesota State
One of the surprise teams of the season. I was asked recently if Minnesota State's No. 7 slot in the Pairwise is "solid." I replied that it's as solid, or unsolid, as anyone else's. There is no overwhelming pressure to the downside. The 20 wins it has are legit, even though it hasn't played the toughest schedule. The interesting thing is, there is plenty of upside potential. An 8-9-2 record against TUCs isn't great, but that means it has room to improve and yet the Mavs are still seventh. Also, they lose two comparisons to teams significantly below them in the Pairwise — BU and Northern Michigan. Against BU, it's simply because BU defeated RPI while MSU went 1-0-1 against RPI. Meanwhile, Northern Michigan was 2-0 against both Wisconsin and St. Cloud State this year, while the Mavs are even with those teams. Minnesota State could easily make up ground in other areas with those teams, and instantly pick up two comparisons. So if it just plays reasonably well down the stretch, it should be OK for its second NCAA berth in D-I history.
8-9. Western Michigan, St. Cloud State
These two teams win all of the comparisons with the teams below them, and lose all with the teams above them, which is somewhat rare this far down the list. Only Union below here can otherwise say that. That usually indicates that their paths to the NCAAs are fairly simple. Just win a decent amount down the stretch.
This could be the biggest story of all. Atlantic Hockey has never received two bids to the NCAA Tournament. There has been an instance where, after the Atlantic Hockey tournament was complete, the tournament champ actually wound up in the Top 16 and would've qualified anyway, but that's it. Niagara once received an at-large bid, while it was an independent, back in 2000. The bottom line here is that Niagara is well on its way to getting an at-large bid, whether it wins the Atlantic Hockey tournament or not. And is it that difficult to foresee, for example, Air Force winning the Atlantic Hockey tournament, thus putting both Niagara and Air Force in the NCAAs? This is very possible, if not likely.
The big question to focus on, then, is how likely is it for Niagara to place in the Top 15, and thus receive an at-large bid regardless of what happens. To do that, we need to examine why Niagara is this high. Other teams have had good records in Atlantic Hockey before. The difference is that Atlantic Hockey as a whole has had a decent number of good non-league wins this year, thus raising the overall RPI, thus raising Niagara's RPI for the wins that it has. Niagara doesn't even have many good non-league wins. It defeated Clarkson, and tied Michigan State and Bowling Green. That's pretty much it. But so long as Niagara loses no more than one or two games the rest of the way, it will stay in the top 15.
Because Niagara has only played four games against current TUCs, its record (2-2) against TUCs isn't being factored in. That means all comparisons are being judged solely on Niagara's RPI — which is strong — and its record against Common Opponents of the team it's being compared to. That record isn't great. But then it's 1-1 — and the tiebreaker is the RPI. So Niagara is coming out ahead of a lot of teams that way. Niagara is a pretty good team, don't get me wrong, but this is a flaw in the system.
We can see what happens when you compare Niagara to its only non-league common opponent that's a TUC — it loses that comparison, even though that team is far down on the list. That team is Colgate, which defeated Niagara early in the season 10-2. In that case, Colgate picks up the "head-to-head" comparison point, and thus wins that comparison. Niagara has basically no hope of getting that back.
This seems to be a similar position for Denver is recent seasons. Pretty solid inside the bubble at this point of the year, but needing good wins down the stretch to solidify its position. Usually it gets them, but sometimes it doesn't.
Wins over Denver and Colorado College, plus a win over Cornell combined with Cornell's 2-2 record vs. Denver and CC, is really helping Yale right now. Like everyone else, the Bulldogs need wins. Yale is not hosting a regional this year in Bridgeport, so if it makes it, it will go wherever fate takes it.
13-14. Boston University, Mass.-Lowell
These teams have the potential to meet each other in the best-of-3 playoffs, which would probably create a win-and-you're-in scenario, while the loser of the series would be eliminated from the NCAAs. But then again, they might not meet and could both get in, or both not. Thing is, they also have two regular-season games left with each other. BU is being hurt by two losses to Harvard, which places the Terriers at risk against all of these other ECAC teams on the bubble.
15. Notre Dame
Notre Dame's RPI is strong, which is keeping it afloat, but is has some bad losses to teams around it on the bubble, or to common opponents of teams around it on the bubble, which is keeping the Irish down. Any one of these can flip-flop in either direction in the coming weeks, depending on who Notre Dame plays and how they do. Two games at Western Michigan this weekend will have a big impact if there's a sweep in either direction.
16-19. Union, Rensselaer, Merrimack, Dartmouth
Merrimack is lumped in here with three ECAC teams on the bubble. Clearly the ECAC teams are going to be beating each other up to some degree, and so you would expect only one of the three, at best, to make it. These teams are also tightly compacted, and it's anybody's guess as to who will play who in the ECAC tournament. Meanwhile, Merrimack is in first place in Hockey East, but on the outside looking in to the NCAA picture. Merrimack's biggest problem, by far, is that it lost to Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage early in the season. That kills numerous comparisons where it's the only common opponent. A win in either game, and Merrimack would be in the Pairwise top 10.
Alaska is boosted by a very good record against TUCs — i.e. good record against good teams. But its RPI is relatively low for a team in the hunt, which is a big minus and will limit how far Alaska can climb. It would need to go on a major roll to make the NCAAs.
UNO is similar to Merrimack in that, it's high in the WCHA standings, but lower in the Pairwise. Part of that has to do with a pair of losses to Quinnipiac, which kills some comparisons with teams otherwise below UNO in the Pairwise. A 6-10-1 record against TUCs is also a big burden in general, and something that needs to get to .500 if it wants to be in the NCAAs. It has two games with Wisconsin ahead, and but then two with Minnesota-Duluth, which is not a TUC. And if UNO finishes up high in the WCHA standings, it won't face a TUC in the best-of-3 first round of the WCHA playoffs — creating a rather maddening catch-22.