Inside the NCAA Tournament Brackets: Committee Goes Regional
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The NCAA tournament selections are cut and dried. It follows a formulaic procedure everyone knows as the Pairwise. The task of the Men's Ice Hockey committee is to seed the teams. The order of the Pairwise is the starting point. Teams 1-4 in the Pairwise are 1 seeds, 5-8 are 2 seeds, and so on.
When placing the teams, the committee is beholden to a certain set of procedural rules outlined in its manual. There are other things, however, which are left up to committee discretion. The balance between those two things causes most of the commotion each year after seedings are announced, and this year is no different.
The manual mandates, for example, that the committee place teams in "bands." If you're 5-8 overall, you're a 2 seed, and that can't change. Each 2 seed will go to a different region. But which region you are placed in, is completely at the committee's discretion.
Since 2003, more often than not, the committee stuck to keeping "bracket integrity" as much as possible. For the committee, this meant, placing overall seeds 1-16, 2-15, 3-14, 4-13 and so on, together. It also meant trying to group 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 together as potential second-round meetings.
The committee has been relatively rigid on this, although occassionally in the last few years, it has made some tweaks in order to boost attendance of various venues.
Just last year, then-committee chair Sean Frazier said: "Our No. 1 deal is about trying to make sure we keep the integrity of the bracket. There's a lot of stuff we can do, or things we can do relative to keeping attendance strong in the various sites, but I'm a traditionalist and purist when it comes to (bracket integrity)."
This year, the committee went all out in the opposite direction. It lined up squarely on the side of maximizing attendance as much as possible.
"The greatest amount of feedback we get, whether it's from fans or participants, is that when they go to the national tournament, it should be a great atmosphere," this year's committee chair Tom Nevala, the associate AD at Notre Dame, said. "When you play in a eight-to-10-thousand-seat arena, and only three or four thousand are there, that's not necessarily the best atmosphere. The kids work all year to play in a great environment."
In doing so, the committee flipped a number of the 2 and 3 seeds around from where they would line up in a strict serpentine order. Mainly, this meant keeping Boston College (6th overall) in Providence, and flipping North Dakota (8) to Grand Rapids. Instead of North Dakota lining up with Quinnipiac (1-8), it now lines up with Minnesota (2-8). The committee went even further, bringing Union (12) back to Providence, and placing Minnesota State (11) in Toledo, instead of keeping Union (12) against Miami (5).
"Providence was a spot we thought made a lot of sense (to help attendance), as it did in Toledo, and as it did in Grand Rapids," Nevala said. "We believe the kids in this tournament deserve the best atmosphere.
"It's one thing to say a team finished 5th and 8th, but if you look purely at RPI, the difference between the two is slim. There's not much difference."
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So that's the today's committee mindset.
Here is my take.
I am completely on board with the committee trying to maximize attendance. I have consistently said so in the past.
I am also completely on board with the philosophy that there really isn't a difference between 6 and 8 in the Pairwise, so don't worry about being so beholden to it.
However ... and here's the "however(s)" ... While I am a fan of flexibility and maximizing attendance where logical, I am concerned with how this flexibility is utilized.
"National" Tournament: In years of yore, other committee members talked about wanting to ensure this is a "national" tournament. In other words, it's good to have different teams from different conferences playing each other as much as possible. We are now going in the opposite direction. In fact, prior to the 16-team tournament, the committee used to take steps to prevent teams from the same conference from potentially playing each other in the SECOND round as well as the first, if possible. Once the 16-team tournament started in 2003, the committee said "forget it" to that, and just let the chips fall where they may with the Pairwise. Occasionally this led to second round matchups with teams that just played each other in conference championships, but it wasn't an intentional decision, it was just the way the numbers broke down. I had no problem with that.
However, now, because of an increased emphasis on regionalization, the committee is actively causing more of these situations to occur. I'm concerned about overdoing it, and unnecessarily.
"On numbers, North Dakota could've been playing Denver (8 vs. 9). But we have the flexibility to avoid intra-conference matchups in the first round, so we did," Nevala said. "We could've decided to ignore that flexibility if we wanted to. (But) we can't really worry about the second round. It's about the first round and what it presents for the atmosphere for each regional."
Slim margins: I agree with the committee that there isn't much difference between 6 and 8, so who cares if they switch. I have written many, many, many, many, many times this same point, and I am glad the committee is allowing itself that flexibility. I'm just concerned with the reasons for it — all out maximizing of attendance. I prefer the flexibility be used to prevent bad second-round matchups, or to protect higher seeds.
I also would like to see the committee go further, as I've also written about many times. I'd like to see them not be so locked into the difference between 12 and 13 either. But because 12 is a 3 seed, and 13 is a 4 seed, the committee locks that into a "band." That should change. There is obviously even less difference between 12 and 13 as there is between 12 and 9.
"Those are things we discuss in June," Nevala said. "We have had that discussion the last couple of years, and talked to the coaches about it. And this is what we have for this year. So next year, there's six conferences and five new (committee) members. If they decide the criteria should change, they'll do that. Each committee tries to do the best we can with the criteria we have."
Does it Help?: Are these switches really going to help attendance that much. Who will bring more fans to Providence? North Dakota or Boston College? That's a legitimate question. I'm not saying I really wanted the 1 seed (Quinnipiac) and 8 seed (North Dakota) to line up. For me, it's more about avoiding so many potential second-round intra-conference matchups. The top two seeds in three of the regions are from the same conference.
Logistics: If the committee were that concerned about attendance, it could see about lowering ticket prices on these Regionals. It may also want to consider the start times, too. The start times are because it wants to stagger times for television, so fans can see all of the games. But it's a catch-22. Of course, this plays into ...
Campus sites?: Should the regionals be moved back to campus sites? Ultimately, I am not in favor of that. I believe that's a step backwards. But this is the question a lot of people are asking, and by focusing so much on regionalization and maximizing atmosphere, the committee is setting itself up for this question. This strikes me now as an in-between phase between going back to campus sites completely, or letting the chips fall where they may with the Pairwise.
There is an inherent catch-22 here. It doesn't make it easy for the committee to toe the line between these competing philosophies. I would just like to see the emphasis placed more on it being a "national" tournament, with flexibility allowed in logical cases, not an all-out pro-active regionalization approach.