NCAA Bracket ABCs; Early March Edition
Breaking Down the Scenarios
Around here, we always say that projecting a bracket as if games ended today is silly, because games don't end today.
So we usually just try to lay out the different scenarios and caveats for you.
But now, with the regular seasons mostly over and four conferences deep into their playoffs, we can use the Pairwise Probability Matrix to formulate a projection. The Matrix goes through 20,000 iterations of the remainder of the schedule, and orders the teams by probability of finishing in a certain slot. Though obviously anything can happen, this gives us the best projection of what the final Pairwise would be.
(The Pairwise Primer explains how the Pairwise works)
1-4. Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Harvard, Minnesota
These are the top seeds according to the Matrix. Denver, UMD and Harvard have been slotted in for a while. Western Michigan is currently No. 4 in the Pairwise with Minnesota fifth, but Minnesota is showing a 37 percent chance to finish fourth while WMU's odds are 31 percent. The difference is likely because of WMU's harder path through the NCHC playoffs.
Whatever the case may be, it's likely that those teams will wind up in Cincinnati, bracketed off 4-5 overall against each other. Remember, the Committee leans towards creating brackets with overall seeds like 1 vs. 16, 8 vs. 9 ... 4 vs. 13, 5 vs. 12 ... so that the potential second round matchups are also "pure": 1-8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5. Many adjustments are often made, however, to prevent first-round matchups against teams from the same conference, or to maximize attendance, and other reasons.
But let's get to the elephant in the room: North Dakota. The Matrix has North Dakota at No. 14 overall, which means it would be a 4 seed. It, however, it is also hosting the West Regional in Fargo, which means it has to be there. And North Dakota cannot play a team from its own conference in the first round. So, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver are both out. That's fine, because those teams should be playing the two lowest seeds anyway, but it does mean UMD has to fly somewhere instead of the bus trip to Fargo. The "natural" matchup is 3-14, which would mean Harvard. But would the Committee send Harvard to Fargo and put Minnesota in the East? Highly doubtful. Especially with Wisconsin as the No. 13 overall according to the Matrix — Minnesota-Wisconsin as the 4-13 also cannot happen.
So, most likely scenario ... Minnesota plays North Dakota in Fargo. Ooooh boy. We first pointed this out in our last article, and at this point, it seems like a pretty good shot of happening. Harvard would stay East and play Wisconsin. Denver would play the Atlantic Hockey winner in the other Eastern location, while UMD gets the WCHA champ in Cincinnati.
5., 12. Western Michigan-Notre Dame
If you want to keep the 5-12 with the 4-13 (actually 4-14 in this case), you'd have to send WMU to Fargo. But more likely, the Committee would keep WMU in reasonable proximity to Kalamazoo and have it be in Cincinnati. Assuming it's this matchup with Notre Dame, that makes perfect sense all around.
6., 11. Boston University-Cornell
How delicious would this be? These teams have met twice in the history of the NCAA tournament, both times for a mational championship; in 1967 and in 1972, won by Cornell and BU, respectively. It's because of this old history, battling for ECAC and NCAA titles, that the schools resurrected things by creating the semi-annual Madison Square game a decade ago. This game would probably be in Providence, where Harvard would be. It could just as easily be in Manchester, though, because Providence and Manchester are almost equi-distant from Boston.
However, Providence — the team — as a 3 seed, may get preference to be in Providence, as it did in 2015, even though it's not the host. I don't believe in lower seeds getting preferential treatment like that, but the lure of a larger crowd has, in recent years, been too much for the Committee to overlook. That could shift things around considerably. Put BU and Cornell in Manchester, Providence vs. Union in Providence (see below).
It's possible BU could play Penn State and Lowell could play Cornell. But why would the Committee want to ruin this great BU-Cornell matchup?
7., 9. Massachusetts-Lowell-Penn State
We had to shift 7-10 because 10 is Providence, according to the Matrix, and Providence cannot play Lowell (or BU for that matter). But if BU is in Manchester, and Providence is in Providence, that means Lowell has to get shipped West to Fargo to play against Penn State, even though Lowell is very close to Manchester. This provides a big dilemma for the Committee. Lowell would bring a lot of people to Manchester. It has the highest attendance of any team in Hockey East for two years in a row. It would bring more people to Manchester than BU would. So perhaps BU-Cornell gets shipped to Fargo. That's crazy too.
There's no good answer here. Someone is going to be extremely ticked off. My solution: ship Providence to the West. They are the lower seed and shouldn't get the benefit of playing a "home" game. But then ...
8., 10. Union-Providence
Wow, we have some pretty cool first round matchups if this Matrix holds. Minnesota-North Dakota? WMU-Notre Dame in Cincy? BU-Cornell? And now this one — again. In 2014, these teams met with Union on the way to a national championship. It was a big deal then because Providence coach Nate Leaman had recently left Union. So, the teams meet, Union wins, wins a national title, Leaman feels bittersweet. Then, the next year, he wins his own national title. All's well. So, second time around, maybe this wouldn't have the same pizazz, but it's still a great matchup.
So you have all of these great first-round matchups, but a nightmare of where to put them all. As I said, someone is going to be pretty upset. All of these teams between 6-11 would bring good crowds to the Eastern venues. But someone has to play in Fargo. Who would it be? My choice would be Union-Providence, just so Providence doesn't get a home game. Even though Union would bring a pretty good contingent there.
Remember, the 1-4 seeds at these Eastern Regionals, according to what we wrote above, would likely be Harvard, Denver, the Atlantic champ and Wisconsin. None of those schools would be big draws at these sites (Wisconsin traveled well in the past, but not as great anymore. Still good, probably). But the 2-3 seeds at these sites will be dynamite draws, so that helps mitigate the issue.
By the way, if Union-Providence go to Fargo, that would put the last three national champions in the same bracket. Another reason to do it this way — great storylines.
So, we should backtrack a bit and mention that the 12 spot (Notre Dame) is where things become dicey as to whether these teams will even make the tournament. The top 11 are at 97 percent or better. No. 12, Notre Dame, is at 58 percent, and Wisconsin is 63 percent. Of the teams on the bad side of the bubble, Vermont and Ohio State still have the best chance of making it. Air Force places 15th in the Matrix, and has a 10 percent chance of an at-large bid, meaning it's still possible two Atlantic Hockey teams make the NCAAs.
But, if things go as the Matrix says it will, Wisconsin would play Harvard, as we said above.
14. North Dakota
This is the real wild card, and it's 50/50 to make the tournament. If it doesn't make the tournament, a lot of people in Fargo will be looking to dump tickets real fast. But, hey, at least they're sold.
See the whole Pairwise Probability Matrix.
So, here it all is, our seeding placement choices based on the Matrix's list of 1-14.
1. Denver vs. 16. Atlantic Champ
7. Lowell vs. 9. Penn State
2. Minnesota-Duluth vs. 15. WCHA champ
5. Western Michigan vs. 12. Notre Dame
3. Harvard vs. 13. Wisconsin
6. Boston University vs. 10. Cornell
4. Minnesota vs. 14. North Dakota
8. Union vs. 11. Providence