December 19, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

The Return of NCAA Regionalization

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Unless something changes, the makeup of the NCAA tournament could be very different this March.

But the six hockey conferences and the Men's Ice Hockey Committee are trying to make sure that doesn't happen.

The NCAA's Championships/Sports Management Cabinet will be looking, at its next meeting in February, to put its final stamp of approval on travel restrictions for its tournaments. The push for this came as the NCAA hierarchy pondered its financial issues, and the financial climate the country is in.

If approved as is, this means that, for the NCAA tournament, the committee would only be allowed to seed the top four teams in the bracket (i.e. the four No. 1 seeds). It would be able to do so regardless of geography (although current practice for hockey is to place them "closest to home" anyway). Meanwhile, the remaining 12 teams would have to be placed in the closest geographical region possible, regardless of where it falls in the 5-16 Pairwise pecking order.

According to the NCAA, "travel costs in Division I have increased 31 percent (approximately $7 million) from the last academic year and in the past three years, expenses have increased almost 58 percent (approximately $11.7 million). The NCAA is projecting for next year an increase of $6 to $7 million in Division I travel expenses."

The hockey community protested the proposed changes, and was subsequently asked by the NCAA to submit a letter outlining its position.

Out of that came two letters, one endorsed by the Hockey Commissioners Group as a whole, and another endorsed by Hockey East alone. Both letters were submitted to the ice hockey committee, and passed on to the NCAA's Championships/Sports Management Cabinet for consideration.

The Hockey Commissioners, as a whole, has asked for a compromise position, where all 16 teams can be seeded in bands of four — four No. 1s, four No. 2s, four No. 3s, and four No. 4s — with the ability to move teams around within those bands.

In fact, this is already the exact procedure outlined in the current ice hockey committee tournament manual. The only difference would be that, instead of the committee maneuvering teams around within those bands for its own set of reasons, it would agree to do so for geographic reasons.

(It should be noted that, despite this flexibility being in the manual — in practice, the committee usually tries to keep a strict 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, etc... bracket. Typically, since the tournament went to 16 teams, it has only changed this to avoid first-round intra-conference matchups.)

The position endorsed by Hockey East is to leave the status quo. In its argument, the men's tournament makes money, and geographic restrictions are not worth the potentially unfortunate consequences on "bracket integrity."

The current chair of the men's ice hockey committee, Miami athletic director Steve Cady, supported the majority compromise position.

"I think we have to be good citizens, good teammates if you will," Cady said. "And I understand where Hockey East is coming from, but as the chair of the committee, it's not my voice or about what I personally feel. It's about what we collectively feel is best under the circumstances at hand.

"Everybody's going through some tough times. I don't care where you're at, you can't have your head in the sand so far to not realize the country is having problems. And when we saw the numbers they were up against, we knew there were changes that needed to be made. Hopefully as a committee we can work with them ... but not compromise the integrity of the bracket.

"We'd be in a whole different situation if the tournament didn't make money. But the fact that it does make money, gives us the opportunity to present some ideas as we did. And I believe they will give it serious consideration."

The Bottom Line

If the ice hockey committee must enforce geographic flexibility within bands, that is not considered a big deal, since sticking to a strict 1-16, 2-15, etc... bracketing is not as important when considering the imperfections of the Pairwise seeding process.

The bigger issue is that the committee's compromise proposal would only go so far in preventing first-round matchups against teams from the same conference. That is the paramount concern for many — including, in particular, Hockey East, as reflected by the stance it has taken.

On the other hand, the impact may not be as bad as feared, depending on how things shake out. That's because the proposal still allows for committee's to avoid first-round intra-conference matchups, as shown in item No. 2 below.

The provisions come in three tiers, Tier III being the one of most concern. Tier I was basically just administrative items, with an eye towards cost-cutting, including scheduling of practices and so on. That was already implemented. Tier II was a temporary fix for the fall sports, extending the mileage threshold for teams to bus instead of fly — from 350 to 400 miles.

Tier III extends Tier II to apply for all sports (except men's and women's basketball). It also does the following relevant things:

1. Limits "seeds" to just the top four teams (25 percent), as previously mentioned, "regardless of a sport's ability to generate revenue." And mandates the geographic placement of teams.

2. Sport committees can avoid conference match-ups only in the first contest. "As a result, it would be permissible for teams from the same conference to play against each other in the second game of a regional." Hockey already follows this policy.

3. "Establish a policy that discourages or limits the frequency of (but does not prohibit) conducting championship sites in high-cost destinations, on conducting championships remote from areas of heavy concentration of likely participants and hosting championships in locales outside the continental United States."

The only two representatives in the Cabinet from hockey-playing schools are Rosemary A. Shea and Erin McDermott, associate athletic directors at Holy Cross and Princeton, respectively (full roster here).


What would have been the impact on last year's tournament if this were implemented?

Here are three scenarios. The first is how last year's bracket actually was. The second is how it would've looked (our projection) had the "compromise" idea been in place. And third is the bracket without any "compromise," where teams 5-16 are completely shuffled by geography. The number in parentheses after each region, is the total of the overall seeds of the four teams, so that you can see how balanced each region is or isn't.

In each case, it's assumed that the ice hockey committee would still be allowed to avoid first-round intra-conference matchups. Remember, however, that last year, because five WCHA teams were among the No. 2 and 3 seeds, that a first-round intra-conference matchup could not have been avoided if committee stuck with its banding guidelines (i.e. do not move teams out of their "bands").

2008 Actual Bracket

ALBANY (33) — 1. Michigan/15. Niagara ... 10. Clarkson/8. St. Cloud State
WORCESTER (34) — 2. Miami/16. Air Force ... 7. Boston College/11. Minnesota
MADISON (32) — 3. North Dakota/14. Princeton ... 12. Wisconsin/6. Denver
COL. SPRINGS (27) — 4. New Hampshire/13. Notre Dame ... 9. Michigan State/5. Colorado College

2008 Projected "Compromise" Bracket

ALBANY (32) — 1. Michigan/14. Princeton ... 8. SCSU/10. Clarkson
MADISON (33) — 2. Miami/15. Niagara ... 6. Denver/12. Wisconsin
COL. SPRINGS (30) — 3. North Dakota/16. Air Force ... 5. CC/9. Michigan State
WORCESTER (31) — 4. New Hampshire/13. Notre Dame ... 7. Boston College/11. Minnesota

2008 Projected Geographic Alignment Bracket

ALBANY (39) — 1. Michigan/14. Princeton ... 10. Clarkson/15. Niagara
MADISON (34) — 2. Miami/13. Notre Dame ... 9. Michigan State/12. Wisconsin
COL. SPRINGS (27) — 3. North Dakota/16. Air Force ... 5. CC/6. Denver
WORCESTER (26) — 4. New Hampshire/11. Minnesota ... 7. Boston College/8. SCSU 

As you can see, the last version is a complete mess. But we'll get back to that in a minute.

The "Compromise" Bracket actually is more balanced than the bracket which was actually used. The main difference there is that New Hampshire would've been kept "close to home" in Worcester, instead of flying out to Colorado Springs. The other No. 1 seeds were flying no matter where they went, so it didn't matter. But last year, the committee put Miami in Worcester in order to "protect" it from having to play either Wisconsin or Colorado College, each of whom were hosting in their own arena.

Also, The "natural" matchup would have been No. 5 CC vs. No. 12 Wisconsin, but since each was hosting, they couldn't play each other. So Michigan State went into Colorado Springs as the best No. 3 seed, making that the toughest bracket on paper. In the case of the "compromise" bracket, however, Air Force was kept in Colorado Springs, making the bracket a little "weaker."

So the main differences in the "compromise" bracket are, keeping UNH in Worcester, keeping Air Force at home, and having Princeton play an easy bus trip up to Albany. This would have altered the "bracket integrity," in the sense that No. 1 overall seed Michigan would not get to play one of the lowest seeds — but in the grand scheme of things, this is really a pretty good bracket. In fact, it's more along the lines of the way the committee approached things prior to going to 16 teams in 2003, when by itself it tended to give more weight to geography as a way of "protecting the gate," a philosophy I never had much of a problem with, since games are more fun in front of larger crowds.

Going to full geographic alignment, makes a mess of the brackets, as you can see. Most specifically, the weakness of some Eastern schools combined with their close proximity to each other and Regional sites, means they get clustered into the same Regionals. On the other hand, for many Western schools, they are flying no matter what.

You see this in the Albany Regional, where Niagara, Princeton and Clarkson all would have easy bus trips. So even though they are seeds 10, 14 and 15, they still would all go there — making things much easier for Michigan (which made the Frozen Four anyway, by the way).

Colorado Springs is affected because Denver and CC would each play there, and against each other.

You then have four teams that would have flown no matter what — Notre Dame, Michigan State, Minnesota and St. Cloud State (indicated in italics above). They were simply placed as best they could, to create matchups as fair as possible. But as you can see, it wasn't easy.

So take it all for what you will, and keep a lookout as we discuss the issue more throughout the rest of the season.

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