February 16, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Tournament Bracket ABCs: First Edition

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

We're back again this year to break down the Pairwise — i.e. the objective system used by the NCAA to determine the at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament, and to seed the field.

There is a lot of analysis out on the Internet these days, some of it well-informed, some of it not; some of it really great, some of it not.

Thankfully, despite the changing makeup of the committee from one year to the next, the hockey powers that be have settled into widespread acceptance of this. I can remember back in the day that so many hockey powers-that-be didn't understand the online analysis, didn't understand that we were analyzing their very own system. And there was concern that a backlash would take place, where the powers-that-be would intentionally obscure the process just to stop all of the analysis.

But that never happened, and eventually, everyone just kind of figured it all out and came to live with each other. And in some cases, the analyzers helped shaped changes.

This kind of breakdown has been a specialty of CHN's staff from back before there was a CHN, dating back as early as 1995, when the landscape of this was like the Wild West. For those interested in the history, see here. And if you are unfamiliar with the process, or want to brush up, just read the entire FAQ.

The only real change this year was fairly esoteric, changing the definition of a "Team Under Consideration" back to a team that has a .500 or better RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). The past few years, it was defined as a team in the top 25 of the RPI. The change was originally made to help alleviate the "TUC Cliff" (read about that here ...) ... but who knows how well that really alleviated it anyway.

So, with all that said, let's get to this year's first breakdown. Note that, like past years at CHN, this is not an analysis of what the tournament would look like if things ended today. The season does not end today, so such an analysis seems pretty useless. Things can change very quickly in the Pairwise.

Likewise, trying to predict the future is also pretty useless. And even if we wanted to predict winners of future games, figuring out how that would impact the Pairwise is another fitful enterprise.

Instead, it's better to try to analyze the numbers to see why things are the way they are, and what the implications are for the future. We can see potential trouble spots or controversial areas, or just attempt to explain why a team is where it is, and what its chances are for the rest of the season.

1. Yale

With three losses in its last six ECAC games, it would be easy to see Yale slipping out of the top spot in the Pairwise overall. But its cushion was so big, it's still there. The conventional wisdom has been that an ECAC team needs to be near perfect to be No. 1 like that — like Cornell was in losing just three league games in 2002-03. But the ECAC, overall, has a better non-league record this year than any time in the recent past. As a result, Yale, along with its own single wins against Colorado College and Vermont, continues to win comparisons against other top-echelon teams.

Because many ECAC teams have high RPIs themselves, and are thus "Teams Under Consideration," Yale's record vs. TUC remains strong, and it helps Yale's own RPI too. And the Vermont and CC wins help Yale win comparisons against Boston College, Denver and North Dakota — because the latter teams have all lost to Vermont and/or CC. All of which is legitimate, though you can see how small sample sizes can come into play.

A couple more losses against the likes of Union and RPI, for example, in the ECAC tournament, and things could change. But it looks like Yale will be a top seed, and it is hosting in nearby Bridgeport. Yale had made the NCAAs twice in 62 seasons, and now will make it three years in a row.

2-3. Boston College, North Dakota

There is a razor-thin difference in RPI between the teams that flip-flopped Tuesday as the result of Clarkson defeating St. Lawrence (yes, I'm not kidding). That allowed North Dakota to flip this comparison and go into the second spot — not that it will matter either way, really, if it comes down to it.

The Eagles are winners of 14 of the last 15 games, and are going on another one of those patented BC rolls. The preseason odds-on favorite to win another national title are showing no signs of slowing down. BC will have trouble passing Yale — unless Yale loses to Colgate somewhere along the way — but as long as BC gets a No. 1 seed, it doesn't really matter. It will get one unless it somehow slips up to Merrimack or New Hampshire in the Hockey East playoffs, and even then, still might get it. It would therefore be a No. 1 seed in Manchester, and could then play UNH in the second round.

The only thing that would change this would be New Hampshire slipping to a No. 4 seed. If that happens, BC would have to go out West.

The Sioux are strong candidates to be a No. 1 seed out West somewhere — which means Green Bay or St. Louis. Sioux fans could be upset, though, if forced to come East again, even as a No. 1 seed, if BC has to go West to avoid New Hampshire (as outlined above).

4. Merrimack

Merrimack is helped by North Dakota's losses to Maine. Conversely, Merrimack has lost to Providence this year, while Minnesota-Duluth has beaten Providence twice. Merrimack is rock solid to make the NCAAs for the first time in its Hockey East history, and first time since being chosen as the token independent team in 1988, back when one independent was required to fill out a 12-team field. If It holds the top side, odds are it will go West.

5-6. Denver, Minnesota-Duluth

Minnesota-Duluth is at Minnesota State this weekend, while Denver hosts Michigan Tech. This weekend will pretty much be the cutoff point for knowing whether these two seal an NCAA bid. If they get through this weekend unscathed, you can lock it in. Even if they don't, it's a safe bet. Either one could easily still be a No. 1 seed. Denver's two losses to Boston College are killing its comparison with Merrimack right now, though (and with BC, obviously), so the Pioneers actually will have a harder time moving up than UMD. Especially since UMD could also easily flip — if it plays well — comparisons it currently loses to Nebraska-Omaha and Miami. But UMD could more easily fall than Denver, too.

7-8. Union, Nebraska-Omaha

Losses to Western Michigan and Alaska are costing Union comparisons against teams below here, like Michigan, Miami and WMU itself. But those are already factored in, meaning Union's downside pressure is limited. ... On the other hand, the win over Minnesota is helping against the likes of Nebraksa-Omaha, as well as UNO's two losses to Quinnipiac. But then UNO does well against those CCHA teams. So it appears as though these two teams are sort of stuck where they are, in relation to each other, and destined towards middle-of-the-pack Pairwise placement — which would suit both just fine. UNO is looking for its second NCAA bid, while Union is looking for its first since joining Division I in 1991.

It would be fun if Union/UNO finished 8-9, with Yale No. 1 overall — meaning that either Union, UNO, Yale or the Atlantic Hockey champion would make the Frozen Four. If the Atlantic champ was RIT, it would mean that RIT would be the only team to have done so (not counting Yale's appearance in the 1950s). Think about that.

9-10. Notre Dame, Michigan

Another razor-thin RPI difference — between Notre Dame and New Hampshire — got flipped as the result of Clarkson's win over St. Lawrence on Tuesday. That lifted Notre Dame to this slot, and dropped New Hampshire down a couple.

Michigan still wins the comparison against Miami despite two recent losses, so that will help in a head to head battle between the two. If Michigan keeps slipping up, it could fall out of the NCAA Tournament — that is certainly still possible. This weekend, Michigan is the one to take on Western Michigan. A sweep either way there would be a huge boon to whoever wins, and crushing to whoever loses.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame gets Western Michigan the last weekend of the regular season. And Notre Dame currently wins the comparisons against Michigan and Miami — but doesn't have any wins against upper Pairwise teams like the other two have. And it loses a comparison against Rensselaer.

11-12. Miami, New Hampshire

Miami came up huge with two wins over Michigan two weeks ago, and then a 1-0-1 weekend against Western Michigan. Now, it has this weekend off, which is good news at this point for its NCAA chances.

The Wildcats went from threatening for a No. 1 seed, to the middle of the pack after getting swept by Merrimack last weekend. It will be hard to make up for those losses, so a No. 2 seed seems to UNH's top end at this point. Non-league losses to Dartmouth and St. Lawrence, and a tie with Brown, also restrict UNH's ability to move back up too far. Meanwhile, New Hampshire is very tight on a number of comparisons it's currently winning, so it has a lot of downside pressure. One of those flipped — with Notre Dame — already, meaning, though, it could easily flip back.

If UNH drops to a No. 4 seed, it would bump Boston College out West. That's something to keep an eye on.

13-14. Dartmouth, Rensselaer

These teams haven't made the NCAAs in a combined 47 years — 16 for RPI, which got in by winning the ECAC Tournament in 1995, and 31 for Dartmouth, which won the ECAC in 1980 behind a goaltender named Bob Gaudet, its current coach. Dartmouth has been close many times since Gaudet took over as head coach of his alma mater in 1997, but fell agonizingly short each time. Here, another opportunity stands before it.

The ECAC would love to get both teams in, but could just as easily get neither.

Dartmouth will get a slew of non-TUC opponents down the stretch here, including St. Lawrence, Clarkson and Colgate, plus its first-round ECAC playoff opponent (if the Big Green don't get a bye). RPI gets St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Princeton and Quinnipiac.

Dartmouth wins the comparison between the two, despite losing twice to RPI, though it's close. RPI is coming off two excruciating home overtime losses last weekend, that bumped it down from No. 2 seed level to the bubble. It has a better chance of shooting back up than Dartmouth does. Both teams benefit from some strong non-league wins. Both teams are vulnerable mainly to Western Michigan and Colorado College — not as much to Wisconsin.

15. Wisconsin

The Badgers' sharp distinction in their record against top teams as opposed to lower-level ones, really limits how high they can go. Without a lot of wins, and losses by teams above them, that will significantly alter the RPIs of the bubble teams, Wisconsin will have a tough time making up any ground. But, as it stands, that could be enough. Two games at home against Minnesota this weekend are enormous.

16. Western Michigan

Western Michigan held its ground fairly well in the first part of a three-weekend gauntlet, going 0-1-1 against Miami. But now it has Notre Dame and Michigan over the final two weekends, and cannot afford to go backwards any farther. The biggest thing holding WMU up right now is two wins over Union earlier in the season. But a loss to Canisius is a killer in a head-to-head comparison with Wisconsin, since the Badgers defeated Canisius.

17-18. Colorado College, Boston University

There is not anything particularly special, fancy or tricky about these teams' situations: They need to win games, and teams above them need to lose. Enough of those things happen, and there's plenty of opportunity to move up in the pack. But it needs to start happening fast.

19-20. Maine, Minnesota

This is the realistic line in the sand, and even these two teams need a lot of help to move up at all.

Two early-season wins over North Dakota is quite helpful for propping Maine up against the likes of Minnesota and Colorado College. But, likewise, a loss to Michigan State is hurting the Black Bears against CCHA bubble teams. Such is how these things go.

BU has a win over Wisconsin, whereas Minnesota lost; and WMU's wins over Union, combined with Minnesota's loss to the Dutchmen — these are among the factors holding Minnesota down. Again, they need a lot of help — starting with helping itself with two wins over Wisconsin this weekend.

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