March 20, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Tournament: First Look

An Overview of the Brackets, Reactions and More

CHN Staff Report

The brackets for this year's NCAA Tournament went more or less according to form, as announced today.

Yale, North Dakota, Boston College and Miami are the four No. 1 seeds in Bridgeport, Green Bay, St. Louis and Manchester, respectively. The top four seeds also happen to all be winners of their respective conference tournaments, something that has never happened.

East Regional, Bridgeport

The No. 1 overall seed is Yale, coming off a 6-0 win over Cornell in the ECAC Championship game. The Bulldogs are the host team in Bridgeport for the second time in three years. Two years ago, also coming off an ECAC title, the Bulldogs lost to Vermont. Last year, Yale didn't win the title and wasn't hosting, but defeated North Dakota in the first round before losing the Boston College in Worcester.

This year, Yale will get an opportunity to avenge perhaps its worst loss of the season when it plays Air Force. Yale went to Colorado Springs early in the year, and came up with a great win against Colorado College on a Friday. That Saturday against Air Force, Yale was up 3-0 in the third period, but collapsed and lost the game. It was the only game this year that Ryan Rondeau didn't start.

In the other half of the regional, Union faces Minnesota-Duluth. The last time UMD played an ECAC team, it overcame a 3-1 deficit in the final minute, then defeated Princeton in overtime in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs last made the Frozen Four in 2004.

"Obviously, we don't know a ton about those guys," said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. "They do have some great players though, a power play that's at 31 percent, and a goalie that was rumored to be a Hobey Baker candidate (Keith Kinkaid), so we know we have our work cut out for us."

Sandelin was hoping his team would play in Green Bay for the fans, but isn't too concerned about it.

"Over the last few weeks, I think we've been projected to go into about three different ones," Sandelin said. "I think if Michigan had lost, we probably would have gone to Green Bay. And I think from a fan's perspective, it would have been nice to only be five hours away. But sometimes its good to get away from our league and spread some of our teams out too."

Union, on the other hand, has never made the Division I tournament before. And, after coming in first place in the ECAC regular season, the Dutchmen had this past weekend off after losing in the league quarterfinals to Colgate.

"It is great for our school," Union coach Nate Leaman said. "I'm proud for our school, I'm proud our school is going to get represented by these young men. It's nice for our school that struggled in hockey for a few years there, to be on this stage."

Said Union freshman forward Jeremy Welsh, "It was pretty exciting (hearing Union called on TV). Just the anticipation of seeing who we were going to play. Just yesterday, I think we kind of knew it was going to be Duluth so some of the guys started looking at their season schedule and some of their top players. It is better to prepare when you know the opponent."

Northeast Regional, Manchester

Miami, coming off its first CCHA Tournament championship, 5-2 over Western Michigan, gets the top seed. After making the Frozen Four the last two seasons, Miami will need to get through the host team in the bracket, New Hampshire, if it wants to do so again.

Also in Manchester, Merrimack will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since joining Hockey East, and first of any kind since 1988. The Warriors lost the Hockey East Championship game Saturday, 5-3 to Boston College, but come in with a program-record amount of wins. The team that eliminated Merrimack back in 1988 was Lake Superior State, on the way to its first national championship. The assistant coach on that team was Jeff Jackson, who went on to win two titles of his own as Lake State head coach, and now coaches Notre Dame — Merrimack's opponent in this tournament.

"I know that President Dr. Christopher Hopey, one of his few requests of the athletic department, was to potentially somehow get Notre Dame on the schedule. So we've managed to do that in six short months," Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. "Jeff Jackson was great about it when I called him. Two Catholic schools, one a little bit larger than the other, but I think it's a great storyline.

"I think travel is really going to be on our side. I've seen the toll that can take on a team. We've got another week's worth of work to do. That extra day is going to be valuable as well. We'll try to put it all to good use."

Merrimack senior forward Joe Cucci is from the Chicago area, making the matchup with Notre Dame particularly exciting.

"To see the school's name pop up there on the screen was definitely very exciting," Cucci said. "As soon as they unveiled the third [bracket] and we saw we were in Manchester, it was very exciting. Guys are pretty happy, we're going to have some good support next week. ... They've got a lot of Chicago kids, I know a lot of guys on that team. They've got a lot of skilled, small forwards with a lot of speed. They can put up goals with the best team in the country. We're going to have to get to work on Tuesday and make up for that loss last night [to BC in the HE championship]."

West Regional, St. Louis

Boston College is the top seed, after having to be shipped away from New Hampshire. The Eagles just won the Hockey East Tournament title, and are the defending national champions. They will face Colorado College, which lost to North Dakota in the WCHA semifinals. The Tigers haven't been to the NCAAs since 2008, and haven't been to a Frozen Four since 2005.

On being sent out West depsite being a No. 1 seed, BC head coach Jerry York said, “We understood the parameters and how it all works. Miami has to come east as one seed, and we have to go west as a one seed. And we understand how the whole situation works and the technicalities of the bracket. But I certainly am going to propose to Bob Driscoll [Chairman of the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee] to look into the possibility of leagues hosting sites.

"We still wants to have crowds at our events. So I think that's the best way without handcuffing the committee. … There was situation where if Merrimack had defeated us [Saturday] night, both of us would’ve had to go west because of seeding situations. So we would've had two eastern teams traveling west as No. 1 seeds. We understand that's the way it is now, but that’s a conversation for another day."

The other matchup has Michigan against former CCHA foe Nebraska-Omaha. The Wolverines are making their 21st consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, a record. Its opponent, UNO, is making its second appearance and hasn't won an NCAA game. Nebraska-Omaha had a strong first season in the WCHA, but was eliminated by Bemidji State in the WCHA playoffs. It had to wait a week to see if things would fall right to secure an NCAA bid. The opposing coaches, Dean Blais and Red Berenson, have won four national championships between them. In fact, this regional features coaches with a combined eight national titles — including the four won by BC's Jerry York.

"Mike Kemp has put a lot of time and effort into starting his program and getting it to a pretty good level," York said of UNO. "Now Dean Blais has come in and had a chance to really polish that program. Now he has them in the national tournament. Dean has certainly put a good imprint on it. Merrimack's the same way. Neither one was a favorite to get to the NCAA Tournament. So it's nice to see some different teams in the field and still have the staple programs in there.

"Each coach has a certain style. We vary greatly in Hockey East in how our teams play. The western teams are the exact same. For example, North Dakota is going to play a lot different than Colorado College is going to play. I think it's more of what kind of program you're playing. From what we know about [Colorado College] from watching tape, they're a real skating team. They're very quick, and Joe Howe has had an outstanding year for them in goal."

West Regional, Green Bay

North Dakota is the No. 1 seed in the West Regional in Green Bay, coming off a thrilling 3-2 double overtime win over Denver in the Final Five Championship game. The game winner was scored by Matt Frattin, his 35th, tops in the nation.

The coaches of the three other teams in this region have ties to each other, though the ones with closest direct ties are not facing each other.

North Dakota's opponent, Rensselaer, is coached by Seth Appert, who was a goalie for Ferris State from 1992-96. At Ferris, he was teammates with Jeff Blashill (1994-98 at FSU), who has guided Western Michigan through a magical turnaround season in his first year on the job. Western Michigan is in the other half of this bracket, facing Denver.

Meanwhile, Appert was an assistant under Denver coach George Gwozdecky from 1999-2006, as part of two national champions, before getting the RPI job. And Gwozdecky's coaching disciple is Rico Blasi at Miami, where Blashill was an assistant from 2002-08.

RPI, of course, is the last team in the tournament, and had to sit two weeks, after losing in the first round of the ECAC playoffs, to see their fate.

"I went from being at an all-time low to being at an all-time high," RPI goalie Allen York said. "Obviously we wanted to play our way into the tournament, but this is great. It proved that all the work we put in during the season, paid off at the end."

Said Appert, "I found it easier to root for teams than to root against teams. Some of them being my close friends, like Jeff Blashill at Western — he's my best friend, he was in my wedding, and if they lost twice, it would've benefited us. I didn't have a problem rooting for Yale last night though, didn't have a problem with that at all."

And Appert said his team isn't apologizing for anything, considering its 20-win season that included victories over Boston University and Yale.

"There isn't a lot of talk about the system. everyone knows what the system is," Appert said. "October games are just as important as games in February and March. It's a body of work that takes into account your whole season.

"There's always room to debate any system. In college basketball, every big game is on TV and members of the committee can see all the big games and all the teams. That isn't the case in college hockey, members out West haven't seen RPI or Dartmouth play all season."

The Committee

Speaking of which, committee chair Bob Driscoll, the Providence athletic director, echoed Appert's words when discussing whether the committee should be given more leeway than it has.

"It would be really hard if there was more flexibility," Driscoll said. "To volunteer the time to do this, you really would have to spend a lot more time to watch games, like basketball people do. It's a year-long process and a huge investment of time and energy. I'm not sure people have that time to do that, to be intelligent enough to be objective about it. And this system seems to work. It's not perfect, but it has a lot less controversy."

Driscoll said that flipping Merrimack back east, and doing so along with its "natural" opponent, the No. 11 overall seed, was obvious after looking at the bracket.

"Once you've done the competitive correction, you want to see if you can tweak it so you can play in front of your fans," Driscoll said, "so there's energy in the building, and certainly from a financial standpoint."

Driscoll said there was no thought to keeping them in Manchester to play New Hampshire anyway.

"It's a hard and fast rule that you can't play teams from your own conference in the first round," Driscoll said. "It's not fair to the conference."

The only major discussion — as it were — was over whether to move Denver away from North Dakota in the Midwest Regional. Those two could face each other again in the second round, after just having played this weekend's WCHA final.

"There's five WCHA in there, and so every place you tried to move them, they were either outside the band or caused too many teams from the same conference in one bracket," Driscoll said. "As much as you'd like that not to happen, it's not different from how many times Hockey East teams have to play each other. Some of those things are imperfect, but you still have to get by the first game. That's no guarantee.

"We thought the exact same thing, why do it again. But by the parameters we set up that everyone agreed upon, you just can't do it unless you want to change the rules. But this way, there's very little to complain about."

See CHN's analysis of the bracket for a discussion on how it would've been possible to make that change, and more about the reasons for doing so.

CHN Reporters Dan Myers, Sean Martin, Mike Machnik, Joe Meloni and Adam Wodon contributed to this report.

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