February 29, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

NCAA Tournament Bracket ABCs: First Edition

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

It's time for the first Bracket ABCs — Analysis, Breakdown, Comparison — of the season. We'll do so with the usual disclaimer ... We're not looking to give a bracket as if the season ended today, because it doesn't. And we're not trying to predict the future, because we can't. This is just an attempt to make a small amount of order to the madness, tell you who is in good shape and who isn't, point out the interesting machinations, and explain where the potential trouble spots might be for the committee.

And a reminder that a detailed explanation of how the Pairwise — the system the NCAA uses to select and seed the tournament field — works can be found here.

1-2. Minnesota-Duluth, Boston College

We see a good example right off the bat of how the new calculation for "Record vs. Common Opponents" comes into play. Boston College is just behind UMD in this category, which includes a 3-0 record vs. Providence while UMD was just 1-0-1. In the past, BC could improve its record in this department with two more wins over Providence, which is certainly possible in the Hockey East playoffs. But now, the "Record vs. COP" takes an average of the winning percentage each team has against the respective COPs in question. So, in other words, BC can't improve any further upon its 1.000 winning percentage vs. Providence. The rule was changed to prevent this exact scenario, where a team continues to rack up wins against a weaker common opponent.

Meanwhile, Boston College could still easily turn around the "Record vs. TUC" component, and would get help, particularly, if Massachusetts drops out of TUC status. A TUC (Team Under Consideration) is one that has a .500 or better RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). UMass got barely above that line with Saturday's win, which is actually detrimental to BC. If UMass were to lose more than win the rest of the way, it would drop back out, and BC would go back ahead of Duluth. This assumes both BC and UMD continue to win, which, for what it's worth, is more likely for Boston College — simply because it concludes the regular season against Vermont while the Bulldogs have two games at St. Cloud State. Both should then have relatively easy first-round playoff series, and from there, things will be secure.

The other thing is that, since these two are at opposite ends of the country anyway, it almost doesn't matter. They are on track to be regional top seeds in Worcester and St. Paul, respectively, no matter what. If one of them slips really bad in the next few weeks, then another team could rise up and take that slot, but that's the most likely scenario.

3-4. Michigan, Ferris State

Michigan is significantly behind the top two teams in important categories. Ferris State actually has a better shot of catching either BC or UMD than Michigan does, even though a loss by Ferris State to Vermont earlier this season is hurting it in comparison to Lowell, which may hold the Bulldogs back. Regardless, you could see these teams vying for a third No. 1 seed, to host in Green Bay, as they go through the CCHA playoffs. If both get No. 1 seeds, one could wind up Bridgeport — for Michigan, that was where it lost to Air Force in the first round in 2009.

Both teams look like locks for the NCAAs.

5-6. Boston University, Massachusetts-Lowell

BU has a lot of upside potential still, and could certainly still be the No. 1 overall seed if it wins out. It would require defeating BC along the way, which would probably happen under a scenario where BU wins the HEA championship. BU has common opponents with Michigan in Notre Dame and BC, and each could play those teams again, so that's where things could shift.

Lowell can still get to a No. 1 seed with a strong finish, but its upside potential is probably limited to about No. 3 overall. Still would be very impressive, of course, for a team that won just five games last season. It's hard to see Lowell falling much farther than 10th at this point, unless it loses the next four games, and even then, probably would still make the NCAAs.

7-8. Minnesota, Miami

A couple of sweeps this past weekend pretty much wrapped up NCAA bids for these teams. Miami will have the weekend off, and the worst it can do going forward is lose two games. Minnesota wraps up the regular season with two against Wisconsin, then has a playoff series against Alaska-Anchorage or Minnesota State, most likely. It could go 0-4 at worst, but that's unlikely.

On the other hand, Minnesota's home losses to Northeastern and Vermont earlier this season all but doom them against Lowell, BU and BC, so there isn't much upside for the Gophers.

Miami's TUC record isn't great, but its record against common opponents with teams around it is very good. So then it comes down to RPI, and Miami is close to teams above it in that regard, meaning that with some more wins in a row, the RedHawks still have room to move up. A No. 1 seed is possible if it wins out, but it will most likely be a No. 2 seed.

A Miami-Boston College regional pairing would be interesting, since those teams have met in the NCAAs so many times in recent years. Minnesota could be in a regional with Minnesota-Duluth, and that would be in St. Paul, which would be quite interesting indeed. In fact, this is very likely at the moment, unless the committee winds up trying to "protect" Duluth by moving it away from the Gophers — but would Duluth want that?

9. Union

Union has had a remarkable season after getting written off early on, winning a second consecutive ECAC regular-season championship, and on the verge of a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. It's likely that Union has sealed it up, though that will really become a certainly if it wins its quarterfinal series — something it didn't do a year ago. Protecting Union is the six teams currently below it, which can be grouped in three pairs — Maine-Merrimack, Michigan State-Northern Michigan, and Denver-North Dakota. These teams being from the same conference from each other means they can't all win out, and most likely, none of them will, giving Union some cushion.

10. Maine

Maine is in pretty good shape for a return to the NCAAs barring a meltdown. It could drop a few slots, but unless it loses four in a row, shouldn't drop much further. It has room to move up a few slots too, but will most like wind up in the 7-12 range.

11-12. Michigan State, Northern Michigan

This is the fifth and sixth-place team in the CCHA, the difference there being that NMU will play a first-round playoff series this coming weekend while Michigan State gets a bye. Despite being only No. 11, Michigan State is a near certainty for the NCAAs at this point, mainly because it is already losing two comparisons to teams beneath them, which means it can't go much lower than it is.

Northern Michigan still has work to do, and can't afford to lose this first-round series to Bowling Green. But Bowling Green has beaten some good teams in recent weeks, so it's not a gimme, and the Falcons did win this same series last year.

It's worth watching for potential first-round intra-conference matchup issues, with three CCHA teams bunched up as they (MSU, NMU and Miami) and Ferris State and Michigan looming as possible high No. 2 seeds. A nightmare scenario could emerge.

13-14. Denver, North Dakota

Both teams got through last weekend's matchup with a win, meaning they're both still hovering inside the dividing line. A big weekend looms again, closing out the regular season with a series against Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota State, respectively. These teams could play similar — or the same — opponents the following weekend in the playoffs. Going 4-1 the next two weekends would shore up bids for these two, barring a bunch of upsets in conference tournaments that allow teams that wouldn't have otherwise been at-large teams earn automatic bids.

15. Merrimack

Merrimack has a pair of games with UMass this weekend, which it needs to win if it wants to stay in decent shape headed into the playoffs. Then, you're looking at two (or three) huge games against a TUC, and Merrimack likely needs to win that series as well in order to make it.

16. Cornell

Cornell get helped if Massachusetts is knocked out of TUC status, but helped even more by Merrimack losing, so it would rather UMass defeat Merrimack twice this weekend. Cornell may need more than that to get in after a rough loss to RPI last weekend, which dropped it from 10 to 16. The Big Red will need a quarterfinal series win against an opponent to be determined, but even that won't be against TUCs, so it may not help that much, depending on how the teams above do.

17-18-19-20. Western Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Lake Superior

Four CCHA teams, three of which are in action this weekend, two of which play each other. So we know for a fact that one of them will be eliminated — whichever team loses the Notre Dame-Ohio State series. The winner still needs help, but two wins against a TUC is a big boost. Lake Superior State is not playing a TUC (Alaska) so a win in the series is only marginally helpful, while a loss is devastating.

Western Michigan may wind up with the winner of the Notre Dame-Ohio State series, which would again, then eliminate one of those teams. Consequently, the door is open for LSSU if it can get through the next two rounds, because two of the other three CCHA teams in this mix should be eliminated over the next two weeks.

Still, both LSSU and, to a lesser extent, Western Michigan, need a bunch of help from teams above them losing. They are rooting for losses, mainly, from Merrimack and either North Dakota or Denver.

21. Colorado College

The last team with reasonable possibilities to make it, but it will still take quite a lot. CC can't afford more than one more loss before the WCHA Final Five, and it would need all of the teams directly above them to start dropping off. Games against Michigan Tech this weekend, though, will not be easy to close out the regular season, and then another tough first-round WCHA series awaits. If they go worse than 4-1 in those games, it's over.

Mike Machnik contributed to this report.

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