October 2, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Embrace the Change

Pairwise Tweaks Are Just the Tip of This Year's Iceberg

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

This is the season of big change, something we've been building towards for two years. And while most of us have mentally wrapped our heads around all the machinations which got us here, many practical effects are yet to be played out.

A lot of people don't like change, but it depends on the change. Some of it's good, some of it's bad, and some of it just is what it is. It's all on how you look at it. Myself — I decided to jump in the fray of this "change" party by getting married, buying a new house, and buying a new car over the summer. Thank you college hockey for preparing me to make such huge adjustments.

So, no matter how you came to this point, let's embrace this thing and enjoy the ride.

* * *

Not coincidentally, last week, college hockey powers that be announced changes to the Pairwise — the system for selecting the NCAA tournament field — that reflect some of the anxieties of the new power structure.

While it's always been a background issue, a number of coaches became increasingly concerned over the diminishing number of conference games teams will play in the newly-formed Big Ten (20) and newly-configured Hockey East (22). Given that, it opens up the opportunity to play more non-conference games. That's fine, in and of itself, but most of those schools will fill the dates with home games, a phenomenon that was always there, but will be more pronounced now.

As a result, there was a growing clamor to do something about it, ranging from drastic proposals to more modest ones.

Ultimately, the Men's Ice Hockey Committee approved changes to the tournament selection criteria that gives more weight to road wins and home losses, something basketball has done since 2004-05. In addition, they scrapped the "Record vs. TUC" component, and replaced with a "Quality Win Bonus" to the RPI, which rewards "good wins." A bonus system was tried before, but it was deemed flawed for many reasons and scrapped in 2008.

I have some of the same concerns now. Mainly, that the numbers the committee came up with — .0025 bonus per each slot in the RPI's top 20; 1.2/0.8 weighting for road/home wins, etc... — are picked via trial and error. There is no mathematical theory behind it. In fact, you could say the same thing about the RPI calculation itself. There's some sound logic behind the numbers, but they are still arbitrary.

Then again, to be fair, all criteria is arbitrary, to some extent. That's one thing people misunderstand sometimes. The methodology of picking the teams is totally objective once the season is over, but deciding the criteria for that methodology is subjective.

So, like everything else, let's see how it plays out. According to the Committee, if the change was in effect last year, the teams that qualified for the NCAAs would've been the same, just with somewhat different ordering.

"We're one of the only sports, maybe the only sport, where there is no subjectivity involved, so our math needs to do what we want it to do," Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, a member of the committee, said. "When we find big loopholes in the math, we felt we needed to address them, and we weren't able to address them all but we felt we picked the ones that would have the most impact to create the best tournament for this upcoming season."

With such a negligible effect, why is the it even necessary to implement? Fair question. But, it could have an impact, and that should at least give some teams pause over scheduling so many home games.

And this will help answer the question — what is more important to "big" school, money or a better RPI? They get more money by playing more home games, but could get a benefit by playing more road games.

My guess is that money will still win out, though I was pleased to see Michigan schedule road games next year at Union and Rensselaer. That was in the works before these changes, but you have to think the growing clamor to push certain teams into more road games had some effect.

Philosophically, the idea of "Record vs. TUC" has always been a bit dodgy — i.e. the idea that "good wins" should be rewarded. That sounds fine on the surface, but if big wins are rewarded, why aren't "bad losses" penalized?

Actually, your win/loss percentage (or RPI) already reflects that balance. However, coaches seem set on the philosophy that "good wins" should be rewarded more than "bad losses" are penalized. So, thus is born things like "Record vs. TUC." But, if you're going to have that philosophy, at least create a good methodology for it. And Record vs. TUC was flawed because of the definition of a TUC, and because no distinction was ever made between the 1st TUC and the 30th TUC — the dreaded "TUC Cliff."

So kudos on the change.

"One of my biggest concerns (in the past) was the volatility at the end of the year based on other teams," Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said. "We would do nothing and move from 11 to 4 on a weekend, which actually happened. I always believe you need to win to move up. That's most important."

Some other points to consider going forward:

* It often comes up whether the committee should add more human intervention to the selection process. But so far, they've stuck to the guns and kept the process objective. I was pleased to hear talk, however, of allowing themselves more leeway with the seeding process. I've written many, many times that the numbers are too imprecise to lock themselves in so absolutely when it comes to seeding order.

* The committee still needs to finalize the definitions of home and road games. The basketball guidelines for such a thing are lengthy. What if, for example, Minnesota is playing as a lower seed in a postseason tournament at the Xcel Center? This is a problem now, because of the home/road weighting system.

"I'm sure we'll be complaining about the Pairwise at the end of the season," Jackson said. "I'm sure people will be complaining 10 years from now. There's no easy way around it. There's been a few issues I really had a problem with (and were addressed). ... Other than that, just like officiating, it's always better to just sit back and hold your breath."

* * *

Meanwhile, there are all the other changes that we've been chronicling over the last two years. Teams shifting around to different conferences, which result in new scheduling alliances, and television contracts. The net effect for college hockey could be a boon, although individual schools may suffer. My main concern years ago was the consolidation of power in the "bigger" conferences, as the rich would get even richer. But the departure of top-end talent, either leaving early, or going to major junior before reaching college, has balanced the scales — for better or for worse.

How everything shakes out will be fascinating to watch this season. But you can be sure of this — it's not the end of the change. Things will continue to evolve in sports and college hockey indefinitely.

And if you thought this year's changes were huge — and they were — just wait. There are a number of issues surrounding the NCAA these days — including huge lawsuits over players' rights, and the potential of players unionizing — that could potentially cause changes that would make this year pale in comparison.

We live in interesting times.

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