Bracket ABCs … Final Weekend Edition : College Hockey News


March 18, 2021
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Prepare For Chaos

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor (@CHN_AdamWodon)

We don’t have much more clarity about the bubble teams for the NCAA Tournament than we did since last week’s articles.

What is clear is that everyone believes their team absolutely deserves to be in, no question, and yours doesn’t, and you’re nuts to believe otherwise.

Even the coaches have gotten in on the act of publicly lobbying for their teams, which feels a bit unseemly, but then again, if one is doing it, they all kinda have to.

Denver’s David Carle acknowledged that when he said this week, “I like the Pairwise too. It removes all the b.s. of us standing here having to advocate for our team. But I’ll go down swinging with this team.”

You can make a lot of arguments for and against a system like the Pairwise that college hockey normally uses. But one thing about having a system that’s entirely objective — i.e. no opinions from a Committee when it comes to picking teams — is it avoids this kind of spectacle. And it avoids the potential for animosity among leagues and teams that comes with the public posturing.

I’m not saying that everyone in college hockey always gets along like rainbows and sunshine, but having the Pairwise system has led to 30 years of relative peace, compared to the days when there were constant screams of bias, shady smoke-filled-room dealings, and the resentment it caused.

So here’s where I think things stand. This is just my opinion, the Committee will have theirs. And feel free to have yours.

By the way, Mike McMahon and I will host the CHN Insiders podcast this weekend, and talk all about this. Normally, we record and post our podcast on Wednesdays. But we’re doing special NCAA Tournament selection shows on Saturday and then Sunday after selections.

Caveats

I’m going to mention right up front the same caveats from my previous article, because I think they are very important to keep in mind.

The Committee is going to try to limit air travel as much as possible. To what extent this means, exactly, we don’t know yet. But if it’s very strict, it could cause problems.

Also, and related to the above, the Committee may try to balance the brackets East and West. More specifically, it may decide to choose teams — explicity stated or otherwise — based upon their proxmity to the four Regionals in question — Bridgeport (Conn.), Albany (N.Y.), Fargo (N.D.) and Loveland (Colo.).

Personally, I don’t believe it’s necessary to be that strict. But more on that below.

In

There’s still what I believe are 12 locks:

– North Dakota

– Minnesota

– Boston College

– Minnesota State

– Wisconsin

– St. Cloud State

– Massachusetts

– Michigan

– Quinnipiac

– Minnesota-Duluth

– Boston University

– The Atlantic Hockey Tournament champ

I know there are fans of UMD and BU that are nervous. But it’s hard to imagine either being left out. Expect the Committee to think in terms of conference slots. And UMD was third in a tough conference that normally gets more than three teams in.

Boston University finished second, by the seeding system used by Hockey East. Losing in the one-game conference quarterfinals to Lowell wasn’t good, but it looks better after Lowell defeated Boston College. BU had just seven wins in regulation in a measly 15 games. I don’t think the Committee will hold that against the Terriers. The rule was made that 13 games was minimum, and BU hit the minimum, end of story.

That said, the eye test tells me that BU is not really a very good team this year. But its 7-3-1 (+ 3-1 in OT) record says otherwise. The Pairwise usually doesn’t care about shot differential or how a team looks, so the Committee probably won’t either.

Quinnipiac could lose the ECAC Tournament and still make it. At 15-5-4 in regulation, there’s no reason to keep QU out, especially when the Committee will need Eastern teams to balance things out.

Four At-Large

This leaves four at-large slots remaining. There are six conferences. Last article I mentioned that I think how teams stack up against each other within their conference will mean a lot, given that there’s been very little inter-conference play.

The lack of inter-conference play means it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to objectively determine in any way which conference is better than another this season. Of course, we can make educated opinions on this, based on history, roster makeup, and just watching the games.

But given that it’s impossible to actually objectively tell, does this mean the Committee should lean towards smoothing out the amount of teams each conference gets? Or will it be influenced by those other factors, some of which are obvious, intangible or not?

This is the fundamental question facing us, and there’s no way to know which way the Committee will go.

My gut feeling, based on armchair psychiatry, is that there will be a lot of pressure to keep things relatively even. There is one representative from each conference on the Committee, and it will be tough to have a discussion among peers that basically says “dude, your conference competition is obviously inferior.” And thus, it will err on the side of even-ness.

The 12 slots above give us

– 3 NCHC

– 3 Big Ten

– 3 Hockey East

– 1 WCHA

– 1 ECAC

– 1 Atlantic

The Bubble

So, here’s the thing … Everyone in the NCHC, Big Ten and Hockey East is lobbying for 4 or 5 of their teams to get in; and everyone in the WCHA and Atlantic is lobbying for 3. They all swear they are right. They all have their reasons. It can’t all happen.

So let’s look at it conference by conference.

NCHC

Denver and Nebraska-Omaha are both making a case to be the fourth NCHC team. Both have plausible cases. UNO fans can get mad at the messenger all they want, but the team’s 4-0 overtime record this season is going to be discounted because it came during 3-on-3 OT. This is by the NCAA’s own rules, decided upon last year, to count 3-on-3 OT wins as 55 percent win/45 percent loss. And vice-versa. Now, there is no Pairwise, technically, but there will be components of the Pairwise used to critique teams, especially within the same conference. So this will come into play, like it or not.

Denver defeated UNO in the NCHC quarters, giving it a 3-1 edge head-to-head in 5-on-5 games. UNO also won a 3-on-3 OT game. Denver wound up losing in overtime to North Dakota in the NCHC semis, finishing 10-11-1 in regulation woth an 0-2 RS OT record. UNO was 10-10-1 plus the 4-0. Using the RPI (ratings percentage index) component of the Pairwise, UNO is now slightly ahead of Denver, but Denver owns the head to head.

UNO was better against the top teams in the conference, but again, some of those came in OT. A lot of people have pointed out, too, that Omaha got to play the entire first half of its season at home, and did well. Those games were counted as neutral site by the Committee. If they were counted as home games, the Mavericks’ RPI would be lower.

Denver was the only team in its conference that didn’t get to complete its regular season, when the last two games against Colorado College had to be cancelled. That works against the Pioneers.

You can make a plausible case for either one. I have no idea what the Committee will do. I highly doubt it will take both. It’s possible they’ll take neither one. But just “watching the games,” the NCHC games are being played at a very high level, and just on the merits, the league deserves four teams. In a normal year, a .500 NCHC team would have a great non-conference record and easily be in.

When Denver’s record is shown on the screen, it shows as 10-13-1, though. The optics of that aren’t great.

Hockey East

There’s a very similar situation in Hockey East, where Providence moved up in the RPI by winning an early playoff game, but then lost in the semis and moved down. Meanwhile, Lowell’s win in the semis moved it ahead of Providence, but a loss in the final would move the River Hawks back down.

Should Lowell get penalized for losing the Hockey East final? This is one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about the Pairwise system over the years, that teams get hurt by advancing in their conference tournament. The Committee can do whatever it wants this year; it can override that quirk if it wants.

So, if Lowell loses, then what? You’re down to Providence, Lowell and UConn as possible options for a fourth Hockey East team. Again, I doubt five are taken, and maybe only three are. Flip another coin here.

Big Ten

Notre Dame lost its best case for making the NCAAs by losing the Big Ten quarterfinal to Penn State. It also didn’t look good in doing it. Notre Dame’s record is actually better, on paper, than Omaha, Denver and Providence. Notre Dame also has some pretty nice wins this year. Also some clunkers.

Who’s to say what any of this actually means?

From purely the eye test — my own eyes, my own opinion, take it for what it’s worth — Denver, Providence and Omaha have a better team this year than Notre Dame. So if one of the “big three” conferences get a fourth team, the Big Ten should not be it.

Penn State has no chance. I know they can say they had COVID issues early, and an 0-5 start, and a bunch of delays they were rusty coming out of. The thing is, every team can say something like that. Denver played its postseason with 16 skaters, and I didn’t even mention that as one of the factors above. There’s too many of those factors, so the Committee is going to dismiss them all and just judge on results.

ECAC

With Clarkson bowing out of the season, it solved the problem of whether the Committee would pick the Golden Knights. The ECAC is only getting a second team now if Quinnipiac gets upset in the final. All the other bubble teams are rooting against that.

WCHA

This is where it gets tricky.

The WCHA is so top heavy, that its top few teams all have really good records on paper. But what does it really mean?

Bemidji State, Lake Superior State and Bowling Green can make a plausible case. Bowling Green losing to Northern Michigan in the quarterfinals, however, I think probably dooms its case. Its record against the top teams in its league is not that good. It has those two wins against Quinnipiac at the beginning of the season, which were great at the time, but are like a distant memory at this point. On paper, it looks like it has more wins than it does, because two are against a Division III team, which are completely dismissed.

To me, Bemidji has clearly the best case. It is 2-3-1 against Minnesota State this season, and would be a tough out for anyone in the NCAAs. They are borderline locks for the NCAAs, I believe, or should be.

Lake Superior is a heckuva story. If the Lakers defeat Bemidji in the WCHA semis, that might just be for an NCAA bid, which would be its first since Jeff Jackson’s last season there, in 1996.

It’s just darned impossible to tell how good Lake Superior is given the schedule it has played. The record looks fantastic at 17-6-3, though, again, two of those are against a D-III team and irrelvant. The Lakers’ RPI and KRACH are both ahead of Bowling Green, though it would slip below with a loss to Bemidji. There it is again, advancing in the tournament possibly hurting a team. The Lakers also beat BG twice this year, once in OT.

If the Committee goes with three from the WCHA, I believe Lake Superior should be the third. But I definitely believe the WCHA should get two, and even if the Lakers defeat Bemjidi, I’d put Bemidji in.

Atlantic Hockey

Is it disrespectful to leave them for last? Or am I saving the best for last? You be the judge.

A little inside joke to some recent conversations I had, over whether I was being disrespectful to Atlantic Hockey and its teams for, among other things, suggesting that it doesn’t necessarily merit two teams in the NCAAs. And that the rosters of its top teams, AIC, Army and Robert Morris among them, don’t really stack up to even a fifth-place NCHC team like Denver.

Now, this is my opinion and I don’t think it’s crazy. But it is no way disrespectful to Atlantic Hockey. I’ve spent 30 years with the ECAC as my main focus of coverage, I know disrespect when I see it. I love the little guy and the underdog. I love the way teams compete their fannies off despite the obvious obstacles they have, whether it be less resources, or higher academic standards. Or, like with Army, the fact that it’s one of the service academies. I have the utmost respect for these teams, players, institutions and coaches, with whom I’ve enjoyed numerous great conversations with over the years.

The fact that I also, at the same time, don’t believe that any of those teams would be in the Top 15 of the Pairwise were this a “normal” year, has nothing to do with respect. It’s just some logic and some opinion.

I hate that I’m put in position to have to knock certain programs. Even Bowling Green, I feel bad having to say “you’re not good enough.” Usually the Pairwise does this for me. But from my perspective, I am only pushing back on those who have their own biases, who are 1,000 percent insistant that Atlantic deserves two teams, and that you’re an ignorant buffoon if you think otherwise. This is poppycock.

Now, that said, does it mean a team can’t be good in a one-game NCAA Tournament context? Obviously not. I’ve been around a while. I’ve seen all the wins by Atlantic teams in the NCAAs. Most of those games were real good games, too. Air Force pretty much outplayed Michigan start to finish in the 2009 NCAAs at Bridgeport. I was there. Same for RIT vs. Denver and UNH in 2010 at Albany. I was there too. Heart and senior experience can overcome a lot of talent gaps. We’ve seen it plenty of times. I get it.

Furthermore, am I going to cry for UNO, Denver or Notre Dame if they don’t get in? No, they had their chances. By all means, let Army in. Let Lake Superior State in. Let’s have a blast with that. I’d love to see it. I even advocated for this back in December, when I specifically stated that the WCHA should get three bids, and Atlantic Hockey should get two. In a season where you can’t actually tell, from a mathematical standpoint, which team’s strength of schedule — across conferences — is better than another, then err on the side of evenness across the leagues.

But would I trade the roster of Denver for Army’s or Lake Superior’s? No, I wouldn’t.

If that comment is offensive to you, please find another universe to live in. But for the love of all that’s holy, there’s no “disrespect.”

So, would I put Army or AIC in over Notre Dame? Sure. Will the Committee? Who knows.

The Brackets

Most of what I can say about brackets were said in the last article. I’m going to make the assumptions that the Committee will try to keep things as regional as possible. I’m also going to make the assumption that some teams will have to fly no matter what.

The Committee will also not feel beholden to its usual guideline of avoiding first-round intra-conference matchups. Though I believe they can do so if they try.

Fargo

1. North Dakota vs. 4. Bemidji State 

2. Wisconsin vs. 3. Minnesota-Duluth

Loveland

1. Minnesota State vs. 4. Denver or Omaha

2. St. Cloud State vs. 3. Notre Dame or Lake Superior State

Bridgeport

1. Boston College vs. 4. American International

2. Quinnipiac vs. 3. Boston University

Albany

1. Minnesota vs. 4. Providence or Lowell or Army

2. Massachusetts vs. 3. Michigan

This bracket is West heavy, so Minnesota and Michigan must both go East. You could move Wisconsin instead, but Minnesota deserves to be the 1 seed, and Wisconsin could fudge a bus ride to Fargo if it wanted to. The last time, I had Clarkson in over a third WCHA team, which made it 7/9. If you put Providence and Army in, it would be 7/9, but then which of the four seeds becomes a 3? Or which one goes West? In place of which Western team? Either way there’s an issue. Having Denver in solves a flight issue, but Omaha could fudge it on a bus ride to Loveland, if it wants.

The problem is the seeds in Loveland. All four of those possible 3 and 4 seeds, should really be 4 seeds at best. But no matter what you do to switch it, you create two extra flights. Will the Committee care?

These will be the conundrums.

As for Michigan, it has to fly no matter what. It’s actually closer to Albany than Fargo. So you might as well treat it like an “eastern” team and move them there to balance things out.

Here’s another thing. There are six teams that can bus to Fargo easily. Two more if you fudge it a little with Wisconsin and Omaha. I think the Committee is going to go through hoops to put four bus teams in Fargo, even if it means shuffling seeds.

If the Committee goes purely 8/8 kinda like it did with the women’s bracket, it would be an injustice. It would mean, say, Providence, Army and … UConn? all make it, and Denver, Omaha, Notre Dame and Lake Superior would all be out. Knocking all those teams out isn’t, unto itself, a massive injustice, but the matchups would be brutal. Eight of the top 10 teams in our Power 16 would be in the two western regionals.

But, given that there’s no accurate way to say UMD is better than Providence, maybe the Committee throws up its hands and does just that. I hope not, I tend to think not, but who knows.

Prepare for chaos.

See you on the podcasts, or follow my random Twitter nonsense at @CHN_AdamWodon.





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