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College Hockey:
Analysis: Picking The Field

The bubble has burst.

Harvard’s dramatic double-overtime victory over Cornell in the ECAC championship game effectively sealed the field of teams that will be included in the NCAA tournament. Alaska-Fairbanks and Northern Michigan, the top two teams that had outside chances of being included, now have virtually no chance of making the tournament.

The five automatic qualifiers will go to the conference champions: either Michigan or Michigan State in the CCHA, Harvard in the ECAC, New Hampshire in Hockey East, Quinnipiac in the MAAC, and Denver in the WCHA.

At-large bids should go to Minnesota, Boston University, Maine, St. Cloud, Colorado College, Cornell, and the loser of the CCHA championship game. A sizable gap between No. 10 Michigan and the next two teams, No. 11 Alaska-Fairbanks and No. 12 Northern Michigan, in both the Ratings Percentage Index and in number of comparison wins, has effectively eliminated teams ranked lower than 10.

So the field is set, but the question that remains is seeding. Even this process is significantly simpler than in past years, however, due to NCAA legislation put in place following the September 11 attacks. These rules state that any team that is under 400 miles from a particular venue cannot choose to fly there; they must bus it. So the previous rules about swapping the bottom two east and west seeds to provide a “national feel” to the tournament are not in effect for this year.

The only schools that are greater than 400 miles from a venue are Minnesota and St. Cloud, which are over 600 (driving) miles away from Ann Arbor; and the two Colorado schools, which are over 1,200 miles the nearest regional, in Ann Arbor. All four schools will be flying, and so can fly to either venue.

As of the finish of the Cornell-Harvard game, but before the CCHA final game, here are the top 10 teams, plus automatic qualifiers Quinnipiac and Harvard:

 Rk Team    GP W- L- T Win% Rk  RPI Rk PWR
1 New Hampshire 38 29- 6- 3 0.8026 2 | 0.6239 3 | 26
2 Denver 40 32- 7- 1 0.8125 1 | 0.6259 1 | 25
3 Minnesota 41 29- 8- 4 0.7561 5 | 0.6242 2 | 24
4 Boston University 37 25- 9- 3 0.7162 8 | 0.5991 4 | 22
5 Michigan State 39 27- 7- 5 0.7564 4 | 0.5982 5 | 22
6 Maine 40 23-10- 7 0.6625 12 | 0.5883 7 | 20
7 St. Cloud 41 29-10- 2 0.7317 6 | 0.5947 6 | 19
8 Colorado College 41 26-12- 3 0.6707 11 | 0.5824 8 | 19
9 Cornell 33 24- 7- 2 0.7576 3 | 0.5794 9 | 19
10 Michigan 40 25-10- 5 0.6875 9 | 0.5770 10 | 19
23 Quinnipiac 37 20-12- 5 0.6081 15 | 0.5037 25 | 4
24 Harvard 33 15-14- 4 0.5152 26 | 0.4997 27 | 3

These split nicely into six eastern teams and six western teams:

 East
1 New Hampshire 38 29- 6- 3 0.8026 2 | 0.6239 3 | 26
4 Boston University 37 25- 9- 3 0.7162 8 | 0.5991 4 | 22
6 Maine 40 23-10- 7 0.6625 12 | 0.5883 7 | 20
9 Cornell 33 24- 7- 2 0.7576 3 | 0.5794 9 | 19
23 Quinnipiac 37 20-12- 5 0.6081 15 | 0.5037 25 | 4
24 Harvard 33 15-14- 4 0.5152 26 | 0.4997 27 | 3
 West
2 Denver 40 32- 7- 1 0.8125 1 | 0.6259 1 | 25
3 Minnesota 41 29- 8- 4 0.7561 5 | 0.6242 2 | 24
5 Michigan State 39 27- 7- 5 0.7564 4 | 0.5982 5 | 22
7 St. Cloud 41 29-10- 2 0.7317 6 | 0.5947 6 | 19
8 Colorado College 41 26-12- 3 0.6707 11 | 0.5824 8 | 19
10 Michigan 40 25-10- 5 0.6875 9 | 0.5770 10 | 19

The easiest thing would be to seed the teams this way. However, there is one crimp in these plans: the CCHA championship game. Right now, the top three teams are clear, but there is a virtual tie for the fourth and final bye, between Eastern team Boston University and Western team Michigan State.

Should Michigan State defeat Michigan, the tie would be broken in MSU’s favor, and the Spartans should receive the bye. Should Michigan win, Boston University should get the better of the comparisons, and hence the bye.

If Michigan wins, the seedings should look very much like what is above, with Michigan moving past Colorado College:

East
1 New Hampshire
2 Boston University
3 Maine
4 Cornell
5 Quinnipiac
6 Harvard

West
1 Denver
2 Minnesota
3 Michigan State
4 St. Cloud
5 Michigan
6 Colorado College

If Michigan State wins, then three western teams receive byes, complicating the picture. One western bye team must come east and one non-bye eastern team must go west.

Which team goes east? The three western byes would be Denver, Minnesota and Michigan State, in that order. Both Denver and Minnesota are outside the 400 mile driving mandate from the NCAA, so either team would fly, meaning either team could get to either location. In this situation, Denver should receive the No. 1 seed in the West, with Minnesota getting the No. 2 seed in the East.

Which team goes west? Almost all teams would be inconvenienced similarly, so the lowest seeds should be penalized, meaning either Harvard or Quinnipiac. Harvard going west would make it easier to avoid a first-round matchup with Cornell, but Harvard would draw more fans in the east. I think, in this instance, we’ll see Quinnipiac go west, but I’ll hedge my bets by listing both possibilities:

East
1 New Hampshire
2 Minnesota
3 Boston University
4 Maine
5 Cornell
6 Harvard/Quinnipiac

West
1 Denver
2 Michigan State
3 St. Cloud
4 Colorado College
5 Michigan
6 Quinnipiac/Harvard

These two arrangements avoid all first-round intraconference matchups without any further playing with the brackets, and satisfy the new travel stipulations handed down by the NCAA.

There might be some complaints with these brackets, although I challenge anyone to come up with some brackets that do not raise a few eyebrows.

Specifically, however, two things stands out.

No. 1W Denver, in either scenario above, is “rewarded” for winning the WCHA regular-season and postseason titles by being placed in the same bracket as Michigan at the Wolverines’ home rink, Yost Arena. The last time this happened, No. 1W North Dakota ended up not advancing to the Frozen Four, as the Wolverines won in front of thousands of screaming fans.

Looking at the East bracket, we see that in one scenario, No. 4E Maine, which just lost to New Hampshire in the Hockey East finals, could be in the same bracket as New Hampshire. And in the other scenario, No. 2E Boston University is rewarded for its loss in the Hockey East semifinals with a first-round bye.

Neither option seems right; based on head-to-head results, which include the Maine win over the Terriers in the Hockey East semifinals, we might see Maine get the bye rather than BU, or, in the other scenario, Maine and BU swapped so that Boston University, which hasn’t played the Wildcats in a while, placed in the bracket with New Hampshire rather than Maine. The latter seems more likely than the former, since even with the semifinal loss to Maine, BU still handily wins that particular comparison:

 Boston University vs Maine
RPI 0.5991 1 0.5883 0
L16 11- 4- 1 0 10- 3- 3 0
TUC 12- 7- 1 1 11- 7- 5 0
H2H 1 2
COP 18- 5- 2 1 15- 5- 4 0
============================================
PTS 4 2
============================================

Swapping the No. 3E seed with the No. 4E seed seems like much less of a big deal than the No. 2E seed and the No. 3E seed, with the bye. The byes, of course, would be eliminated if the tournament were to expand from 12 to 16 teams, which is proposed legislation and seems likely to pass and be in effect for next season.

To see the final brackets, tune in to the NCAA Selection Show, which will air at 9:00 p.m. (EST) on ESPNews on Sunday, March 17. USCHO.com will have the brackets available as soon as they are announced.


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