I’ve been covering college hockey for USCHO since 2006. Since I live in Colorado and cover Denver and Colorado College, I’ve become very familiar with both the WCHA and its rabid fanbase. Since the all-WCHA Frozen Four in 2005, fans of the league have enjoyed pumping out conspiracy theories about how the NCAA is determined, at all costs, to avoid having too-heavy a WCHA representation in the men’s tournament.
Boys, let me tell you, you ain’t got nothing on the girls.
How else to view today’s selection and placement of teams for the final eight in the NCAA tournament. No. 1 Wisconsin, riding a 24-game unbeaten streak and winner of a dramatic overtime game with No. 3 Minnesota, one of the hottest teams in the country, draws defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth in the first round. Should they win that, they will most likely face Minnesota in the semis, barring an unlikely not-by-seed-but-by-paper upset of the Gophers by Boston College.
On the other side, No. 2 Cornell draws No. 8 Dartmouth in the first round. No disrespect to the Big Green, who were the only ECAC team to beat Cornell this season, but Dartmouth is not in the same league as Minnesota-Duluth, and has an RPI that is .300 lower than the Bulldogs.
The last bracket features Mercyhurst and Boston University, two teams that have struggled of late. The Terriers lost in the Hockey East tournament to Northeastern and have gone a pedestrian 4-4-1 since the beginning of February. Mercyhurst has only lost two games since January, but they were to Cornell and Wisconsin, and they didn’t look good in winning the CHA tournament.
Several things are at work in this tournament field that probably makes all the WCHA coaches upset. First of all, the NCAA only seeds the top four squads. The rest of the teams are placed by geography, so that the NCAA doesn’t have to pony up funds to fly teams all over the country for what they view as a money-losing tournament, and to hell with bracket integrity.
More important however, is the flawed nature of the PairWise when it comes to women’s hockey. For all the griping about the PairWise when it comes to men’s hockey, there are usually some out-of-conference games between top teams that can form a basis for comparison. For instance, Boston College played two against Denver and one against Notre Dame this year, North Dakota played two against Notre Dame, Boston University played Notre Dame and Wisconsin, Michigan played Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and Miami played New Hampshire and St. Cloud.
Contrast that to the women’s game. Cornell played two games against Mercyhurst and none against WCHA or Hockey East squads. Boston University played North Dakota, and Mercyhurst, to its credit, played Wisconsin (and lost 7-4). Boston College played no WCHA squads, picking off ECAC teams for its out-of-conference schedule.
To get a better PairWise, top eastern squads need to start playing games against the WCHA. It would create a far more accurate base of comparison than what is currently in place.
I don’t think you can watch the intensity of the Wisconsin-Minnesota WCHA final and doubt that when it comes to the top squads in the conference, the WCHA is stronger in the women’s game. It is also deeper. In addition to the big three of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Minnesota-Duluth (the only teams ever to win an NCAA championship), there are teams like North Dakota and Bemidji State who can threaten the top squads, and would probably have a shot at a championship in any other division. Ohio State won only eight WCHA games, but went 6-0 against the CHA.
Looking at the tournament, I see several things at play. Mercyhurst is the host. They finished fourth in the PairWise, but were not seeded, and instead get to play BU, a team they likely can beat and advance to the Frozen Four, with a likely shot at the final. If they had been seeded fourth, they would have had to go through Wisconsin to get to the final, a far more daunting proposition than Cornell, whom they have beaten this year.
If the committee had simply gone by the PairWise, Wisconsin would play Dartmouth, Cornell would play Minnesota-Duluth, Boston University would play Minnesota, and Mercyhurst would play Boston College, with, if seedings held, semis of Wisconsin-Mercyhurst and BU-Cornell. That tournament seems a far more accurate representation of the women’s game as it is now than what the tournament actually is.