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College Hockey:
NCAA Women’s Tournament Selection: an alternate view

There has been massive confusion over the National Collegiate women’s hockey selection process, leading to several conspiracy theories:
– the NCAA conspired to prevent an all WCHA-final and put all WCHA teams on one side of the bracket;
– the commitee chose to send Mercyhurst to struggling BU to increase Frozen Four host Mercyhurst’s chance of advancing; and
– the NCAA is too cheap to fly more than two teams for the NCAA quarterfinals.

Despite all the theories, the selections and brackets can be rationalized.

Q: Why did the committee decide to send UMD to Wisconsin and Dartmouth to Cornell? Why did the committee fail to protect the No. 1 seed?
First, recognize that the committee’s preferred rankings were (1) Wisconsin, (2) Cornell, (3) BU, (4) BC, (5) Minnesota, (6) Mercyhurst, (7) UMD, and (8) Dartmouth (more on these rankings later). Such a bracket would require four cross-country flights. The NCAA has not been willing to break the bank for so many flights since the inaugural tournament of 2005. The NCAA has repeatedly proven itself willing to fly three teams, however.

The top four seeds are locked in. The only ways to prevent flights were to (1) send Dartmouth to Cornell, BU, or BC or (2) send UMD to Wisconsin. Sending Dartmouth to Wisconsin would prevent either possibility. The committee’s hands were tied, and they sent Dartmouth to the highest possible Eastern seed, Cornell.

Who to send to Wisconsin? Given that Dartmouth was locked in to Cornell, the committee chose to “protect” Wisconsin by sending them the next-lowest ranked team, UMD, which conveniently created an additional local matchup. The NCAA’s long-proven willingness to fly three teams for the women’s quarterfinals suggests the committee would have been able to send an eastern 7th-ranked team to Wisconsin, but the rankings did not fall that way.

Q: The USCHO Women’s Division I PairWise Rankings have Mercyhurst fourth, and Minnesota and Boston College tied for fifth, with Minnesota having the edge in the RPI tiebreaker. Yet the NCAA Selection Committee appears to have ranked Boston College fourth, Minnesota fifth, and Mercyhurst sixth? What gives?
The comparisons in the PairWise Rankings are at best an approximation of how the committee sees them. The committee saw quite a few comparisons differently from the PairWise.

The women’s championship handbook includes the sentences, “When comparing two teams, the committee reserves the right to weight criteria differently based on relative team performance. For example, if there is only a tiny fraction of a difference between two teams records’ vs. common opponents, and a large difference in their results vs. teams under consideration, the committee may weight results vs. teams under consideration more heavily than common opponents.”

Translation: you can’t be sure what we’re going to do unless one team beats another in all criteria.

The PairWise ranks Mercyhurst above Minnesota. However, the commitee likely recognized that Minnesota had a superior performance against two common opponents with Mercyhurst, Wisconsin and Bemidji State, though Mercyhurst has the better common opponent win percentage in the PairWise. The committee likely gave Minnesota the comparison based on its superior record vs. teams in the RPI top 12 (6-8-2 for Minnesota vs. 1-2 for Mercyhurst) in addition to this common opponent edge.

The Pairwise gives Minnesota the comparison with Boston College. However, the committee likely choose to give greater weight to BC’s superior record vs. the RPI top 12 (8-3-1 compared to Minnesota’s
6-8-2) over Minnesota’s RPI edge of .0003.

The PairWise gives UMD the comparison with Minnesota. However, the committee likely recognized that Minnesota had the far superior RPI and that its disadvantage in common opponents and record vs. RPI top
12 was due to Minnesota’s loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA final, which UMD did not qualify for.

I believe the committee agreed with PairWise interpretation of Mercyhurst vs. BC. Mercyhurst had the edge in RPI and common opponents. BC fared relatively poorly against common opponents Maine and St. Lawrence.

Under these comparisons, Mercyhurst, BC, and Minnesota are all tied for 4th. While RPI is typically considered the tiebreaker in these situations, the RPI differences between the teams were all tiny. The commitee must have instead used BC’s superior record vs. the RPI top 12 (8-3-1 compared to Minnesota’s 6-8-2 and Mercyhurst’s 1-2) to rank the teams as BC No. 4, Minnesota No. 5, and Mercyhurst No. 6.

Q: Why did the commitee choose to take Dartmouth over North Dakota?
Here, the PairWise rankings get it right. Dartmouth had the superior RPI (.5496 vs. .5476). The teams had the same win percentage vs. teams in the RPI top 12. Dartmouth had a superior record vs. common opponents (Dartmouth beat Vermont while North Dakota went 1-0-1 against them). North Dakota beats Dartmouth in no criteria, so there’s no room for subjectivity from the committee.


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  • M Go Blue

    How long until they go to a 12-team Tournament? It is a shame a team like Quinnipiac doesn’t get a chance in the NCAA Tourney. They are a better team than Dartmouth (hammered them 4-0 in DC’s own barn) and have a tremendous player in Kelly Babstock. They are a team that could do some damage in the tournament but won’t get a chance. Is there any talk of expanding the women’s bracket at all?

    • http://twitter.com/Dr_DRDR DRDR

      I’m not up to speed on the latest talk, but back in 2005 when the field expanded to eight teams, the NCAA aimed for a tournament size of roughly 20-30% of the number of participating institutions in most sports. Women’s hockey is now up to 32 schools playing a full D-I schedule, and there are 4 other D-I/D-II schools. That puts the sport at 22% (8 of 36). So we’re probably at least four programs away from tournament expansion.

    • skater8

      Quinnipiac is definitely a team on the rise and I expect to see them in the hunt for the NCAA tournament next year. Their 4-0 win over Dartmouth was with 2 PP goals and 1 empty netter with a minute to go. Dartmouth outshot them that game. Quinnipiac lost to them at home 4-3 in OT so they split the season series. I agree that it would be nice see a bigger field in the NCAA tournament but we will probably have to wait until more Big10 schools start fielding teams (Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State would be nice) or somebody like URI decides to move up from club status to Division 1.

  • DRDR

    “My response to David DeRemer, and anyone else who wants us to discard conspiracy is this: Is this the way the NCAA interprets its mandate every year? Are they consistent? Or, did things get interpreted a bit differently this year than they have in other years. (Which is not to say that I discount the possibility that they are always different.) Yes, it is possible to rationalize ways in which this year’s bracket meet the criteria*, but that hinges on the assumption that it is done consistently. If it isn’t, all those rationalizations accomplish is to push back the conspiracy to the step of deciding how to emphasize the criteria.

    FWIW, I think there is one glaring weakness in David’s response. It hinges upon the idea that the committee has no problem putting three teams on airplanes, but absolutely draws the line at four. To me, this smells an awful lot like curve fitting. Absent some actual evidence supporting the idea that this is how the committee thinks (and, again, not just how they were thinking this year, but also how they have thought in the past), I’m just not buying it. It seems a very odd and arbitrary place to draw the line. I could buy speculation that the NCAA wants to minimize airplane flights, and is always looking for ways to do that, but not this hard line between 3 and 4. Not on pure speculation.” — from poster Eeyore on the USCHO Fan Forum.

    Eeyore, raise some good questions that I did not fully address in the column for the sake of brevity, but I’ll address now.

    The NCAA has often gone beyond its legislated mandate in allowing flights for the National Collegiate women’s hockey championship. Going strictly by the present handbook, the NCAA should seed the top 4 teams, annoint them as hosts, and then seek to minimize flights. This would imply an intra-WCHA matchup whenever the league has one team in the top 4 and one team outside the top 4. Going back to the first few years of the 8-team tournament, the committee was only obligated to seed the top two teams.

    In practice, the committee has allowed more flights than suggested by the handbook. The 2005 committee could have sent 5th-ranked Wisconsin to 2nd-ranked Duluth, and the 2009 committee could have sent 5th-ranked UMD to Minnesota. Neither happened. The 2005 committee flew 4 teams and the 2009 committee flew 3 teams when fewer flights were possible.

    Has the committee been consistent in allowing more than the minimum number of flights necessary? No. The inaugural 8-team tournament of 2005 is the only year that the NCAA allowed four flights — de facto seeding of 100% of the bracket. My conversations with the committee and its NCAA liasion at the time suggested that the NCAA did this to make sure the tournament got off to a strong start. This was a one-time occasion. No future bracket has involved four flights. To regularly seed 100% of the bracket would require further legislation at the level of the NCAA’s Division I championship cabinet. Such legislation is unlikely, because historically only profitable championships get their whole bracket seeded, while other championships usually have only 25% of their bracket seeded.

    I believe the NCAA is still willing to fly three teams for the quarterfinals to maintain bracket integrity, because it did so as recently as 2009, and the decision to send UMD to Wisconsin and Dartmouth to Cornell can be rationalized as avoiding four flights and sending the lowest-ranked available team to Wisconsin, rather than an attempt to avoid three flights. There was no three-flight bracket this year that did a better job of maintaining bracket integrity, once the four quarterfinal hosts were chosen. To date the NCAA has never chosen a possible two-flight bracket over a three-flight bracket with superior bracket integrity, though I cannot rule out the possibiltiy it will do so in the future.

  • rp

    If they wanted to save airfare matchups are: UM-Duluth, BC-BU, Mercy-Cornell and Dartmouth-UW. Only one team flies and #1 plays #8.

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