Dancing In Southern Connecticut

Their schedule has been called “insular.” They get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, if that much. And in the general college hockey community, they’re given as much of a chance as the tortoise was against the hare.

But the Quinnipiac Braves are currently in a position to cause not only some rumblings in the college hockey world, but perhaps to a major earthquake.

The Braves, in their first full season at the NCAA Division I level, have posted a 26-5-2 record and wrapped up the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s (MAAC) inaugural regular-season championship. They are also currently in the top 12 in the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), one of the major criteria for selection to the NCAA championship tournament.

They have been informed by the NCAA that they are under consideration for the tourney. To many, this comes as quite a surprise.

At the beginning of the season, Quinnipiac and all of the other MAAC teams were informed by the NCAA that their “insular” schedule, as it was called, would be taken into consideration during tournament selection.

This was not a good thing for the MAAC.

The reason for the NCAA’s concern was that the MAAC schedule did not contain any games against teams in the other four national conferences: Hockey East, ECAC, WCHA, and CCHA. The only non-conference Division I opponents faced by the MAAC were Army, Air Force, Minnesota State-Mankato, Nebraska-Omaha and Niagara, all D-I independents this year. (Mankato will join the WCHA next season.)

But Quinnipiac’s head coach, Rand Pecknold, feels his team is pretty strong, though he’s not necessarily willing to argue whether Quinnipiac belongs in the nation’s top 12 teams. Rather, he points out that the way the tournament selection process is set up may benefit the Braves, come tourney time.

“The selection process is pretty clear. It is not made to take the top 12 teams, necessarily, just like the NCAA hoops tournament doesn’t take the top 64 teams. They are made to take a cross-section of teams.”

Pecknold is referring to the fact that the NCAA basketball tournament gives an automatic bid to just about every D-I conference in the country, and thus, some teams that don’t make the tournament are better than teams that do.

Pecknold also noted that the hockey tournament gives automatic bids to the playoff champions in Hockey East, the ECAC, WCHA and CCHA. Thus, if a number-eight seed in Hockey East were to pull off three upsets and win the title, you would have an entrant that isn’t nearly among the top 12 teams.

A perfect example of this was Providence College’s NCAA appearance in 1996. The Friars knocked off Boston College in the quarterfinals, then went on to beat Boston University and Maine, respectively, in the final four. The automatic bid was the only way that Providence could have made the tournament.

“Teams (like Providence) make the tournament because that’s the way the selection criteria are set up,” said Pecknold. “The criteria also says that at-large bids are filled by comparing the RPI and PWR (Pairwise Ranking) ratings and filling the slots with the top remaining teams.

“So if (the NCAA) wants to continue with precedent, they’d have to select us if we fit the criteria.”

A Hand in the Mix

One step up that Quinnipiac may have over the rest of the MAAC is that athletic director and key MAAC supporter Jack McDonald is part of the four-member NCAA selection committee.

McDonald notes that it can be tough to represent the interests of both the school and the conference while at the same time selecting the best teams to fill the tournament’s at-large bids.

“Whether it’s our job to put the best 12 or the best eight at-large teams or four at-large teams, it is our job to pick the best we can from the number available,” McDonald said.

The way the NCAA selection process works is simple — or maybe complex, depending upon your perspective.

There are five evaluation criteria for which each .500-or-better team is compared against every other such team: RPI, head-to-head record, record versus common opponents, record over the last 16 games, and record against teams under consideration (the .500-plus teams).

According to McDonald, there is one caveat.

One criterion says the following: “The committee reserves the right to evaluate each team based on the relative strength of their respective conference using the overall conference ratings percentage index (RPI) in determining competitive equity.”

What does that mean exactly? Well it basically says that if the conference’s RPI isn’t that strong as a whole — and teams like Fairfield and Canisius don’t have a strong RPI — then the selection committee can veto Quinnipiac’s participation. Also taken into account is the fact that two of the teams in the MAAC, Sacred Heart and AIC, have not been granted Division I status and are not eligible for the RPI ratings or the NCAA tournament.

Currently, and not to anyone’s surprise, the MAAC’s RPI is the lowest of the five conferences. Hockey East leads the way with rating of .525, followed by the WCHA at .5040. The CCHA ranks third at .5036, then the ECAC at .496, and the MAAC is last with .453. The independent schools collectively rank below the MAAC, at .442.

Another factor that the tournament committee may look at is the MAAC’s record outside of conference. The MAAC is 3-10-2 against Division I independents.

Selection Process Isn’t Quite Cut and Dried

It the past couple of years, selecting the 12 teams for the NCAA tournament has been pretty simple for the committee. The teams that won their conference tournaments were, for the most part, qualified for the tournament anyway. And the teams that were “on the bubble” clearly ended up either in or out based on the selection criteria.

But this year, according to McDonald, will be different.

“The committee’s going to have a role this year,” he said. “If a team like Quinnipiac is eligible to be thrown into the pool, and they remain eight, nine or ten in the ratings, it’s an automatic.

“So the decision is whether or not to consider Quinnipiac.”

It is important to point out that even though McDonald serves on the committee, he will not be allowed to vote on Quinnipiac and the MAAC’s consideration because the decision directly effects the institution he is affiliated with.

The director of the NCAA Ice Hockey Selection Committee, St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh, said that regardless of what conference Quinnipiac plays in, they do meet the criteria to at least a team under consideration, which, as mentioned above, is defined by the NCAA as any team with a .500 or better winning percentage against eligible Division I opponents.

“There are currently 22 teams under consideration,” Marsh said in Tuesday’s telephone press conference regarding the selection of the field. “We have to consider [Quinnipiac] — they are part of the mix.

“We are going to use all the information we have and not try to predetermine anything about the team.”

The decision on whether to consider Quinnipiac is unprecedented. The last time there was a new conference added was 15 years ago, when Hockey East was formed. And unlike the MAAC, where all member schools have made recent conversions from Division III to Division I, Hockey East only had one team, then the University of Lowell, that had made a recent move.

The remaining teams were basically a splinter group from the ECAC, so the NCAA granted an automatic bid to the tournament champion, Providence, in the league’s inaugural season. The strength of the league also allowed Boston College to enter the tournament as an at-large seed.

Braves May Burst Some Bubbles

Who besides Quinnipiac is affected by this whole situation? Basically, any team on the bubble.

Currently, four teams have clinched spots in the NCAA tournament: New Hampshire, Clarkson, North Dakota, and Michigan State. You can add to that group teams like Maine, Colorado College, Denver, Boston College, and St. Lawrence — five teams that should qualify based on their current positions in the RPI and PWR.

So that leaves a few bubble teams like Ohio State, Rensselaer and Northern Michigan wondering if their ticket to this year’s dance will be given to Quinnipiac. Moreover, each of these teams realizes that upsets are possible in conference tournaments, with every upset champion bumping them down — and possibly out of the tournament.

With so many teams vying for those lower seeds, Quinnipiac may become more of a headache than anything.

So, though the Braves are now in the hands of the jury, they realize that they have other business at hand, namely the rest of the MAAC conference tournament.

“We’re trying not to look ahead,” said Pecknold. “We just want to win the MAAC tournament right now. Then we can worry about what the NCAA thinks of us.”

But MacDonald understands, whether his team wins or not, that this season has helped his program tremendously.

“It’s a real thrill,” MacDonald said, “and I think the MAAC has gone light-years beyond anyone’s expectations.

“People know how to spell Quinnipiac, and they know where we are now. For us, that’s a dream come true.”

A dream much like the one MacDonald, Pecknold and Quinnipiac hope comes true next Sunday afternoon when the NCAA selection committee announces its pairings.


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