This Week in Division III: Jan. 16, 2003

By The Numbers

Since I’m a stats geek, I love USCHO’s PairWise Rankings (PWR) and Rating Percentage Index (RPI). The PWR attempts to mimic the Division III selection committee’s criteria for picking at-large teams and seeding the field, while the RPI is used by many Division I sports as a key indicator of a team’s strength in relation to its competition.

One of the coolest things about these ratings is that they are updated as soon as a score is entered into USCHO’s database. Things change literally after every Division III game, so I’m going to put a stake in the ground and talk about these ratings as of Thursday morning, January 16.

Sending Out An SOS

My favorite thing to look at is each team’s Strength of Schedule (SOS), which is calculated by combining the winning percentages of each team played so far. Of course, you have to remove games played with that opponent to be accurate — in other words, if Norwich defeats Plattsburgh (which it did on Tuesday), and the Cardinals were 9-2-2 coming into the game, you factor a record of 9-2-2 into Norwich’s SOS, even though Plattsburgh is now 9-3-2. It wouldn’t be fair to Norwich to penalize the Cadets for beating an opponent and then including that loss in Norwich’s SOS.

With me so far? Here’s how the Top 15 looks in terms of who has played the toughest schedules, as well as each team’s winning percentage and RPI position, which combines winning percentage, SOS and opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage:

Rk Team Win% SOS RPI
1 Norwich 1st 17th 1st
2 St. Norbert 2nd 14th 2nd
3 UW-River Falls 6th 52nd 14th
4 RIT 4th 51st 11th
5 Bowdoin 3rd 40th 7th
6 UW-Superior 13th 7th 4th
7 Manhattanville 7th 19th 8th
8 Plattsburgh 15th 15th 10th
9 Fredonia 9th 50th 21st
10 St. Thomas 13th 36th 16th
11 Middlebury 15th 44th 17th
12 Colby 5th 53rd 13th
13 Oswego 15th 8th 6th
14 St. John’s 9th 10th 5th
15 Trinity 15th 20th 9th

It looks like winning percentage drives the poll more than Strength of Schedule. All teams in the Top 15 have winning percentages in the top 15, while the RPI and especially the SOS rankings are all over the place.

Fredonia may be a bit overrated in the poll, since the Blue Devils are 21st in the RPI. It’s hard not to a vote for a team in first place with a undefeated conference record, however. Conversely, St. John’s and Oswego might not be getting the votes they deserve, both having good winning percentages while playing a tough schedule.

So who’s had the toughest schedule so far?

1 Amherst, .648 opponents’ win%
2 Tufts, .621
3 Potsdam, .611
4 UW-Eau Claire, .605
5 Salem State, .602
6 Elmira, .596
7 UW-Superior, .589
8 Oswego, .582
9 Utica, .581
10 St. John’s, .574

Amherst has already played four teams in the top 15: Trinity (twice), Norwich, Plattsburgh, and RIT, as well as Wentworth, Elmira and Hamilton, all mentioned on ballots last week.

Pairing Up

Now on to the PWR. Here’s a demonstration of how it can be used. If we pretend the season ended today, who would be in the NCAA tournament? Let’s make a big assumption and say that teams currently in first place in conferences with automatic qualifiers would go on and win their tournaments, we get:

ECAC East: Norwich
ECAC Northeast: Johnson & Wales
MIAC: St. Thomas
NCHA: Wisconsin-River Falls
NESCAC: Bowdoin
SUNYAC: Fredonia

That’s Pool “A”.

Assuming PWR accurately mimics the NCAA selection process, Pool “B” would consist of just one team — the one with the highest regional PWR from the ECAC West and MCHA. RIT is second in the East right now, with Elmira fifth and Manhattanville seventh. Marian is in ninth place in the Western PWR. Looks like at this point it would be RIT.

For Pool “C”, you take the two highest regional PWR rankings from teams from the ECAC East, ECAC Northeast, MIAC, NCHA, NESCAC and SUNYAC. Right now, those would be St. Norbert (first in the West) and then either Colby (third in the East) or St. John’s (third in the West).

Since the committee reserves the right to use different weightings than USCHO, as well as bringing other criteria such as geographic location of the schools into play, we can’t guarantee that the PWR will predict the NCAA field. But it’s been pretty close in recent years, correctly picking the Pool B and C teams the past two seasons.

Check out the PWR periodically throughout the rest of the season and watch the effect a big win or loss has on your favorite team.

Breaking Through

For the past several seasons, the NCHA postseason has been dominated by four teams: St. Norbert, Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Superior. Ever since Bemidji left the NCHA in 1996, these teams have comprised the semifinal field each season. Back in 2001, Wisconsin-Stout snuck into fourth place during the regular season, but was swept at home by Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the only time in league history that a road team has won a quarterfinal or first-round series.

Lake Forest has never finished higher than fifth in the standings, never hosted a playoff game. The Foresters are off to their best start since joining the NCHA (10-4-3 overall, 3-3 in conference), with big wins over UW-Stevens Point and St. John’s. Lake Forest, which has finished over .500 only once in the past 12 seasons, hasn’t lost a game since November 29.

All this has head coach Tony Fritz feeling optimistic, but realistic as well.

“It’s been a long time since someone else has cracked that top four,” he said. “It’s a goal we’ve had for the past three years. To be home for the first round is so crucial.”

A 3-1 win against UW-Stevens Point on December 10 was a big step in achieving that goal.

“Well, it was a nonconference game and at our place … but it was a big win for our seniors, who had never beaten them,” said Fritz.

According to Fritz, in his 25th season behind the bench at Lake Forest, the keys to his success begin in net.

“We have a wonderful tandem of goaltenders,” he said. “We rotate them, and it doesn’t matter who is in net, both are very capable.”

Sophomore Cody Brown is 7-2 with a 1.89 GAA and a .944 save percentage, while classmate Joel Cameron is 3-2-3 with a 2.67 GAA and a save percentage of .918.

“We also have a better ‘D’ than we’ve had in quite some time,” said Fritz. “Stronger, bigger, more experienced. Better in our zone, punishing, which you need to be in this league.

“The forwards are playing well too, scoring some opportunistic goals,” he added.

The Foresters’ eight-game unbeaten streak will be severely threatened this weekend, when they square off for two games against second-ranked St. Norbert.

“Those are huge games,” said Fritz. “St. Norbert is an exceptional team.

“If we can sweep the teams below us and split with the teams above us, we’ll finish at least fourth. So a split this weekend would be very good.”

Lake Forest is currently tied for that coveted fourth position in the NCHA standings, so every point from here on out will be crucial.

“We need to understand that this weekend is really the beginning of the playoffs,” said Fritz. “We need that attitude, and we have to rise to the challenge.”