This Week in Division III: March 6, 2003

Two Down …

The first two NCAA bids were earned last weekend, with St. Norbert and St. John’s each winning its conference title and the automatic qualifier that goes with it.

With two more Western teams in the running for at-large bids and five conference tournaments in the East to be decided this weekend, there’s still at least 18 teams in the running for the other seven bids.

How the West Was Won

St. Norbert rode the top seed to the NCHA title, defeating Wisconsin-Stevens Point 3-1 in the semifinals and Wisconsin-Superior 5-2 in the championship game. The Green Knights scored five times in the first period against the Yellowjackets to put the game away early.

In the MIAC, St. John’s defeated Gustavus Adolphus 4-2 and then St. Thomas 4-3 in overtime to claim its second championship in three years and fourth NCAA appearance in school history. It was the third game in three meetings between St. Thomas and St. John’s that was decided by a single goal, with the Johnnies coming out on top each time.

Both teams have this weekend off, awaiting the NCAA pairings that will be announced Sunday night.

Sure Things and Long Shots

Any team (other than the ECAC West squads) that does not win its league is at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee, which will award two at-large bids (along with a single bid for an ECAC West team) according to the following criteria:

1. In region winning percentage
2. In region head to head results
3. In region results against common opponents
4. Strength of schedule as determined by in region opponent’s winning percentage
5. Results against teams already in the tournament

This isn’t an exact science, however. The committee reserves the right to weigh these criteria in any way it sees fit, meaning that whatever the numbers say, we won’t know for sure which teams are in until after the committee meets at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

That said, let’s take a look at the chances of the 18 teams still in the running. Two may have played their final game, while the other 16 go for broke this weekend.

NESCAC

According to Colby head coach Jim Tortorella, any of the four NESCAC teams can come away with the title on Sunday.

“Anything can happen, especially with the change where the top team now has to play number eight in the quarterfinals,” said Tortorella. “I think it evens things out from a preparation standpoint.

“The NESCAC is one of the top leagues in the country and to be one of the final four teams is an accomplishment.”

The White Mules will be a bubble team if they don’t win the NESCAC title, but Tortorella says his team can’t be concerned with that right now.

“We really haven’t thought about it,” he said. “We’ll think about the end of the year at the end of the year.

“There are a lot of good teams with 19 or 20 wins that will be in contention. If we make it to the finals, we’ll be there too.”

One thing the Colby coach is happy about is the lack of a consolation game, something that can either help or hurt a bubble team.

“I don’t think the consolation game is an important component to a tournament,” Tortorella said. “I don’t think the kids like to play in those games. ”

Unless the SUNYAC goes to a third and deciding game, the rest of Division III will be waiting on the NESCAC, which is playing on Saturday and Sunday afternoon rather than Friday and Saturday night.

“The philosophy of our league is that the academic component is important,” said Tortorella. Playing on Saturday and Sunday afternoon means the players don’t have to miss classes on Friday.

“We’ll leave Friday at three, get to Middlebury at ten, and be well rested for the game the next day.”

Colby faces off against Trinity in one semifinal, while the host Panthers take on Hamilton in the other. Hamilton will need to win the NESCAC title to make the NCAAs, while the winner of the Colby/Trinity game will most likely be a bubble team if it loses in the championship game.

Middlebury has the best chance of an at-large bid if it does not win the title. The Panthers are currently fourth in the East based on the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA selection process (though assigning equal weight to all the criteria). Currently, Colby is ninth in the PWR; Trinity is tenth.

ECAC East

Norwich is hosting the finals for the fifth straight time, and looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. Of all the playoff tournaments this weekend, the Cadets are probably the heaviest favorite to win theirs, but don’t tell that to head coach Mike McShane.

“It should be a great weekend. All four teams are playing well right now, and anybody can win it,” said McShane.

The Cadets play Salem State in the semifinals, while New England College and Babson square off in the other.

“We’ve played Salem two of the last three years (in the playoffs) and they were tough games,” said McShane. “Last year we needed overtime, and two years ago it was a one-goal game.

“NEC is one of the best teams in the country. Babson is a good team as well. I’d put these four teams up against those from any of the other leagues.”

Win or lose, the Cadets should make the NCAA tournament. They are at the top of the PWR in the East.

“Our plans are that whatever happens, happens,” said McShane. “We want to play well this weekend.”

While the Cadets probably are sweating less than any other team in the East in terms of making the nationals, it doesn’t mean that McShane is a fan of the selection process.

“I’m disappointed with Division III,” he said. “The teams involved should have a better understanding of what the process is to know where they stand.

“Just take teams one through nine. If you have to fly someone, so be it.”

New England won’t know where it stands until Sunday night should the Pilgrims not win the title. They are 11th in the PWR and would need a lot of things to break their way to get a bid. Salem State and Babson have to win the title in order to make the NCAAs.

ECAC West

Since there’s no automatic bid on the line, the ECAC West playoffs are treated by the NCAA as just another set of games. When the dust settles, all four teams will be evaluated by the NCAA selection committee using the criteria, and one team will be the Pool “B” at-large representative.

RIT is currently ranked second in the East PWR, Elmira is fifth; Manhattanville eighth. For the Tigers the scenario is simple: win the ECAC West title and they’ll go to the NCAAs for the eighth straight time.

Hobart is out of contention even if the Statesmen win the title — they are 18th in the PWR. If either Manhattanville or Elmira can win the ECAC West championship, it may or may not be enough to move them ahead of RIT.

The Tigers currently lead Elmira in three of the four categories: winning percentage, head-to-head, and record vs. common opponents. Elmira leads in strength of schedule. If the Soaring Eagles can beat the Tigers, their head-to-head record will be even at 1-1-1.

With the other criteria being very close, it may come down to the fifth one: record against teams in the tournament. Elmira is 0-2 against St. Norbert, 1-1 against Oswego, 0-0-1 against Plattsburgh and 1-0 against Lebanon Valley. RIT is 1-0 against Plattsburgh, 0-0-1 against Wentworth and 0-2 against Oswego. Which other teams make the tournament may well determine if RIT or Elmira does in this scenario.

The same can be said of Manhattanville. If the Valiants can defeat Elmira in the semifinal and play and defeat RIT in the finals, they will lead in the head-to-head category 2-1. One would assume that head-to-head would carry more weight than some of the other criteria, but that’s not specified in the selection process. As it stands now, RIT leads and will continue to lead in the other categories.

A tough job indeed for the committee if Elmira or Manhattanville wins the title.

ECAC Northeast

Wentworth and Lebanon Valley will battle for the title for the third straight year. Both previous meetings in the championship game, as well as their regular-season matchup this year, were decided by a single goal, so expect this one to go down to the wire as well.

The team that wins goes on to the NCAAs; the other goes home as neither match up well with other teams in contention for at-large bids.

SUNYAC

Oswego and Plattsburgh will meet in a best-of-three series, the only one in Division III. The teams went three games last year in the finals in Plattsburgh, with the Cardinals coming out on top by a goal. This season, the top-seeded Lakers, home in the friendly confines of the Romney Fieldhouse, will try to produce a different result.

The Lakers have a little bit of wiggle room — they are third in the PWR and if they can win one game this weekend, it could be enough for an at-large bid, based on what else happens.

Plattsburgh, ranked sixth in the PWR, will be squarely on the bubble if it loses, especially if the Cards are not swept.

Wild Cards

Wisconsin-Superior and Wisconsin-River Falls are playing the waiting game, both on the bubble and at the mercy of what happens in the East this weekend. No upsets means that the at-large bids may be up for grabs, but if Norwich or possibly Middlebury or Oswego stumble, those teams could grab the Pool “C” slots and leave the Yellowjackets and/or Falcons at home.

If only one of these two teams can go, which one will it be? Even that is too close to call. River Falls leads in most of the selection criteria, but Superior holds a commanding 2-0-1 lead in head-to-head. It will all comes down to how heavily the committee weighs each criterion.

Teams already in the tournament will also be taking note of the number of Eastern vs. Western teams in the field, since anything but a 5-4 East-West split means an Eastern team will host the Frozen Four. The West needs to get four teams in to ensure two will make the semifinals, thus making it necessary to fly two teams no matter what. One would hope that in that situation, a Western school would be allowed to host.

Don’t Wait Up

What does all this mean? Based on several very likely scenarios, the selection committee will have its hands full, and will be disappointing a team or two no matter what it does. One things for sure: they’ll be up late on Sunday night working all this out.

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