Many Questions, Answers On Eve of Tourney

The NCAA and the Division I men’s ice hockey committee discussed the upcoming NCAA tournament, clarified some lingering issues, and exulted the current state of college hockey during a scheduled media conference call Monday.

The new 16-team, four-regional tournament structure has the entire hockey community giddy with anticipation, and the committee is no exception. It also means the selection and seeding of teams takes on a number of new wrinkles to account for it.

The process of selection is still objective, but a purposefully-murky bonus criterion for “good wins” has been thrown into the mix, just to make Selection Sunday more interesting.

On the other hand, the seeding process can introduce a number of subjective factors, though the committee still vows to “go by the numbers,” per its ascribed guidelines. Still, there’s a mandate to keep teams in their proper “by the numbers” seed, while also trying to avoid first-round intra-conference matchups, and keep host teams in their home region. There’s a potential for some tricky conflicts, and there might not be a precedent to handle them.

“This is something we haven’t done before [a 16-team tournament]; it’s new territory that we’re covering,” said Ian McCaw, athletics director at Massachusetts and chair of the men’s ice hockey committee. “So some of the issues may be made more complicated depending on how the teams are placed in [their seeds].

“But overall, going to a 16-team championship will be a tremendous advantage for us. Obviously the four regional sites — we’ll be crowning a regional champion at four sites — we’ll avoid first-round byes, which I think all of us feel created a real competitive advantage for the top four seeds in the past, and it creates a much more competitive championship overall. So we think the benefits outweigh any of the challenges we might face.”

And the recent announcement that two Division I teams will drop their programs — Iona and Fairfield — has done nothing, McCaw said, to derail hockey’s growth and popularity.

“Obviously it’s something that everyone in the college hockey community would view as being disappointing,” McCaw said, “but in my opinion, they reflect more a campus decision in terms of how they were going to handle their program relative to their mix of sports that they offer, as opposed to a trend in college hockey.

“We continue to see growth in attendance, TV ratings are up. … Every barometer we have to gauge interest and enthusiasm for college hockey is showing the sport continues to grow, and we don’t expect anything different this year. We think this will be one of the most exciting and competitive championships ever contested.”

Discussing the Process

The committee spent a lot of time trying to clarify some outstanding questions in its NCAA tournament selection and seeding process.

For example, the guidelines state that the four No. 1 seeds will be ranked among themselves, 1-4, and then, in order, placed closest to home. The question is, how literal an interpretation will there be? Since “a flight is a flight,” would Colorado College be moved out of the West Regional in Minneapolis, to avoid a second-round matchup with the Gophers?

“The No. 1 seeds will be placed as close to home as possible in order of their 1 to 4 ranking,” McCaw said. “That is what we have in the handbook, and that is how the committee would proceed in terms of locating the No. 1 seeds.”

Last season, the NCAA put travel restrictions in place, which left the committee with little flexibility. Those restrictions are no longer in place, but with a war in Iraq looming, would they return?

“We’re taking a look at all possible contingencies,” said NCAA Director of Championships Tom Jacobs. “There is not a policy as there was last year, and keeping teams within a certain radius. So now it’s pretty much business as usual in terms of what we had prior to last year. But it’s a pretty fluid situation, it could change on a daily basis.”

On whether the committee would look to pit the lowest-seeded teams — i.e. the MAAC and CHA autobid teams — against the top two overall seeds, McCaw could not say for sure.

“That’ll be a committee decision and obviously one we’ll have considerable discussion about,” he said.

A potential topic of controversy is the seeding of Boston University, and the possible selection of St. Cloud State. This year, the committee reverted back to a 25-50-25 weighting of RPI, which means the strength of schedule component takes a much larger role. BU and SCSU have played the toughest schedules in the country (according to KRACH); when you combine that with potential boost the new bonus point criterion could give, and the elimination of the Last 16 criterion, then a 13-loss BU team may get a No. 1 seed, and a barely-.500 St. Cloud could very well make the tournament.

But the numbers are what they are, and the committee is steadfast that no subjectivity will enter the picture.

“We’ve gone strictly by the numbers,” McCaw said. “That’s the way the committee has handled it. And there’s really a strong feeling within the coaching community, and certainly the feeling of our committee, that those are the agreed upon criteria and that’s what we’re going to follow in terms of determining who the tournament participants are going to be and what the seeds are within the championship.”

The bonus win criterion has many fans, and hockey people alike, confused. Some of this is on purpose. The bonus itself is objective and formula-based — out-of-conference wins against Top 15 teams in the RPI gives a boost to your RPI — but the exact formula has not been disclosed. As a result, unlike years past, when anyone with acccess to USCHO’s PairWise Rankings could correctly pick the field, you could see a surprise due to the bonus effect.

“Numerous sports have that, whether it’s men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball, men’s soccer,” said NCAA media coordinator Mark Bedics. “They have the bonus points and it’s not released. There’s a lot of various thoughts on it. … If we released it, especially in hockey where the objectivity and subjectivity is tight compared to other sports, you get to the point where everybody looks on [U.S.] College Hockey Online and there’s no need to have our selection show.”

Another potential issue: If a number of teams from the same conference fall into the No. 2 or No. 3 seed bands, and with the inflexibility of moving host schools from their region, you may run into unavoidable first-round intraconference matchups. The question becomes, would the committee change a team’s seed, or allow the intraconference matchup to take place?

“We’ll have to pour a couple more cups of coffee if we had to face something like that,” said McCaw.

Said Jacobs, “Hopefully it won’t come to that, but obviously, dealing with a bracket size of 16, that could come into play, and if that were the case, then certainly, for the integrity of the bracket, the priority would be on maintaining the seeded position — even if you had to pair two teams from the same conference. That wouldn’t be the ideal situation, obviously, but I think the issue that would take priority would be maintaining the integrity of the bracket, in terms of maintaining how teams are seeded.”

Playing Host

The issue of teams having to be placed in a Regional which they are hosting is a long-standing philosophy, but it continues to cause problematic scenarios. That is especially true now with four regions and four hosts. There are often scenarios where, to avoid first-round intraconference matchup, an Eastern team is “sent West,” or vice-versa, and sent smack dab into a hostile arena to face the home team.

Unfortunately, the committee’s hands are tied on the matter.

“It’s something we’ve certainly discussed,” said McCaw. “There’s a significant difference in the Western Regional sites, where you have host institutions hosting in their own building versus in the East, where you could potentially have host institutions hosting in more of a neutral building.

“It’s something that really hasn’t been avoidable. In the past, we haven’t had enough options, particularly out West, to consider more neutral facilities. But it’s something the committee has discussed.”

Said Jacobs, “As the tournament continues to grow in terms of attendance and exposure, it’s going to make it more attractive for cities to put in a bid, not just to host the Frozen Four, obviously, but to host the regional competition as well. So we’re anticipating getting more bids than we’ve had in the past.”

Along those lines, Jacobs said the bid process is currently under way for the two unfilled regional sites in 2005 and 2006, plus all four regional sites and the Frozen Four in 2007 and 2008. The deadline to submit a written bid is Friday, May 2.

“The committee will then have a conference call on May 8th to narrow the field as far as Frozen Four bids are concerned,” Jacobs said. “We expect to receive upwards of a couple dozen bids. And so the committee will go through all those and narrow it down to a workable number. There’s no set number in mind, but a workable number.

“Those sites would be invited to make in-person presentations to the committee during its meetings here in Indianapolis the week of June 2nd, and then from there, the committee would make recommendations to the Championships and Competition Cabinet. And they meet a few weeks after that, the week of June 23rd. So we’ll be making announcements … either on Friday the 27th or Monday, June 30th.”

Finally, Jacobs said the Frozen Four ticket application process, which gives priority to fans who have bought Frozen Four tickets in the past, is going well and will be continued.

“What we’re doing in hockey is a little bit unprecedented,” Jacobs said. “For a lot of the other [sports], men’s and women’s basketball included, it’s just a first-come, first-serve process. Now, obviously we don’t get the overall volume of applications [in hockey] as basketball does, but the thing really unique about hockey, it has a very loyal fan base, and there’s a core group of folks that are going to go to this championship every single year. It doesn’t matter where it’s located, doesn’t matter which teams are in it, they’ve set their vacation schedule and they’re going to be there for Frozen Four weekend.

“When the committee was discussing this several years ago, it really did some brainstorming about what can we do to reward that loyal fan, not only in helping to ensure they get tickets every year … [but] let’s also reward them by giving them a better seat locaton.

“So the committee really thinks that they’ve accomplished both of those objectives, by really protecting the loyal fan. … I think the committee is very happy with that process. It’s gone very smoothly the last couple years, and it’s something we’ll continue to build on.”