Eye Of The Storm

The NCAA tournament picks were announced Sunday, but the action was in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday.

The fact that NCAA hockey boasts an objective selection system for its national tournament doesn’t prevent controversy — it just changes the nature of the complaints.

Basketball teams can complain about the selection committee weighing the factors unpredictably, or about disrespect for smaller programs, or a hundred other elements that closed-door negotiations invite.

In hockey, it’s the process itself that gets criticized. Specifically, it’s the elements of that process, which USCHO.com summarizes in the form of the PairWise Rankings.

And at no time in recent memory have the limitations of that process been thrown into such sharp relief.

The problem, in short, is St. Cloud State. The Huskies finished sixth in the WCHA, then were eliminated in the first round of the league playoffs by Minnesota-Duluth. SCSU finished the season 17-15-5, a scant two games over .500.

But as expected by those tracking the selection criteria, on Sunday the Huskies headed into the NCAA tournament over the likes of Providence (fourth place in Hockey East), Northern Michigan (third place in the CCHA tournament) and — yes — Minnesota-Duluth, which won 22 games, finished fifth in the WCHA, ended the Huskies’ WCHA season and took third place at the Final Five.

A word of caution: There is no conspiracy, no shadowy force, no regional bias. The numbers put St. Cloud — the No. 13 team in the PWR — in the tournament. The NCAA’s new bonus criterion for “quality” nonconference wins, the precise value of which has not been made public, could only have helped the Huskies, who held quality wins over Ferris State (on the road) and Providence (twice at home).

But the numbers say that the bonus wasn’t the deciding factor. SCSU was already in the field of 16 without accounting for that wrinkle. And in hockey’s selection process, the numbers are all that matter.

The question, therefore, is, are they the right numbers? Minnesota State coach Troy Jutting, whose Mavericks were themselves NCAA invitees, isn’t sure.

“I don’t know that a team that doesn’t finish in the top half [of its league] and loses its first-round series is deserving,” Jutting said Saturday. “I think Duluth has a very strong argument that they should be in the tournament.”

Before the season, the NCAA made three notable changes to the selection criteria: two of them were the addition of the bonus system, and the elimination of the “Last 16” criterion, which gave a boost to teams with strong finishes.

Jutting pointed to the latter. UMD finished the season 11-4-1 while St. Cloud was 7-7-2, so clearly that change benefited SCSU and hurt UMD.

The real culprit, though, is not last-16, nor, as mentioned above, the bonus. It’s the third change, which was made without fanfare.

This season the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a key component in the selection process, was altered to consider strength of schedule more heavily, at the expense of winning percentage. In terms of the numbers, a team’s own winning percentage now counts 25 percent of the RPI; last year it was 35 percent.

That shift ended up giving a big boost to St. Cloud, which compiled a just-over-.500 year with one of the nation’s toughest schedules, and hurt Duluth, which had a weaker schedule but a better record.

As an aside, UMD was nowhere close to being selected for the tournament, finishing out of the top 20 in the criteria. The bubble teams cited by selection committee chair Ian McCaw Sunday evening were Providence and Michigan State, which were the top teams in the PWR not picked.

The third team out, by that logic, was Northern Michigan, whose coach, Walt Kyle, was philosophical.

“We expected it after looking at our chances last night,” Kyle said. “I think the selection committee has criteria set. We started in October with the same chances as every other team in the field.”

But Minnesota-Duluth offers the most striking illustration of what some dislike about the process.

First, it has no concept of Big Games, by which we mean conference tournament games, or even games late in the regular season. In the hockey selection process, beating North Dakota is no more meaningful in the WCHA Final Five (when UMD did so) than it was back in October.

Also, the selection process has no use for the standings. The WCHA this season had seven good teams; the other three were well off the pace. SCSU finished above .500 in the league, and with the WCHA’s unbalanced schedule, played those three teams — Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, and one-win Alaska-Anchorage — just twice each. A tough league schedule, but the Huskies were still sixth.

That fact seems counterintuitive to fans who are used to the NCAA basketball system, in which it’s difficult to go against conference order of finish — at least in the major conferences — in selecting teams for the national tournament.

Most expect the coaches to discuss the issue at their offseason meetings, though change would be nothing new. The numerical process has been continuously tweaked since its introduction.

“There’s going to be a lot of discussion in Florida,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin, who said he expected that UMD would need to win the Final Five to get in. “Because I’ve heard a lot of grumbling, and not just our team or our league.”