CSI: NCAA, The 2004 Edition

Wow. What a great weekend of conference championship hockey. And what a tough job the NCAA Men’s D-III Hockey Committee had after the upsets of St. John’s and Curry on Sunday. Without a doubt, it left some fans and some teams disappointed, and scratching their heads just a bit.

Once again this year, let’s do a little forensic investigation — what we like to call CSI: NCAA. Since none of us were privy to the conversations that went on about the selection this year’s teams, let’s see if we can piece together from the evidence what might have happened to choose the nine teams and decide the seeding.

The first step in the selection of teams was easy for the committee. Six teams in conferences with automatic qualifiers won their tournaments: St. Norbert in the NCHA, Middlebury in the NESCAC, SUNYAC champ Plattsburgh, Norwich in the ECAC East, plus two upset winners, St. Thomas in the MIAC and Wentworth in the ECAC Northeast.

With those six teams in place, that left three more teams for the committee to select: the single Pool B bid, for a team from the two leagues without autobids — the MCHA and ECAC West — and the two Pool C bids, for teams that didn’t win league titles in the six autobid conferences.

The selection committee has five criteria on which to rank at-large teams: in-region winning percentage, in-region head-to-head results, in-region results against common opponents, the Strength of Schedule Index (SOS), and results against ranked teams. The NCAA has been publishing a regional ranking of teams since February 10, using those criteria.

It appears that the criteria were followed explicitly — and correctly — by the committee.

Once the ECAC Northeast championship was settled around 7:40 p.m. ET, each regional committee, comprised of coaches and athletic directors, was able to submit teams to consider from that region for at-large bids.

First, let’s look at the Pool B bid. Because Marian of the MCHA was not ranked, we can surmise that the Sabres were not really considered for the Pool B bid, and that the comparison was made among the four ranked teams in the ECAC West: Hobart, Manhattanville, RIT, and Utica. Utica was ranked well below the other three, so let’s drop the Pioneers from the comparison.

Hobart downed RIT for the ECAC West championship and beat RIT in three of the five criteria: winning percentage, head-to-head record, and record against ranked teams, giving the Statesmen the nod over the Tigers. Manhattanville and Hobart split the criteria, winning two comparisons each and splitting head to head, while RIT beat Manhattanville in four of the five categories, including head to head. Hobart gets the Pool B bid by having the best comparisons among the three.

That leaves us with the most controversial picks, the two Pool C at-large bids.

The top two teams in the east not receiving automatic qualifiers were Curry and New England College, while in the west, Wisconsin-River Falls and St. John’s were the top two submitted in that region.

Each region submitted its two at-large candidates in order. River Falls beat St. John’s in three of the five comparisons: SOS, record against common opponents, and record against ranked teams. St. John’s had a slightly higher winning percentage, and the two teams did not compete this season. Thus, the west region’s two teams were River Falls and St. John’s in that order.

The third ranked team not winning a conference in the west was likely Lake Forest. It lost four comparisons to River Falls, and split with St. John’s. With a better winning percentage and better record against ranked teams, the Johnnies would get a slight edge.

In the east, Curry beat New England in three of five comparisons: winning percentage, SOS, and record against ranked teams. The Pilgrims were one of only three teams to beat Curry, and New England had a better record against common opponents. Both Curry and New England win comparisons against the next teams, Trinity and Oswego.

Next came the part that probably took at least a couple of hours — hammering out the choices for Pool C. With each region presenting its top team, Curry was then compared to River Falls. Curry wins two comparisons, winning percentage at 0.8542 vs. 0.7586, and SOS at 10.2083 to 10.0690. River Falls wins one comparison, record against ranked teams at 7-2-2 against 3-2-0.

Curry wins the first Pool C slot.

Next, River Falls was compared against New England College. The Falcons win three comparisons to none for the Pilgrims. River Falls gets the other Pool C bid.

What could possibly take so long to determine Pool C after those comparisons? Let’s match up Curry and St. John’s. While we saw already that St. John’s loses to River Falls in the five criteria, the Johnnies beat Curry in winning percentage and record against ranked teams, while Curry has the higher SOS. That circular comparison must have been quite a topic of discussion.

Now a couple of what ifs for St. John’s:

If St. John’s had been ranked higher than River Falls, St. John’s would have beaten out Curry for the first Pool C bid, and Curry would then have beaten River Falls for the second bid. But since St. John’s was not the top team in the west, Curry’s advantage in the comparisons over River Falls kept the Johnnies out.

And had Curry won the ECAC Northeast, St. John’s would have received the other Pool C bid by beating New England, Oswego, and Trinity in comparisons. Unranked Wentworth was clearly the spoiler.

With that, we have our field of nine teams.

Next, the committee was charged with seeding the teams. A page of comparisons won, like the USCHO Men’s D-III National PairWise Rankings, generates this list:

1. St. Norbert
2. Middlebury
3. Norwich
4. Plattsburgh
5. Wis.-River Falls
7. Curry
11. St. Thomas
15. Hobart
29. Wentworth

(The numbers are those of the USCHO Men’s D-III National PairWise Rankings, not the NCAA’s.)

Using the rankings above, the committee seeded the field like this: Since there is a 6-3 east-west split, the first-round game is held in the west region, to avoid flying teams in the first round. River Falls, as the higher seed, hosts St. Thomas on Wednesday, March 10, and the winner of that game visits St. Norbert on Saturday, March 13.

In the east, the committee followed the rankings exactly when choosing seeds. Wentworth visits Middlebury, Hobart is at Norwich, and Curry travels to Plattsburgh in eastern quarterfinals on Saturday.

By 10:30 p.m. or so, the committee had finished its work. For a second straight year, the selection committee followed the championship manual to the letter.

Another case closed.