PairWise Surprise

The 2005-06 PairWise Rankings (PWR) are out, and as usual, they’re sure to provoke debate. Not every team with a strong record has performed well in the PairWise, and some teams flying under the radar in the media are getting plenty of respect from the computers. That’s why we’re here.

Remember that the PairWise works by comparing teams against one another, one pair at a time (hence the name), in four statistical categories: the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), record in head-to-head games, record against common opponents, and record against Teams Under Consideration (TUCs) — teams with an RPI rating of at least .500.

The purpose here is to explain why some teams are where they are in the PairWise Rankings, and why their PWR results differ from conventional wisdom or the national polls. And remember, if you don’t like what you see, don’t blame us. didn’t invent the criteria the NCAA uses to pick teams for the national tournament — we just summarized them and published them in an easy-to-read format.

So, where to begin to make sense of the numbers? At the top, of course.

Note: All rankings before team names below refer to PWR rankings, not the national polls. Also, all PWR and RPI numbers cited include a .003-.002-.001 bonus for “quality” nonconference wins. Results are through all games of Jan. 17, 2006.

Punch Their NCAA Tickets Already

Brian Elliott and the Badgers are cruising toward a No. 1 seed this March.

Brian Elliott and the Badgers are cruising toward a No. 1 seed this March.

No. 1 Wisconsin: UW has been No. 1 in the national polls for nearly two months, and the PairWise concurs. The Badgers are head and shoulders above every other team in the nation in the selection criteria, starting with the Ratings Percentage Index, where UW boasts a gaudy RPI of .6427. The RPI is driven by the Badgers’ nation-best winning percentage, as well as a strong schedule against WCHA teams and nonconference opponents including St. Lawrence, Michigan and Michigan State. Wisconsin is so far out in front that it would require a collapse of historic proportions — like losing just about every game from here on out — to keep the Badgers out of the NCAA tournament.

No. 2 Miami: The RedHawks’ situation is almost as good as Wisconsin’s, although Miami’s RPI of .5909 isn’t as eye-popping. However, its TUC record of 12-4-1 (.7353) is a clear-cut No. 2 behind the Badgers — no other team comes close. Like Wisconsin, it would require a massive collapse down the stretch to deny the RedHawks their second tournament berth since 1997.

Those two teams are dominating in almost every PWR category, and both have been highly rated in the polls and the media. So it’s not hard to understand why they grade out so well. For some other teams, though, their lofty PWR positions require more examination.

More Respect From The PairWise Than The Pollsters

No. 3 St. Lawrence: The Saints have just jumped into the top 10 in the Networks poll, but the PWR has them even higher, in third place overall. SLU offers a good lesson in how to reap the benefits of scheduling — play tough opponents and then win at least some of those games. The Saints are one of only two teams to beat Wisconsin this season, and have also toppled Providence and Vermont in nonconference play. As a result, their RPI of .5780 is also third in the nation. SLU gets a healthy .008 boost in its RPI from “quality” nonconference wins, which are heavily weighted toward beating good opponents on the road (Wisconsin and Vermont, in this case).

No. 6 Michigan State, No. 8 (tie) Ohio State: The Spartans and the Buckeyes are the poster children for the effect of conference strength on the PairWise. The Spartans and the Buckeyes each have modestly good winning percentages, but their RPI ratings of .5455 and .5436 are ninth and 10th in the nation, respectively. Those numbers are coming from strength of schedule. The CCHA has compiled the best nonconference record (47-28-8, .614) among all six Division I conferences, which means that playing a largely CCHA schedule provides a boost in the RPI. MSU’s solid 9-7-4 (.5500) record against TUCs is also winning it a few comparisons — although that margin is razor-thin in several cases, which could cause the Spartans to drop a few spots with a poorly-placed loss or two.

No. 12 (tie) Nebraska-Omaha, No. 15 (tie) Northern Michigan: See Ohio State/Michigan State on the value of conference strength. Each of these teams has a higher RPI than their overall records would seem to suggest, thanks to the success of the CCHA this season. Note that the same logic does not apply so well to No. 18 Lake Superior State, partly because the Lakers’ 12-6-4 record includes two wins against Robert Morris (winning percentage .2222).

Next, we have the opposing category: the teams who aren’t doing as well in the PWR as you might have thought.

Highly-Regarded, But Still On The Tournament Fringe

No. 12 (tie) Vermont: The Catamounts were among the biggest feel-good stories of the first half after rolling up six straight victories to open the season, but all the PairWise sees is who those victories came against: Michigan Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Minnesota-Duluth and Niagara, with a combined record of 30-56-7. Partly because of that, UVM is 11th in the RPI (.5422) despite having the nation’s fourth-best winning percentage. The Catamounts also debuted in Hockey East in what has turned out to be a down year, at least as far as nonconference records are concerned (see Maine, below), which is also responsible for its RPI dip. Make no mistake, Vermont is very much in the hunt for the NCAA tournament, but its PWR credentials aren’t nearly as strong as its poll numbers or record might indicate.

You Might Think They’re NCAA-Bound, But The PairWise Disagrees

No. 15 (tie) Cornell: Simply put, the Big Red haven’t played anybody yet. Cornell has a 2-1-1 record against TUCs, and while the winning percentage there (.6250) is good, the problem is that there are only four games in there. That’s right — Cornell has only played four of its 17 games this season against teams with a .500 RPI or better (two against Michigan State, one against Harvard, and one against Rensselaer). A quick look at the Big Red’s schedule shows why: Cornell’s ECACHL schedule is ridiculously back-loaded. The Big Red’s remaining opponents include Clarkson (twice), St. Lawrence (twice), Colgate (twice), Harvard and Rensselaer, all currently TUCs. A reasonable record in those games would enhance the Big Red’s chances for an at-large bid if the team doesn’t win the ECACHL tournament.

No. 22 (tie) Providence: The Friars generated optimism with their first-half results, including leading the Hockey East standings for a while, and their RPI of .5352 is good for 14th in the nation. But the Friars are getting killed by a poor record against TUCs (4-7-1, .3750). Also, like the Big Red, the Friars’ conference schedule is tilted uphill in the second half, with six straight games against TUCs (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Boston College) coming up next.

No. 22 (tie) Maine: This one might be the biggest shocker of all — until you look closely at what the PairWise considers important. The Black Bears’ record against TUCs is just 3-7-0 (.3000), which is costing them comparisons up and down the line. What’s more, the atypically mediocre performance of Hockey East in nonconference play this year (34-31-3, .522) means that Maine isn’t getting the boost in RPI that a HEA schedule usually provides. That, combined with a nonconference schedule that included underperforming Brown and Northeastern, has resulted in a strength of schedule that is just 38th in the country, and an RPI rating of .5230, 22nd in the nation.

No. 27 (tie) Denver: The two-time defending national champions are in trouble. Denver has compiled a modest 12-10-2 record with the easier half of its WCHA schedule already behind it, and its TUC record of 4-7-1 (.3750) isn’t doing it any favors. Remaining for the Pioneers are eight games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Colorado College — with the last three of those opponents coming in the last three weeks of the regular season. The good news for DU is that a schedule that tough gives it room to improve its RPI (currently .5072, 26th in the nation) and its PWR. The bad news for the Pioneers is that if Denver doesn’t win most of those games, it’ll need the WCHA tournament championship to have a chance to three-peat at the NCAAs.

No. 29 Colgate: An abject lesson in the importance the PWR attaches to beating the best, the Raiders have been gravely wounded by their 0-5-3 (.1875) record against TUCs, not to mention an RPI rating of just .5024, 28th in the country. Colgate shares the same schedule down the stretch as ECACHL travel partner Cornell, meaning that the Raiders have the same chance Cornell does to improve their stock. Unlike the Big Red, though, Colgate is way off the pace, meaning that the Raiders would have to win a ton of games from here on out to make the NCAAs as an at-large.