The PairWise Analyzed: Feb. 8, 2006

One week closer to the NCAA selection show means one more week of PairWise ponderings. As usual, here’s a rundown of some teams with grips on tickets to the dance, and some others with work to do.

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.

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 Feb. 7, 2006.

We’ve already decided that Wisconsin, Minnesota and Miami have nailed down NCAA tournament bids based on their records to date, no matter what (well, almost no matter what) happens down the stretch. So let’s move on to teams with a little less certainty.

Closing In On Nationals

Matt Zaba and CC are just a few steps away from the NCAAs (photo: Casey Gibson).

Matt Zaba and CC are just a few steps away from the NCAAs (photo: Casey Gibson).

No. 4 (tie) Colorado College: The Tigers are as close to a lock as you can get, and a look at their season results shows how they have taken advantage of the specific elements the PairWise uses to judge teams. CC’s WCHA record of 10-9-1 is middling, but a nonconference record of 8-2-0 means everything. First, those eight wins included the Tigers’ Great Lakes Invitational championship, which involved beating Michigan and Michigan State — which CC is beating in head-to-head PWR comparisons as a result. Also, the Tigers’ overall 4-1-0 record against CCHA teams is giving them the edge in common opponents against most of that league, camouflaging a weak 8-9-1 (.4722) TUC record. Finally, of course, those wins give CC a sterling RPI of .5569 — including bonus points for four “quality” nonconference victories. In short, it would take a dramatic collapse to keep CC out of the NCAAs.

TUCs Matter

RPI has always been the single most important factor in the PairWise. That’s because not only is RPI one of the four comparison factors, it’s the tiebreaker for deciding head-to-head comparisons between teams. That means that any decent analysis of the PWR starts with the RPI.

Looking at this season’s accumulated RPI numbers, the doubt lies between .5300 and .5500. Teams above .5500 at the end of the season are nearly guaranteed a tournament berth, while those who end up below .5300 are longshots.

But after RPI (and despite the example of Colorado College above), the second-most important component of the PWR is record against TUCs. Why?

Well, among the remaining criteria, head-to-head record only affects a limited number of PWR comparisons (since every team doesn’t play every other team in Division I), while record against common opponents tends to reflect the conference standings if two teams play in the same league, which is something that RPI also tends to do.

So common opponents often simply reinforces the RPI — and when it doesn’t, it’s because two teams play in different leagues and have very few common opponents, if any. In that case, common opponents can almost be a coin toss, based on a very small number of games. Yes, it affects the PWR, but not in a nice, predictable fashion since one game can swing that comparison criterion if it happens to be against the right team.

That’s why that most of the time, we focus most on RPI, and then on TUCs. They’re the key pieces of the puzzle.

That being the case, here are the poster children for the effect of TUC record on the PairWise:

No. 11 Harvard: Harvard has a 6-4-1 record (.5909) against TUCs, which is boosting the Crimson from No. 17 in the RPI alone to No. 11 in the overall PairWise Rankings. The Crimson have just three games left in the regular season against TUCs (Cornell, Colgate and St. Lawrence, with Colgate a possibility to fall out of that list if the Raiders lose a few more games). Unfortunately for Harvard, one of its remaining games is against Northeastern in the Beanpot consolation, and the Huskies’ record is so poor that even a win will pull down Harvard’s RPI. Yes, that’s right. The Crimson’s RPI will go down after the Northeastern game, win or lose (though a loss would be devastating in the RPI). That means wins will be needed elsewhere — probably at least two of the three TUC games — to stay in it.

No. 16 North Dakota: The Fighting Sioux are in the opposite situation from the Crimson. UND’s record against TUCs is a poor 7-12-1 (.3750), which is costing it several comparisons. And the Sioux have just two regular-season games left against a TUC (Denver). That means UND doesn’t have much chance to improve that record, which could leave UND on the outside looking in come tournament time despite having the nation’s No. 11 RPI of .5443.

Few Games Left, But Plenty Of Action

No. 10 Michigan State: All of MSU’s five remaining regular-season games are against TUCs Ohio State, Miami and Lake Superior State. That leaves plenty of room for the Spartans’ 10-9-6 (.5200) TUC record to move up or down, which coupled with changes in MSU’s RPI (.5461, 10th), could guarantee the Spartans a bid even before the CCHA tournament — or cripple their chances. The Spartans need to win at least three of those games to feel good about their tournament credentials.

Running In Place

No. 19 New Hampshire, No. 21 Maine, No. 22 (tie) Vermont: The Wildcats and the Black Bears split last weekend, which gave both teams a slim hope of an at-large bid, but helped neither get closer to that goal. As has been the case the last couple of weeks, Maine is getting killed by a 5-9-0 (.3571) TUC record, while New Hampshire’s RPI of .5245 (23rd) just isn’t good enough. The Wildcats have a better shot at improving their numbers down the stretch, thanks to games against Boston University, Providence and Boston College still on the docket, but the odds aren’t good unless UNH wins five or so of those games. UNH’s other two games are against Merrimack, which won’t help UNH’s RPI much — if at all — even if it wins. Even one loss there could be deadly, as Vermont found out when it split with the Warriors two weekends ago. The Catamounts’ troubles are simpler, but more distressing, than their Hockey East compatriots. Vermont simply doesn’t have the numbers across the board, beginning with a .5249 RPI.

Stick A Fork In Them

No. 27 Colgate: Last week, I said the Raiders needed to improve their TUC record. Instead, Colgate got swept by Cornell, putting the Raiders in a hole that it’s hard to imagine them getting out of. Colgate’s RPI of .5206 is well below the level needed to have a chance, and coupled with a 2-7-2 (.2727) TUC record, it may be all over for Colgate no matter what happens from here on. The Raiders might still make it by sweeping the rest of the regular season and then going deep into the ECACHL tournament (winning it would give Colgate an autobid, of course), but even then the numbers may not work out.