The PairWise Analyzed: Feb. 22, 2006

Is it really the end of February already? There aren’t many weeks left for teams to maneuver their way into — or out of — the NCAA tournament now, which is good news for some (Michigan State) and bad news for others (North Dakota).

Remember that the PairWise Rankings work 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. 21, 2006.

Closing In

Tyler Howells and Michigan State have nearly locked up a bid to the NCAAs -- and could end up as high as a No. 1 seed.

Tyler Howells and Michigan State have nearly locked up a bid to the NCAAs — and could end up as high as a No. 1 seed.

No. 4 (tie) Michigan State: The Spartans helped their case for the NCAAs immensely with a critical sweep of Miami. Not only were the two wins helpful to MSU’s RPI (.5619, fifth in the nation), but they added to the Spartans’ already-impressive record against TUCs (14-8-6, .6071). The victories also gave Michigan State a first-round bye in the restructured CCHA playoffs, meaning that MSU won’t have to worry about the possibility of taking losses against a bad team there. When you’re high in the PairWise, every remaining game carries the danger of damaging your credentials, and Michigan State, which has two regular-season games remaining against TUC Lake Superior State, is now in position to cruise to an NCAA bid.

No. 10 Maine: Just a few weeks ago, the Black Bears were in big trouble. Now Maine is all the way up to 10th in the PWR and has significantly repaired a once-awful record against TUCs (8-9-1, .4722) thanks to a 4-1-1 record against TUCs New Hampshire, Vermont and Boston College, culminating in last weekend’s sweep of the Eagles. Trouble still lurks, however: the Black Bears’ remaining regular-season games are against Merrimack and Massachusetts, and a couple of losses against those teams could hurt the RPI enough to put Maine back on the fringe.

Suddenly In Trouble

No. 11 Boston College: The Eagles find themselves in the uncomfortable position of leading Hockey East and still sliding toward the bubble. Three straight losses against TUCs Boston University and Maine have taken BC’s TUC record — which was once a strength — down to a mediocre 8-8-1 (.5000), and its RPI of .5421 has slipped to 12th. The regular-season wraps up with Massachusetts-Lowell and New Hampshire and amazingly, the Eagles will need wins there (especially against TUC UNH) to shore up their case going into the Hockey East playoffs.

Key Opposition

No. 8 (tie) Cornell: The Big Red’s Saturday loss to Harvard didn’t hurt too badly, though one more win against a TUC would have done a lot for Cornell’s already-solid TUC record of 7-4-1 (.6250). The good and bad news for Cornell is that its last two regular-season games are against current non-TUCs Union and Rensselaer — but both the Dutchmen and the Engineers (especially the Dutchmen) are within striking distance of becoming TUCs. Two wins against those teams would go a long way toward keeping them out of the TUC ranks, which is fine with the Big Red. Conversely, two losses would not only damage Cornell’s RPI (which is good but hardly bulletproof at .5441, 11th in the nation), but they might end up tagging Cornell with an extra 0-3-1 against TUCs at the end of the season. The Union game is particularly important, since the Dutchmen are so close to a TUC with their .4913 RPI, and since Cornell lost to Union once already this season.

No. 14 (tie) St. Lawrence: The Saints are a classic bubble team: a midlevel RPI (.5353, 13th) and a modest TUC record (6-7-2, .4667). SLU’s two remaining regular-season games are against TUCs Harvard and Dartmouth, and two wins there would surely boost the Saints’ profile in the selection criteria. The ECACHL is as tight as ever this year, making SLU’s final regular-season standing and playoff opponent(s) impossible to even try to guess, but the Saints can make the NCAAs with a decent showing from here on out. The Harvard game is particularly important, since the SLU-Harvard comparison currently being won by the Saints is razor-thin, and a head-to-head loss might prevent SLU from taking that particular PWR point when all is said and done.

Let’s Say It Again

No. 16 North Dakota: TUCs, TUCs, TUCs. North Dakota’s RPI of .5486 is 10th in the nation, which under most circumstances would have the Fighting Sioux in a good position in the overall PairWise. But UND’s 7-12-1 (.3750) TUC record is brutal, and two wins last weekend against Minnesota-Duluth couldn’t help that due to the Bulldogs’ .4719 RPI. The Fighting Sioux must — repeat, must — get wins against Denver next weekend (at least one, preferably two), sweep Michigan Tech to close out the regular season to keep their RPI up, and then hope they get (and beat) a TUC in the first round of the WCHA playoffs before finishing strong at the Final Five. The problem there is that enough UND wins in its last four regular-season games could propel the Sioux up to fourth or higher in the league standings, which would probably result in a non-TUC first-round opponent. Conversely, a sweep by Denver next weekend would probably end UND’s at-large hopes.

End Of The Line

No. 23 Vermont: A 3-5-2 record in its last 10 games, including 1-3-2 against TUCs, has crippled the Catamounts’ numbers. A sweep of Boston University next weekend might give UVM a spark of hope, but barring that it’s all over for the early-season darling in Hockey East.

No. 25 Lake Superior State: The Lakers hung around for quite a while, but a 1-4-1 record the last three weeks against TUCs Nebraska-Omaha, Michigan and Northern Michigan has done them in. Lake Superior’s TUC record is now a dismal 5-11-4 (.3500), it’s RPI of .5182 is 25th, and there simply isn’t enough time left in the season for LSSU to recover.

A Fascinating Possibility

No. 21 Holy Cross: Despite trying to write them off last week, I want to devote a little more space to the Crusaders. Here’s the trick for Holy Cross: it has played very few games against TUCs this season (3-3-1, .5000), which means that small changes down the stretch can have a big impact on that winning percentage. Holy Cross’ overall record is so good that even though Mercyhurst took just one point against HC this weekend, that actually raised the Lakers’ RPI into TUC status. Therefore, Holy Cross’ season record of 2-1-1 against Mercyhurst is now adding to its TUC numbers. The same thing could happen next weekend against Sacred Heart — which is currently below the .5000 threshold needed to be a TUC, but could rise into TUC status with a one-point weekend against the Crusaders. That would give Holy Cross another 2-1-1 to add to its TUC record. Also, Holy Cross beat Rensselaer twice this season. If the Engineers (.4869 RPI) get on a roll and move into the ranks of the TUCs, we could have a situation where Holy Cross’ TUC record gets as high as 7-4-2 (.6154), which would be a big boost in head-to-head comparisons. Are all the pieces likely to fall into place? No. But if they do, we could still be talking about the Crusaders’ at-large chances during the Atlantic Hockey tournament.