The PairWise Analyzed: March 1, 2006

Two leagues have finished their regular seasons, and the other four will be done after this weekend. With that in mind, let’s take a slightly different tack this week. I’ll review the entire PairWise list, assessing each team’s NCAA tournament situation, and pay special attention to the usual suspects — teams with particularly interesting or unlikely scenarios.

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. This week, due to a number of ties near the bubble that merit attention, I have ranked teams after using the PWR tiebreakers. Also, all PWR and RPI numbers cited include a .003-.002-.001 bonus for “quality” nonconference wins. Results are through all games of March 1, 2006.

The Locks

No. 1 Minnesota, No. 2 Wisconsin: These teams are not only locks for the tournament, they should end up with No. 1 seeds to boot. The Golden Gophers’ case is nearly airtight, while the Badgers should be more concerned given their recent play. Still, as long as UW doesn’t get bounced out of the first round of the WCHAs, the Badgers should be the No. 1 seed in Green Bay, while the Gophers get sent to Grand Forks.

Colorado College, led by Brett Sterling (l.) and Marty Sertich, can make plans for the NCAA tournament, but the Tigers' numbers aren't likely to get them a No. 1 seed when it's all said and done (photo: Melissa Wade).

Colorado College, led by Brett Sterling (l.) and Marty Sertich, can make plans for the NCAA tournament, but the Tigers’ numbers aren’t likely to get them a No. 1 seed when it’s all said and done (photo: Melissa Wade).

No. 3 Miami, No. 4 Boston University, No. 5 Michigan State: These are the candidates for the remaining two No. 1 seeds. Miami and BU have a healthy lead over MSU in the RPI (.5678 and .5683, respectively, versus .5599), but the Spartans’ 15-8-7 (.6167) record against TUCs puts them in the same class as the RedHawks and the Terriers and in contention for a top seed. Working in Miami and Michigan State’s favor are their CCHA first-round byes, which will help them to avoid the risk of a bad loss (or two) against a bottom-feeding team. BU, meanwhile, could end up with Massachusetts or UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals, where an upset would almost certainly keep the Terriers out of the ranks of the No. 1 seeds.

No. 6 Colorado College: The Tigers’ RPI (.5542) isn’t quite as good as the preceding five teams, but with enough games left that can change. What will likely keep CC from a top seed, however, is its pedestrian record against TUCs (12-10-1, .5435). That probably relegates the Tigers to a two seed at best, barring a stellar run through the WCHA tournament that might even require the championship to make it work. Still, the Tigers are already in the NCAAs barring a first-round collapse and an avalanche of upsets elsewhere.

Nearly There

No. 7 Cornell, No. 8 Harvard: The ECACHL’s top two teams in the PairWise have strikingly similar credentials, with RPIs of .5421 (Cornell) and .5441 (Harvard) separated by a whisker and nearly-identical TUC records (6-3-1, .6500 and 8-5-1, .6031, respectively). Both schools’ good-but-not-great RPIs leave them vulnerable if their TUC records slip. Both have byes for the first round this weekend, but Harvard’s likely opponent in the quarterfinals is TUC St. Lawrence. A loss in that series could cost the Crimson substantially in the PWR, while Cornell, which probably won’t have a TUC opposing it in the quarters, is safer. Both teams are probably in come selection time, barring early playoff losses and upset champions in several leagues.

Wild Cards

No. 9 North Dakota, No. 10 Maine: Like the two teams above, UND and Maine are PairWise twins — even more so since both of these teams followed the road to redemption in February after nearly dropping off the radar screen. The Fighting Sioux and the Black Bears — like the Big Red and the Crimson — have nearly identical PWR profiles, but in reverse. Both UND and Maine have compelling RPIs (.5488 and .5469, respectively), but lousy records against TUCs — though both teams have improved those numbers substantially since we started tracking them. Both are now nearing .5000 records against TUCs, and each may get a TUC in the first round of its respective conference playoffs (St. Cloud State, potentially, for UND, and Vermont a possibility for Maine) against which to bolster or harm its NCAA case. With both playing well right now, I like their chances — though North Dakota must avoid a misstep this weekend against 7-21-6 Michigan Tech. If the RPI slips, it’s all over for UND, and even one loss to MTU will hurt a lot.

Still In, But Stock Falling

No. 11 Michigan, No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha: It wasn’t long ago that both of these teams seemed like gimmes — UNO was even sniffing a No. 1 seed. But the Mavericks got a harsh lesson in the RPI last weekend, dropping precipitously after taking just one of four points against 8-22-6 Western Michigan. UNO still has its impressive record against TUCs (15-9-5, .6034) to lean on, but needs desperately to win its CCHA playoff matchup against Bowling Green to keep its RPI from slipping further. A first-round exit would likely cost the Mavericks two or three comparisons (notably against Boston College and Denver), which might be enough to keep UNO out of nationals. Michigan, meanwhile, is in a better position schedule-wise than UNO (no trap first-round playoff series), but worse off in the numbers, as its 11-12-5 (.4821) record against TUCs isn’t doing it any favors. Michigan could get TUC Lake Superior State in the CCHA quarters, and an upset there would put the Wolverines precipitously close to missing the NCAAs. Both are better than 50-50 bets to make it right now, and the Mavericks’ stock shoots upward with a sweep of BGSU this weekend.

The Bubble

No. 13 Boston College, No. 14 New Hampshire: Incredibly, the current leader in the Hockey East standings is fighting for its NCAA tournament life — but that’s the kind of season it’s been (see Denver, below). 17-7-1 HEA record aside, BC fits the profile of a bubble team surprisingly well: decent RPI (.5362) and a mediocre record against TUCs (8-8-1, .5000). Those numbers are thanks to a down year for Hockey East and a 3-3-1 nonconference slate that included losses to Michigan and Harvard — and wins against Bowling Green, Princeton and Northeastern (at the Beanpot) that didn’t do BC any good in the PairWise criteria. Fittingly, perhaps, BC and New Hampshire face off this weekend in a series which could cripple either’s NCAA hopes. UNH has a worse RPI (.5291) than BC, but a better TUC record (9-7-1, .5500) — but two losses to the Eagles would end that and put BC in solid position for an NCAA bid. Conversely, a sweep by the Wildcats would be a big boost to their RPI and further bolster their TUC credentials. Of course, a split is more likely, which would leave both teams a little better off (thanks to the RPI boost of playing each other), but still vulnerable.

No. 15 Denver: The two-time defending national champions have played well in the second half, apart from a sweep by Minnesota. Now, the Pioneers have the opening they’ve been waiting for. DU takes on archrival Colorado College to close out its WCHA season, and a sweep would surely put the Pioneers on the good side of the bubble. Even one win would help its already-respectable RPI (.5370), thanks to CC’s stellar won-loss record, after which DU can look to the WCHA playoffs to wrap up a chance at a three-peat. A first-round series win will be needed, and then a decent showing at the WCHA Final Five depending on how this weekend goes for DU. The critical head-to-head comparison for the Pioneers may be against BC, which is edging DU by the slimmest of margins in the criteria right now.

No. 16 Dartmouth: The ECACHL’s regular-season co-champion is the first team we’ve encountered on this list which possesses what may be a fatal flaw. Dartmouth’s TUC record (5-8-0, .3846) will make it impossible for the Big Green to move into position for an NCAA bid unless it improves. Here’s where it gets really interesting: three ECACHL teams are presently almost-but-not-quite TUCs, and Dartmouth’s combined record against those three — Clarkson, Union and Rensselaer — is 5-0-1. If any of those teams win first-round playoff series (especially Clarkson, which is right on the fringe) and can get over a .5000 RPI, it would enhance Dartmouth’s TUC record without the Big Green doing a thing in the meantime. Ain’t the numbers fun? Of course, more games in later rounds could then knock those same teams back out of the TUC ranks, making it awfully hard to predict Dartmouth’s road right now — apart from the fact that the Big Green had better beat whoever it gets in the ECACHL quarterfinals. Keep a close eye on this one.

No. 17 Northern Michigan: The Wildcats’ RPI of .5233 is their weakness, while their TUC record of 13-12-0 (.5200) is better than many of the teams they’re competing with on the bubble. With a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs, NMU will await the top seed remaining among the bottom eight teams in the league for its quarterfinal series. If all goes well in Omaha for UNO this weekend, that opponent could be the Mavericks, which would give NMU a good shot to improve both its RPI and its TUC record.

Need Wins … And Some Help (Maybe A Lot)

No. 18 Ohio State, No. 19 Providence: Not long ago, both the Friars and the Buckeyes were in better shape than this, but after a horrible 1-6-1 stretch it’s a wonder that OSU can even still think about dancing. The Buckeyes play Ferris State, a TUC, in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, and a sweep there could put OSU right back in the mix. Providence, meanwhile, must get past a potential RPI killer in Merrimack before the Hockey East postseason. Both teams will need to advance well into their respective league tournaments to have hope.

No. 20 St. Lawrence, No. 21 Vermont: Both these squads have TUC troubles, with records well below .5000 for each. Like Ohio State and Providence, it’s going to take a winning streak and plenty of assistance, not to mention a lack of upset tournament champions, for at-large bids here. And St. Lawrence won’t get any help in the ECACHL first round, where it plays lowly Brown.

No. 22 Ferris State: Although the Bulldogs get Ohio State in round one of the CCHAs, their dismal TUC record of 5-12-8 (.3600) may be too far gone already. Sweeping OSU would be a start, but a run deep into the CCHA tournament is likely needed.

No. 23 St. Cloud State: The Huskies have a glimmer of hope thanks to the schedule, which has them facing Wisconsin to end the WCHA regular season, after which a formidable first-round playoff opponent — likely TUC North Dakota or even Colorado College — will await. Still, it would probably take four wins against those teams to put SCSU back in position.

All Over But The Shouting

No. 24 Alaska-Fairbanks, No. 25 Lake Superior, No. 26 Minnesota State, No. 27 Holy Cross, No. 28 Sacred Heart, No. 29 Notre Dame, No. 30 Colgate: Each of these teams simply has too many holes in its resume, whether it’s RPI (Minnesota State, Sacred Heart, Notre Dame), TUC record (UAF, LSSU, Holy Cross, Colgate), or something else.