The PairWise Analyzed: March 8, 2006

Last weekend’s results nicely separated the haves from the have-nots. Six teams — the same as last week — are designated as locks, but now another four teams may be only one win away from securing at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, while a few more can breathe a sigh of relief with wins in best-of-3 playoff series.

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 8, 2006.

The Locks

No. 1 Minnesota, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 3 Miami: Minnesota is a No. 1 seed no matter what happens from here on out, and will likely be the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Similarly, Wisconsin is on track for a No. 1 seed of its own, meaning that these two teams will likely spend the weekend of March 24-26 in Grand Forks (Gophers) and Green Bay (Badgers), taking on the CHA and Atlantic Hockey tournament champions in some combination. It’s been suggested that Minnesota might get a raw deal by potentially facing North Dakota in Grand Forks as the overall No. 1 seed, but what goes around, comes around: Minnesota hosted last year’s West Regional and won two games in overtime. Miami will pin down the third No. 1 seed by winning this weekend’s series against Western Michigan, and would probably end up in Albany pending the finish to Boston University and Michigan State’s seasons.

No. 4 Boston University, No. 5 Michigan State: The Terriers and the Spartans are in a dogfight for the last No. 1 seed, which could come down to something as simple as the head-to-head PWR comparison between these two. BU holds the edge right now in RPI (.5627 to .5603) and record against TUCs (11-6-4, .6190 versus 13-8-7, .5893), but a BU series loss (to Massachusetts) and a Spartan win (over Alaska-Fairbanks) in this weekend’s playoffs would flip that to make MSU the fourth and final No. 1 seed. Either way, these two are currently on a collision course to meet in the regional finals in Worcester, where BU is hosting.

No. 6 Colorado College: A one-point weekend against archrival Denver didn’t really hurt CC for now. The Tigers had little chance to move up to a No. 1 seed no matter what happened last weekend thanks to their oft-mentioned mediocre record against TUCs, which is now 11-11-2 (.5000). But the Tigers can still fall; a sweep by St. Cloud State in this weekend’s WCHA first round would send CC’s RPI spiraling down, potentially costing the Tigers several comparisons and putting them uncomfortably close to the bubble. They should still be in even under that dire circumstance, but a No. 2 seed is likelier assuming a series win.

One Win And In?

No. 7 Nebraska-Omaha: After getting over a big bump in the road in the form of Bowling Green last weekend, the Mavericks’ final test for NCAA qualification comes against Northern Michigan. UNO can seal the deal with a series win — even one win in three games might be enough to settle matters. Like the Tigers, the Mavs can’t realistically move up to a No. 1 seed, but they can fall into bubble territory with a loss via a two-game sweep. That’s because their RPI of .5444 is just barely ahead of several other teams, against which the head-to-head PairWise comparison is riding on — you guessed it — the RPI. For that reason, UNO is less secure in its bid than Harvard, which is winning its comparisons by solid margins.

No. 8 Harvard: Harvard plays TUC St. Lawrence in the ECACHL quarterfinals this weekend, meaning that those games have big-time meaning for both schools. The Crimson’s record against TUCs (9-6-1, .5938) is its strength, versus a solid-but-not-stunning RPI of .5458. Both would fall with losses to SLU, but it would take a lot of wins by bubble teams to push the Crimson out of the NCAA picture. Like UNO, a series win this weekend seals the deal, and like UNO, one win in the series would probably do it.

Jordan Parise and North Dakota are on the verge of an NCAA tournament berth (photo: Melissa Wade).

Jordan Parise and North Dakota are on the verge of an NCAA tournament berth (photo: Melissa Wade).

No. 9 North Dakota: North Dakota has fought its way back thanks to its RPI of .5514, which is now sixth in the nation. The Fighting Sioux’s series last weekend against Michigan Tech was a trap, but UND passed with flying colors to brighten its hopes. But from a PairWise perspective, the most interesting series in the nation this weekend could be the one between UND and Minnesota State in the WCHA playoffs. Minnesota State is currently a TUC, and UND is 2-0-0 this season against the Mavericks, bolstering the Sioux’s weak TUC record (10-13-1, .4375). A series sweep by UND, however, would push the Mavericks’ RPI right down to the .5000 mark needed to qualify as a TUC — meaning that those four wins over Mankato might no longer help the Sioux’s TUC record. Even then, the improvement in North Dakota’s RPI would offset the damage, leaving the Sioux in excellent position to make the national tournament. Oddly enough, these things mean that the very best outcome for UND could be a 2-1 series win, not a sweep. These are the numbers, folks. Having said all that, I’m tempted to put UND among the locks, but let’s see how the weekend turns out.

No. 10 Cornell: Like its PairWise twin, Harvard, Cornell has a good RPI (.5439) and a very solid record against TUCs (6-3-1, .6500). And like Harvard, Cornell gets a TUC in the ECACHL quarterfinals, in this case Clarkson. Clarkson can be pushed back below an RPI of .5000 by losing two straight to Cornell, but unlike North Dakota, Cornell doesn’t need those TUC wins nearly as badly since its TUC record is already sound. A series sweep by the Golden Knights would put the Big Red in jeopardy, but — see a pattern developing here? — even one win in the best-of-3 series should keep Cornell’s RPI up enough that the Big Red would be ready to dance.

Keep On Truckin’

No. 11 Maine: The Black Bears don’t have North Dakota’s RPI, or the TUC credentials of UNO, Harvard or Cornell, which is why they’re here in the next tier of contenders. A three-point weekend against UMass pretty much left them where they were entering the final week of the regular season: well positioned, but hardly secure. Maine takes on Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East playoffs this week facing the following irony: its TUC record of 8-9-1 (.4722) is marginal, but the Black Bears have three wins already this season against UML, which is not a TUC right now. Maine sure could use the benefit of those wins for its TUC record, but the only way to get them to count there is to lose a couple of games against the River Hawks. That means Maine is really in a similar position to North Dakota, where winning or losing this weekend may not matter as much as one would think. Nevertheless, since Maine is dangerously close to the bubble at No. 11 in the PWR, it would obviously prefer to win and have a chance to keep going in the HEA tourney.

Roll Up The Sleeves

No. 12 Denver, No. 13 Michigan: Last week I said that the Pioneers would finally get their chance, and they capitalized with three points against Colorado College. But all that hard and productive work would be undone if DU loses this weekend’s WCHA playoff series against Minnesota-Duluth, which must win the WCHA tournament to get in. The Pioneers must advance to the Final Five, and then may still have to win a game there to be invulnerable to potential tournament upsets elsewhere. Meanwhile, it’s crunch time for the Wolverines, who face Ferris State in the CCHA quarters. Like Denver, Michigan must win its upcoming series to stay in the picture, and then probably needs a win at Joe Louis Arena to feel safe. The Wolverines’ Achilles heel is their TUC record of 9-12-5 (.4423), which is why Michigan can ill afford losses to TUC FSU.

No. 14 New Hampshire: See Denver and Michigan, above. New Hampshire takes on a playoff opponent in Providence which has to keep winning to make the NCAAs, and since PC is a TUC, UNH can also hardly afford to lose games this weekend. One loss in a series win over the Friars would be okay, but like DU and Michigan, the Wildcats might have to get another win down the line after that.

No. 15 Dartmouth: The schedule is turning out to be cruel to the ECACHL’s No. 1 playoff seed. The Big Green face Yale this weekend with very little to gain thanks to the Bulldogs’ poor overall winning percentage — but Dartmouth can end its season by failing to advance. Even one loss to Yale would be deadly to the Big Green’s RPI (currently .5341), and the Big Green won’t have a chance to improve the TUC record this weekend, at least. Dartmouth may have to win the ECACHL tournament to make the NCAAs despite tying for the league’s regular-season title.

No. 16 Ferris State: A series win over Michigan would put Ferris State officially on the cusp, but a semifinal loss at the Joe would probably take the Bulldogs back off again. The CCHA tournament championship might not be necessary to make the NCAAs, but FSU will be sweating it out come Selection Sunday with anything less. An RPI of .5339 has FSU right in the middle of the pack of bubble teams, so a semifinal against a strong team like Miami would help.

No. 17 Boston College: It continues to amaze that the Eagles are in such trouble, but that’s what one win in its last seven games will do to a once-powerful contender. BC takes on Vermont in a critical Hockey East series this weekend. If BC fails to advance, the Eagles are done. Conversely, there’s still work to be done if the Eagles beat the Cats, though a sweep would help even more. BC does not necessarily make the national tournament without winning a Hockey East semifinal, no matter what happens this weekend.

Only Champions Admitted?

No. 18 Northern Michigan, No. 19 Alaska-Fairbanks: These CCHA teams face uphill battles thanks to tough quarterfinal opponents (UNO and Michigan State, respectively) and questionable PWR credentials to this point. Despite being a tad lower in the PWR, UAF is better off than NMU because of its superior RPI (.5264 to .5218) and better quarterfinal opponent against which to test itself. The Wildcats, in all likelihood, need the CCHA championship and the corresponding autobid, while the Nanooks — whom I lumped into the no-hope-of-an-at-large category last week — might still have a glimmer of hope if they can sweep the Spartans and then win a semifinal the next weekend. Even then, though, it’d be a heck of a lot easier on the nerves to just win the CCHA championship in their last game.

No. 20 St. Lawrence, No. 21 Providence, No. 22 Holy Cross, No. 23 Vermont, No. 24 Colgate, No. 25 St. Cloud State, No. 26 Ohio State, No. 27 Lake Superior State, No. 28 Sacred Heart, No. 29 Minnesota State, No. 30 Clarkson, No. 31 Mercyhurst: Providence, Vermont and St. Cloud State (strength of remaining schedule), as well as Holy Cross (high RPI compared to the rest), are intriguing cases, but it’s very hard to see how any of these teams can dance without autobid tickets. OSU and LSSU are done in the classic sense, having lost CCHA first-round series last weekend.

The CHA: We’d be remiss not to mention that the first NCAA bid will be awarded this weekend, to the CHA tournament champion. No CHA team is currently a TUC, but whichever one wins the league playoff will become one automatically by NCAA rules. The PairWise Rankings and next week’s “PairWise Analyzed” will reflect that fact, which could affect several NCAA contenders.