The National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey committee made two controversial decisions on Sunday. One involved selecting Dartmouth over Clarkson as the last team in the tournament. The other was to abandon the practice of avoiding intraconference play in the NCAA quarterfinal round in order to save money on travel costs. I will discuss each below.
Dartmouth over Clarkson
This was the toughest decision an NCAA committee has ever had to make involving the last team into the field. Recall the NCAA criteria:
RPI (a combination of win pct. and strength of schedule), record against teams with an RPI > .500 (teams under consideration), record against common opponents, and head-to-head play.
Here is how the team’s stacked up in the PWR calculations of these criteria:
RPI: Clarkson .5600, Dartmouth .5594
TUC: Clarkson 5-7-2, Dartmouth 3-7-2
H2H: Clarkson 0-1-1, Dartmouth 1-0-1
COP: Clarkson 18-7-3, Dartmouth 16-7-3
Clearly the committee felt that Dartmouth’s clear head-to-head advantage was decisive, while Clarkson’s three advantages were not large enough for the committee to respect them.
Some fans surely feel any form of discretion in the hands of the committee is a negative — comments like “opening up a can of worms” or “returning us to the era of smoke-filled rooms” come to mind.
I would describe the women’s hockey selections today as “subjective interpretations of objective criteria.” Unlike say, men’s college basketball, the criteria in women’s hockey are very well-defined in the tournament handbook.
That said, there is nothing in the handbook saying that the criteria should be balanced in the manner used by the USCHO Pairwise Rankings — that is, awarding a point for a head-to-head win and a point for any other criterion won, and using RPI as a tiebreaker.
Weighting the criteria is not purely objective, but the committee does not deserve to be discounted as purely subjective either. Having looked at the pairings, it is reasonable to believe that the committee made its choices based on the criteria in the handbook, and thus it did the job it was asked to do.
While this selection is surely disappointing for Clarkson, I see little reason to believe that the committee has sacrificed the integrity of the selection process. Nothing from this selection leads me to believe that teams should be any less confident that they will advance to NCAAs if they do enough to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and that’s what matters most. The fact that there is even an argument to be had between Clarkson and Dartmouth shows that Clarkson could have done plenty more to differentiate itself.
Many fans will be stunned by the committee’s decision to have two intraconference matchups. When you look at the history of the NCAA in championships that are not profitable, the 2005-07 tournament is what’s really abnormal, and not the current selections. In that context, fans should be grateful for the previous three years, not bitter about the current setup. That the NCAA is cutting costs in the current economic environment should come as no surprise.
Fans should recognize the NCAA governance to be followed by the committee. All that’s written in stone is that the teams ranked No. 1 through No. 4 do not play each other. Beyond that, this is what the handbook says:
Pairings in the quarterfinal round shall be based primarily on the teams’ geographical proximity to one another, regardless of their region, in order to avoid air travel in quarterfinal round games whenever possible. Teams’ relative strength, according to the committee’s selection criteria, shall be considered when establishing pairings if such pairings do not result in air travel that otherwise could be avoided. The NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet shall have the authority to modify its working principles related to the championship site assignment on a case-by-case basis.
There is nothing in the handbook about avoiding intraconference matchups, but the committee had established the precedent from 2005-07. Thus, I have always written that brackets should be judged in terms of how they balance bracket integrity (i.e. how they preserve the PWR seedings), travels costs, and avoiding intraconference matchups. How the committee has balanced these three objectives has varied greatly from year to year, and I have never been able to predict this balance right.
Clearly the current bracket is the worst yet in terms of avoiding intraconference matchups. It is the best yet, however, in terms of minimizing travel costs. Only one flight, Mercyhurst to UMD, will be necessary for the quarterfinal round.
The reduction of interconference matchups is disappointing. There are too few interconference matchups in women’s hockey to begin with. If any one conference has three of the four best team in the country, the current system makes it unlikely that all three teams will advance to the Frozen Four. National tournaments that become retreads of conference tournaments are a concern.
Another benefit for the NCAA in this decision involves quarterfinal attendance. Wisconsin and Dartmouth have the largest women’s hockey fan bases in their respective regions. The tournament’s bottom line certainly benefits from placing their teams in locations where fans can easily travel to see them play.
Some long-time fans may be disappointed with the lack of novelty of the matchups, but if the respective fan bases can turn out in force and create a better atmosphere for the quarterfinal events, this may be a silver lining.