The field of 16 for the NCAA tournament has been announced, and although the pairings will — as they always do — provoke some consternation, the important thing is to make it.
“The anticipation of the national tournament, the opponent, the site you’re going to play, it’s a special day,” said Boston College head coach Jerry York, whose Eagles start by taking on Minnesota in the Northeast Regional.
“You have to earn it to get here. It’s something we strive for but it’s never assured. I think there was a stretch there in February and into March where we lost four consecutive home games. That really was a difficult time for our team.
“We just kind of persevered. We just came to practice every day with a workmanlike attitude because our seasons are never smooth and easy all the way through. The difficulties we experienced there maybe made us a better club down the stretch.”
New Hampshire, Hockey East’s regular-season champion, was sent to Colorado to potentially face No. 2 seed Colorado College in the regional final. For York, though, there are pluses for UNH.
“What’s going to be good for Dick [Umile]’s team is it’s an Olympic-sized arena [similar to the Whittemore Center]. They’ve been so successful at home, so that should help them. Once you get in the NCAA field, whether you travel 1,000 miles or 50 miles, you still have to bring your ‘A’ game to advance.
“Dick and I talked earlier this morning. It’s our goal to get two Hockey East teams into Denver. We have to work through some tough opponents but we want to carry our league banner.”
Of BC’s first-round opponent, Minnesota, York had nothing but compliments.
We’ve been in two tournaments with them — in the Ice Breaker and we didn’t play them because we lost to Michigan, and the [Dodge Holiday] tournament we didn’t meet either. But we’ve watched them on tape an awful lot. We have a real good feeling of how they play. They kind of mirror us. They really skate well. They make plays.
“We each have freshman goaltenders who have played well down the stretch. It’s a traditional opponent, like I call them, ‘Original Six’ opponents. There’s a lot of tradition in both programs and we’ve both been perennial national contenders for a long stretch of time.”
The selection of Wisconsin to the tournament was predicted by the PairWise Rankings, but the Badgers’ sub-.500 record was a new one.
“It’s never happened in my recollection,” said York. “They must’ve beat some really good teams.”
The Michigan Wolverines, the top seed in the East Regional at Albany, like their situation, but recognize the importance of continuing to perform.
“This is the part of the year you’re going to be judged by, not what you’ve done up until now,” said head coach Red Berenson. “I think they [the players] are enjoying the accomplishment at this point, and now we have to refocus on how we have to play the rest of the way, because our next game could be our last game.”
Said captain and Hobey Baker finalist Kevin Porter, “We’re where we wanted to be. Those were the teams we wanted to play. Everyone’s going to be good in the tournament, but I think we’re in a great bracket.
“To play Niagara in our first game is great, especially having to play North Dakota the last two years. I mean, they’re going to be a good team, but it’s nice not having to play North Dakota in the first game.”
“We just have a good team attitude this year. We’re more excited than I think we’ve been in the past,” added assistant captain Mark Mitera. “We’re getting up for these big games.
“I think the youth on the team is huge — those guys are excited every day. I don’t think they even realize how important the games are. They just go out and play. It’s great. I think we do less thinking and more playing, which is good.”
CHA champion Niagara drew a tough first-round opponent in Michigan, a fact of which head coach Dave Burkholder was well aware.
“Michigan obviously has so much more history with nine national championships,” said Burkholder. “I feel we have a legitimate shot of knocking them off. They are a very special team, being ranked at No. 1 for more weeks than any other team, and with 12 NHL picks. This is the time we look back on our history and our school spirit to prepare.”
Defending national champion Michigan State is also in the field, though with a tough regional assignment. The Spartans will face Colorado College, the West Regional host, on the Tigers’ home ice in the first round.
“CC’s a good team and well-coached, and I’ve never seen the building, but I would be excited no matter where we were going,” said MSU head coach Rick Comley on the ESPN2 selection show.
The Spartans, of course, know what it is to come out on top as an underdog after last season’s title-winning run.
“You can’t look too far ahead. Last year we had to beat four very good teams and we weren’t favored in any of those games,” Comley added.
Perhaps the most eye-catching consequence of last weekend’s games was a bid being awarded to Wisconsin, which made the field as a No. 3 seed based on the criteria as summarized in the PairWise Rankings. Although some disagreed with the selection, the data were the data.
“First of all, the PairWise is a formula,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. “The objectivity of it is out; there’s a formula, and we were ranked 12th. That’s tough to argue against.”
Of course, the bid is especially rewarding for UW given last year’s less-cheery outcome.
“Last year, we knew that we were one victory away probably, and we didn’t get that done,” said Eaves. “And this year, we get it done based on things that happened outside of our control, which was good fortune for us.”
The Badgers not only made the tournament, but they get to play on home ice at the Kohl Center this weekend.
“This is our home,” said Eaves. “It’s nice to have that seventh man on the ice with us, the crowd. We know the environment. Those are all positives — we have to take advantage of those positives.”