RIT’s Wilson: Fix home game inequality before adjusting PairWise, looking at on-campus regionals

As the NCAA searches for solutions to poor attendance at regionals and PairWise Rankings volatility, schools wait to see how possible changes will affect them.

In the matter of NCAA regionals possibly returning to on-campus sites and potentially becoming three-game series, it’s easy to predict which leagues and schools would favor such a change. Traditional powers with large facilities and fan bases likely would benefit from a return to on-campus NCAA tournament games, while smaller schools see themselves as having a fighting chance under the current system.

According to Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson, his school and Atlantic Hockey want to keep things as even as possible by continuing to play regionals at neutral sites.

“If it’s really about the student-athlete experience, then you work on increasing attendance at the neutral sites,” he said. “What kind of experience is it for a student-athlete on a higher-seeded team to have to play a lower-seeded team in their rink? Or any team for that matter to have to play a road game in the national tournament? That was a big problem with that format, which is why we turned away from it.”

Before the start of the regional format in 1992, all NCAA tournament games leading into the Frozen Four were played in home rinks. Since 2010, the NCAA regionals have been exclusively at neutral sites after 18 years of mixed campus and off-campus venues.

Wilson said the neutral sites, as well as the current selection criteria, have leveled the playing field and made upsets possible. That’s a good thing, he said.

“We’re building a 4,200-seat arena [the Gene Polisseni Center, set to open at the start of the 2014-15 season] in part because we were able to win two NCAA games [in 2010] and get to the Frozen Four. That was good for us, good for our league and good for college hockey. It grows the sport.

“Without Atlantic Hockey, there wouldn’t be a 16-team tournament. That’s where the growth is coming from.”

For the first time, Atlantic Hockey had two teams in the NCAA tournament last season, with Canisius winning the league’s automatic qualifier and Niagara gaining an at-large bid. Robert Morris finished 17th in the PairWise Rankings as well. This generated some rumblings on possible changes to the formula.

“I think the PairWise has done a pretty good job,” Wilson said. “It was called into question this year because our league got two teams in [the NCAA tournament]. But that’s because our league was better from top to bottom and won our share of non-conference games. And I think Canisius and Niagara did a good job of representing [Atlantic Hockey] in the tournament.”

Atlantic Hockey posted the highest number of non-conference wins (25) and tied for the best non-conference winning percentage (.365) in the league’s history. That was despite AHA teams playing the vast majority of their non-conference games on the road.

And that, according to Wilson, is where change has to happen.

Atlantic Hockey teams hosted 23 non-conference home games (16 with conference-affiliated teams; seven against either Alabama-Huntsville or Penn State) plus three more neutral-ice games where AHA squads were the designated home team (RIT’s game with Penn State at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena and Robert Morris’ contests with Penn State and Ohio State at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center).

In contrast, the league’s 12 teams played 52 pure road games and another five on neutral ice (not including NCAA tournament games). That’s more than a two-to-one disparity.

Mercyhurst played all seven of its non-conference games on the road. Niagara played six of its seven non-conference contests away from Dwyer Arena, where the Purple Eagles were 15-0-2 last season.

In comparison, teams that will form the National Collegiate Hockey Conference played 35 non-conference home games to just 15 road games and 10 neutral-site games. Denver did not play a road non-conference game; no NCHC school played more than two.

Big Ten teams (not including Penn State) played 20 non-conference home games, eight road games and nine neutral-site games out of league. Wisconsin and Michigan did not play any non-conference road games.

“You have to factor in [non]equality in home games,” Wilson said. “When you see teams not playing any road games outside their league, and some of those same teams are the ones pushing for on-campus NCAA tournament games, that’s a bigger problem than the PairWise.”

Wilson said that he understands the need for big-market teams to maximize their home contests for financial reasons, with most offering to pay upwards of $15,000 to cover the travel of visiting teams for a weekend because that will be more than made up at the gate. And the visiting school shouldn’t expect a return trip in all but the rarest of circumstances.

“You could call that buying home games,” he said. “In football they’re very up-front about it, getting smaller teams to come for a big payday that will benefit both sides. Smaller schools use that money to support their athletic programs. But those teams won’t be playing each other in the NCAA tournament. Everybody has economic pressures. The smaller schools have even bigger pressures. We all are in this together and all have financial reasons to play home games.”

A large school subsidizing travel costs for a smaller team to come in for a road series with no thought of reciprocity still doesn’t usually cover all the visitor’s costs and leads to the inequality of home vs. road games that can affect the PairWise.

“That’s an issue I think we should look at instead of possibly changing the formula to keep smaller leagues out, or move to on-campus sites,” Wilson said. “Fix that first.”

Wilson was quick to point out that there are plenty of teams willing to venture into a smaller arena in the interests of fairness and the good of the game.

“When we were a fledgling program everybody wanted to play us, but not [at Ritter Arena],” he said. “But [former St. Lawrence coach] Joe Marsh really helped us out and came here that first season. They were a ranked team and had nothing to benefit from that but it was huge for us. He helped get our program off the ground with those two Division I home games.

“We have Michigan coming in to Blue Cross [Arena] next season. Boston College the year after that. I can’t tell you what that means for a program like ours. The impact to our community is immeasurable. And all we had to do is ask. I’m so grateful to those programs.”

Those David and Goliath meetings mean more when it’s on the smaller program’s ice, according to Wilson, who experienced something similar as a player in the early years of the CCHA, captaining Bowling Green to a national championship in 1984.

“That’s what grows the sport,” he said. “And it’s one of the things that make college hockey special. We need more of that to grow the game. The CCHA started out this way, and it took a few years but having big programs come into our buildings legitimized the league, and that’s what we’re looking for here.”