TMQ: Should conference regular-season champions get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament?

Brett Larson (UMD - Assistant Coach) - The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs defeated the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2-1 to win the NCAA D1 Men's title on Saturday, April 7, 2018, in the 2018 Frozen Four at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Melissa Wade)
Brett Larson won a national championship with Minnesota Duluth in 2018 and has St. Cloud State at the top of the national rankings entering March (photo: Melissa Wade).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Candace: Hey, Jimmy, I am glad to be back doing TMQ with you, subbing for Paula.

Since I cover the NCHC, why don’t we start with that conference. St. Cloud State is having a banner year under rookie coach Brett Larson. The Huskies clinched the Penrose Cup as NCHC regular-season champ with their sweep of Omaha combined with Minnesota Duluth splitting with North Dakota and Western Michigan splitting with Colorado College. The Huskies became the first team to win three Penrose Cups in the league’s history. St. Cloud also repeated as Penrose Cup champions, becoming the second team to do so.

On their way home, St. Cloud got delayed by snow and had to be rescued by Watonwin County Sheriff Berry, so the Penrose Cup ended up spending a night in jail!

That St. Cloud captured the league crown with two weekends still to go is even more impressive. The Poll voters certainly recognized it, as the Huskies got 49 of 50 first-place votes. Larson had previously been an assistant with Minnesota Duluth, a team known for having strong defenses, and Larson seems to have brought over that approach to St. Cloud, which has one of the best combinations of offense and defense in the country.

What is your opinion of St. Cloud and the job Larson has done there?

Jim: I think St. Cloud State has been the most consistent team in college hockey this season. At home, they absolutely dominate, which will take any team a long way.

But watching them on tape, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of holes in their game. And I think Brett Larson, obviously inheriting a great team, has done some very good things to ensure continuity in the program.

I think right now it is difficult to pick against this team, but we all know that in the NCAA tournament single elimination plays no favorites. UMass, which I saw okay on Saturday, is pretty complete. That said they fell to Providence in a game UMass probably should have won. But that’s hockey, right?

All that said, I look at the current and look at teams that would be #3 and #4 seeds and think there could be a ton of upsets in the opening round.

Do you agree?

Candace: Oh yes, for sure, but that seems to have become almost commonplace ever since Holy Cross shocked the hockey world in 2006 and upset Minnesota.

Since then, at least one No. 1 seed has lost in the opening round. Last year, two No. 1 seeds, St. Cloud and Cornell, lost in the first round, as did one No. 2 seed, Minnesota State. The year before that, it was one No. 1 seed and three No. 2 seeds falling in the opening round. It’s just not shocking anymore, and parity really does seem to be the state of the game.

When you look at the PairWise threshold these days, you also have to figure that there will be a lot of conference upset winners. Only one AHA team will get in. In the Big Ten, only Ohio State is ranked high enough in the PairWise to get an at-large, but I wouldn’t bet on the Buckeyes winning the Big Ten tournament. Same with Minnesota State and the WCHA, and then you have Arizona State likely getting in as an at-large team. You could then have upset winners in the other conferences as well, especially in Hockey East.

We could be looking at a scenario where nine is the highest a team could be ranked in the PairWise to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Which brings me to a question I’ve kicked around in my head for a few years. Currently, the league tournament winners advance to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid.

Should that bid go to the regular season champion if that team somehow gets knocked out of tournament contention through PairWise wonkery? After all, that team has played better for longer, whereas with the current format, a team can get hot for two weeks and make the NCAA tournament.

Jim: Despite the fact that I feel we are contemporaries in age, I may be old enough to remember the days when both the regular-season and postseason champions in each team got an automatic qualifier in what was then a 12-team tournament.

And if you read through the NCAA manuals, in today’s game, each conference is awarded one automatic qualifier and it is that conference’s choice how they award it. So technically, if the conference decided, it could give its automatic qualifier to the regular-season champion.

Of course, the mentality in giving it to your tournament champion is twofold: 1) it’s expected that is the conference’s hottest team so, similar to basketball, you want to that team representing you; and 2) you expect your regular-season champion to be a good enough team to qualify through its play. Of course, if your conference’s RPI is low, as is the case for Atlantic Hockey and the WCHA, that might be the only team to qualify if the same team that wins the regular season also wins the tournament. That, though, wouldn’t change with two bids.

The Big Ten is the unique circumstance this season.

The Big Ten had the second-best out-of-conference record, but because all of their members play such a high number of league games (that happens in a seven-team conference) and most of the teams beat up one another in conference play, each team’s overall RPI lowered to the point that Ohio State is currently the only team qualified for the NCAA tournament, according to the PairWise.

This is a quirk of the system because I think that teams like Penn State and Notre Dame are good enough to make this NCAA field. Right now, neither would. That can straighten itself out in the coming weeks but there is a good chance both of those teams are on the outside looking in if neither wins the Big Ten title. It seems pretty crazy to me, but that is the impact of a conference that, instead of having some dominant teams and some bottom feeders instead has a bunch of solid yet not dominant members.

Candace: I could possibly agree with you on Notre Dame, but I think Penn State is vastly overrated. Yes, the Nittany Lions are 18-12-2, but outside of the Big Ten, they haven’t played too many good teams. Their out-of-conference record gets boosted by playing a Clarkson team that was getting its legs on opening season weekend and a split with Arizona State, but aside from that they played four Atlantic Hockey teams and Princeton.

On top of that, Penn State has one of the worst defenses in the country, giving up almost four goals per game, and I’m of the camp that believes defense wins in the postseason.

I also think the Big Ten’s record versus other conferences bears more analysis. They went 4-8-1 versus the NCHC and 6-9-2 versus the WCHA. Most of the Big Ten’s success was versus the AHA (6-0-1) and ECAC (13-2-1). ECAC teams they played include Colgate (Ohio State), Rensselaer (Notre Dame), Princeton (Penn State), Clarkson (Penn State, Wisconsin), St. Lawrence (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan), and Cornell (Michigan State).

The ECAC may not be the EZAC any more, but it is very stratified.

Four of the Big Ten’s wins against the ECAC were against St. Lawrence, one of the worst teams in college hockey. A majority of the Big Ten’s games against ECAC competition were against that league’s four worst teams, so in my mind, the Big Ten’s second-best out-of-conference record is inflated by who they scheduled.

That seems to be Penn State’s strategy, by the way — schedule weak out-of-conference games and hope that boosts them high enough in the PairWise.

It’s kind of crazy to think about, but after this weekend, only your conference and mine still have regular-season games to play. The other four will be starting their playoff tournaments, which ups the intensity level by orders of magnitude. Teams like Harvard, Cornell and Clarkson on right on that PairWise bubble and need to play with desperation, as does every team except Minnesota State in the WCHA, every team but perhaps Ohio State in the Big Ten, and all the the AHA teams. When you look at current bubble teams (12-20 in the PairWise), are there ones who you think could make the push to qualify for the Big Dance?

Jim: You make a good point about the Big Ten’s out-of-conference scheduling.

That said, if there was a distinct top and bottom in that league (i.e. if after Ohio State, three teams won a good amount of league games and three others lost most, Big Ten could have four teams in).

As for teams who I still am looking to make a move, I’ll give you two: one inside the bubble and one outside.

Inside, I think UMass Lowell has a lot of upside. They are 1-2-1 in their last four but showed in a 10-game stretch before that they can play with most teams. The River Hawks have missed just two NCAA tournaments under Norm Bazin and may be a tough team to play in the Hockey East tournament.

The other, one you’re very familiar with, is North Dakota. At 18th in the PairWise, there’s a lot of work to do. But if the Fighting Hawks can get hot and put together 4-5 wins and reach the conference tournament, they’ll likely control their own destiny. That said, I put them below 20 percent to reach the tournament right now.

Like I said, it’s a long road ahead.