TMQ: Discussing NCHC commish Fenton’s comments on NCAA hockey tournament seeds based on past showings

NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton gets interviewed at 2013 media day ( file photo)

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.

Paula: Jimmy, usually the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a down time for TMQ, but in this most unusual hockey season, we perhaps should have anticipated that something would surface to merit comment this week, which is exactly what happened in the form of NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton’s unconventional ideas about how to choose the 2021 tournament field.

And what a timely gift.

At 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve, our friend Brad Elliott Schlossman published an article in the Grand Forks Herald and subsequently in The Rink Live in which Fenton suggests looking at how many teams on average each conference has placed in the national tournament going back seven years to college hockey’s most recent alignment to choose the field in 2021.

Fenton’s argument is based on the lack of intraconference competition for most of the D-I teams playing this season, rendering the RPI and the PairWise Rankings essentially useless for determining participation in the 2021 tournament. In Schlossman’s article, Fenton says that the league commissioners have been “heavily involved” in discussions about how the selection committee will pick a field especially, says Fenton, where it concerns at-large bids.

Schlossman rightly points out how Fenton’s ideas don’t negate other complications related to the selection process, like how there are only four ECAC teams playing this season and the imbalance in the NCHC’s own schedule.

There is a lot to process here, Jimmy. As much as I like data-driven decisions, I have some questions and reservations. Is Fenton’s suggestion that the committee turn to the data provided by the last seven years the most logical and fairest way to approach this problem? What are your initial thoughts about this?

Jim: Well, let’s look at an excerpt from Brad’s column:

The current conference alignment has been in place since 2013-14, when the NCHC and Big Ten formed.
Excluding 2019-20, when the pandemic shut down the college hockey season before the NCAA tournament field was picked, the average number of NCAA-tournament teams per league since realignment is: Atlantic Hockey 1, Eastern College Athletic Conference 3.16, Big Ten 2.16, Hockey East 4, NCHC 3.83 and Western Collegiate Hockey Association 1.67.
If you include 2019-20, using the Pairwise at the time of the shutdown, it would be: Atlantic Hockey 1, ECAC 3, Big Ten 2.28, Hockey East 4, NCHC 3.71 and WCHA 1.71.

Like you said, I don’t actually mind a data-driven approach, but there are also issues.

Would an approach that uses historical numbers of bids, as Brad suggests based on Fenton’s comments, be pigeon-holing the committee into only selecting at-large teams that creates a field that mimics years past? Thus, once Atlantic Hockey receives its automatic qualifier, they’re done?

The same might be said for the ECAC, as the conference typically has 3 bids with 12 teams, but proportionally would receive just one bid this year with only four teams playing. Clarkson and Quinnipiac – both nationally ranked – might have something to say about that.

Yes, at a 10,000-foot view, Fenton’s suggestion seems to have some merit. But when my (somewhat feeble) mind tries to imagine execution, there seems to be major concerns.

We’ve talked about how the tournament would be seeded in the past, so in addition to asking for your comments, maybe you could play the czar of college hockey and give me a suggestion on how to approach.

Paula: While I don’t think that any living soul wants to see me ascend to the role of czar of hockey – including me – I’ll take a stab at this.

Warning: I’m going to oversimplify it. I’m also going to completely ignore Fenton’s suggestion for a moment, but I’ll get back to that.

A few weeks ago in this column, you suggested that each conference be given two autobids, one for the conference’s playoff champions and another for the league’s regular-season champs. That guarantees at least two teams from each conference and a total of a dozen teams. I like this as a start.

In the case where the conference playoff champions are also regular-season champions, I suggest that the team with the highest conference win percentage among the remaining team be chosen for a given league’s second spot.

Twelve is a good number to start. That would leave four at-large bids, unless the championship field is cut to 12 – and I am totally good with that for this season. After all, there are nine teams not competing this season because of the pandemic. The field is smaller and – as Josh Fenton pointed out – there is too little intraconference play to determine cross-referencing for at-large bids based on play this season.

Shortening the field to 12 makes sense for other reasons. While the NCAA is all about giving as many student-athletes that championship experience – and I think that is an admirable aim – what kind of playoff experience are we really anticipating come March? A 12-team field in a bubble or pod is easier to manage than 16 teams. I know that we all want to expand the sport rather than shrink it but having two teams from each conference may heighten rather than diminish interest. It would be intense.

If the NCAA insists on a 16-team field, I would again default to win percentages. After the field of 12 autobids are chosen from each of the six conferences, give the autobids to the top four win percentages from all of D-1 hockey following that.

I know that some people will scream about that, about how that’s not “fair” because some leagues are historically stronger than others. Too bad, I say. Let’s keep the tournament in the here and now. This is a really tough season for everyone. I say let’s reward the programs – and the student-athletes – who have excelled within their conferences and see how they play in the 2021 tournament.

Jim: I will admit that Fenton’s suggestions may have, in a way, influenced my thinking on this topic.

Like I already said, I don’t want to look at the field for the NCAA tournament and begin just handing out bids because of what happened in the past. But what if we put certain restrictions on how many bids a conference can receive.

Because we can’t really make a comparison to the strength of one conference versus another, personally I think it would be sensible to cap the number of teams any conference can place in the field at 50 percent. The ECAC would be limited to just two bids, but with only four teams, that’s fair. The two conferences most impacted would be the Big Ten (limit of three teams with only seven members), and the NCHC and WCHA with a maximum of four teams (50% of their current eight members). Certainly Hockey East and Atlantic Hockey could each earn five, but AHA has never had more than two and it has been rare that Hockey East receives five bids.

Let’s say that the ECAC, NCHC and Big Ten all max out their bids – that would be nine total, leaving seven spots for the WCHA, Hockey East and Atlantic Hockey. Look at that, I’m already beginning to find fault with my approach, as I see the WCHA and Atlantic Hockey deserving off a minimum of three bids combined and possibly as high as five, leaving Hockey East, the conference with historically the most bids on average over the last seven years, possibly with just two bids.

So I’m back to the drawing board. And I still like the thought of giving each conference the possibility of two bids – one for the regular-season champion and one for the tournament champ. While there is a possibility of that accounting for 12 of the 16 bids, it is possible that only six automatic bids are accounted for (and most likely that number rests somewhere in the middle, like nine).

Maybe, then, we go back to Fenton’s historical approach and fill however many bids remains by prioritizing the conferences that have historically had the most bids.

Is that somehow a compromise?

Paula: I have real issues with looking at the historical data to determine what is fair right here and right now for these student-athletes playing during extraordinary times.

It doesn’t seem right to discount the varied circumstances that affect each program in the present, and that’s what looking at data from the past seems to do. Sure, Jim, it’s a compromise – but is it one that is fair to all involved?

What about the two independent teams? I don’t know how Arizona State and Long Island University will end their seasons, but they don’t have the kind of historic data that Fenton mentions and so, it seems, they’d be out of the picture. What if either one of them catches fire and winds up with a killer win percentage? Do we just toss that aside?

And with all respect to Josh Fenton – someone I’ve known, liked, and respected for many years, someone who has done a fantastic job with the NCHC – it is a whole lot easier to propose such a selection process when your conference has, historically, placed close to an average of four teams per year in the tournament since its inception.

I don’t want to see conferences like Hockey East and the NCHC – who have historically been the strongest leagues since the realignment – disgruntled, but we literally have no way of measuring meaningful intraconference comparisons this season — and shouldn’t this season’s tournament be about this season, especially given that this season is historic in its own way?

Jim: Oh boy, the independents. I’m not sure how I left those teams out, especially given the fact that Arizona State made the tournament in 2019 and would’ve if the 2020 event was played. That, right there, is history.

You are correct that this year’s tournament needs to be about this year. It would be easiest to simply let this season play out, but I think you and I have been around college hockey for long enough to understand that the teams – and fans – involved seem to like the objective approach of the PairWise, not the subjective. And I’m sure that is what led to Fenton’s proactivity.

Thus, it probably is a good idea to find a way to place some structure around this season, including how this tournament is selected.

And, rest assured, no matter what the outcome, someone won’t like it.