NCAA Division I men’s tournament selection process

Not clear about how teams are selected for the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament? You’re not alone.

Compared to other NCAA sports, hockey has a fairly clear-cut process of determining which teams make the field. But how the NCAA men’s ice hockey committee makes out the bracket on selection Sunday is another story.

Here’s our best effort at answering questions about that process:

Q: How many teams are in the tournament?

A: Sixteen.

Q: Who is on the selection committee?

A: The current makeup of the Division I men’s ice hockey committee can be found at the Division I men’s tournament page. This page also includes a bracket (when available), lists (such as past tournament winners), and other data.

Q: How is the field broken down?

A: The tournament is split into four regions — East, Northeast, West and Midwest — with four teams in each. The No. 1 seed plays the No. 4 in the first round, and No. 2 plays No. 3. The winners play each other in the regional final, with those four winners advancing to the Frozen Four.

Q: How are the tournament teams determined?

A: Each conference receives one automatic bid. Currently this includes six Division I conferences. The rest of the teams are selected through a series of mathematical and other criteria. Either way, there is no subjectivity in the process of selecting teams for the tournament.

Q: How do you receive an automatic bid?

A: Starting with the 2000-01 season, the committee elected to revert to the practice of awarding only one automatic bid to each conference. A conference has the choice of how to award its automatic bid; all have elected to award it to their postseason tournament champion.

Q: What was the “Colorado College rule”?

A: In 1994, Colorado College won the WCHA regular-season title, but did not receive a berth to the NCAA tournament. Soon after, the NCAA started awarding conferences two automatic bids, which meant both the regular season and tournament champions got in. That rule, which was nicknamed the Colorado College rule, was later rescinded.

Q: What is the “Clarkson rule”?

A: The so-called Clarkson rule said that any team which won its regular season and conference tournament championship would automatically be awarded a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. This rule is no longer in effect.

Q: How is RPI calculated?

A: RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index, is a value made up of three weighed factors — a team’s winning percentage (25 percent), its opponents’ winning percentage (21 percent) and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (54 percent). The opponent’s winning percentage is the average winning percentage of each opponent, not the total winning percentage based on the sum of all wins, losses and ties. If a team’s RPI goes down as a result of a victory, that game is thrown out of the equation so that team is not penalized for a victory. Starting in the 2013-14 season, a weight was applied to home and away results to reward teams for road victories and a quality wins bonus was added to reward teams for wins over teams in the top 20 of the RPI.

Q: Are media or coaches polls used to determine who else gets in the tournament?

A: No, only the objective numerical rankings are used.

Q: How are the at-large teams selected?

A: The committee uses criteria spelled out in its publicly available manual to determine which at-large teams make the NCAA tournament. First, only teams with a winning percentage of .500 or better that have played at least 20 games against Division I teams are eligible to be an at-large selection. All teams are are compared against each other and ordered by the number of comparisons they win. That process is mimicked by USCHO’s PairWise Rankings, about which a full explanation is available here. The committee maintains its own rankings, but, to the best of our knowledge, when one sees the PairWise Rankings, it sees essentially the same data the committee sees.

Q: Is choosing the field based on the opinion of the committee at all?

A: In practice, not really. However, language in the committee’s manual indicates that the committee “reserves the right to evaluate each team based on the relative strength of its respective conference using the overall conference RPI and conference comparisons (e.g., Conference A’s won-lost record versus Conference B, etc.) in determining competitive equity.”

Q: What were “bonus points,” and what happened to them?

Starting with the 2003 tournament, teams got bonus percentage points added to their RPI for defeating teams that finish the season in the top 15 of the RPI. For 2006-07, the bonus criterion was altered to give points only for a road win, as opposed to the old system, under which home and neutral-site wins also counted, albeit less than road wins. This factor was eliminated by the committee after the 2007 tournament. A quality wins bonus was instituted starting with the 2013-14 season where teams got points added to their RPI for wins over teams in the top 20 of the RPI.

Q: How does a team that lost in the first round of its conference tournament still get an at-large bid?

A: No more importance is placed on the conference tournament games than any other games. Winning or losing those games means just the same as winning or losing any other game — except that if you win the whole tournament, you’ve got an automatic bid. So losing early in a conference tournament would mean the team could drop in PWR, and maybe even miss the NCAA tournament because of that, but it wouldn’t be solely based on that result.

Q: How is the tournament seeded?

A: The four top-ranked teams in the tournament are awarded No. 1 seeds. The next four are No. 2 seeds, the next four No. 3 seeds and the final four No. 4 seeds. Attempts have been made to keep teams closest to their home region, but there is an emphasis on bracket integrity — keeping the first-round matchups as close as possible to having No. 1 overall play No. 16 overall, No. 2 overall play No. 15 overall, and so on.

The committee is directed to avoid first-round games between teams from the same conference unless five or more teams from one conference are selected. In that case, the committee can prioritize maintaining bracket integrity over avoiding intra-conference matchups.

Also, schools that are hosting regionals and make the field of 16 will play at that site.

Q: How do they decide who gets moved?

A: In the past, when there was only two regions, it was a mandatory part of the procedure that two teams from each region would be moved. This was to ensure the flavor of a “national” tournament. Now, with four regions, the teams are be more spread out, and there is no explicit mandate to move teams.

Teams are placed into bands of four, each corresponding with a seed. Teams can be moved freely within those bands, but their seed is rarely changed. The committee can move teams within bands to help out a region for attendance factors, reduce travel costs, avoid second-round intraconference matchups, or any reason it wants.

Q: Who decides these guidelines?

A: These guidelines and procedures are discussed regularly with the entire body of Division I teams. The committee has the final say, but tends to abide by the sentiment of the member teams.

Q: What happened to the idea of flip-flopping the bottom teams of each region?

A: This was done in order to maintain a “national flavor” to the tournament. When there were only two regions, the regionals could become too dominated by teams that always played each other during the season. With four regions and four teams in each, there is much more flexibility to move things around, and there is much more diversity built in. By simply mandating that intraconference matchups should be avoided, the effect of a national tournament is there without needing to also mandate switches.

Q: Why is it so important to avoid intraconference matchups?

A: It’s a matter of opinion, but those who make the argument against first-round intraconference matchups say that the national tournament should be a time for teams to play teams they don’t see four or more times in the regular season and conference playoffs.

Q: What is the seeding of a team that wins an automatic bid?

A: Earning an automatic bid has no direct bearing on seeding. In the past, if a team won both the regular season championship and conference tournament, that team would receive an automatic bye in its home region. But, starting in 2000-01 and the awarding of only one automatic bid per conference, that was no longer the case.

Q: Does winning a conference tournament improve a team’s seeding?

A: Not directly. That victory in the conference tournament championship game may give a team an automatic bid, but it holds no special weight in the selection formula. The greatest effect of winning the conference tournament on seeding often comes through the number of wins it took to achieve.