NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament Bracket: Attendance Trumps Bracket Integrity

Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

Atmosphere > bracket integrity

It's the day after the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament bracket reveal and the selection committee wound up surprising a lot of people (me included). Basically there were three schools of thought going into the night:

-- The committee would go with the straight, S-curve bracket based on the PairWise rankings, sending Boston College-Minnesota State to Grand Rapids and North Dakota-Niagara to Providence.

-- The committee would flip the BC-MSU-Mankato and North Dakota-Niagara matchups, keeping the Eagles east and the Sioux west, but preserving 2 vs. 3 based on the PairWise rankings.

-- The committee would flip the BC-MSU-Mankato and North Dakota-Niagara matchups, AND move around a couple 3 seeds, all with the hope of maximizing attendance.

Even going into the night, I thought the committee would go with the first option, choosing to send BC out west and North Dakota east and preserving bracket integrity as they had done in years past. However, the selection committee threw a curveball, opting instead to flip two 2-seeds and two 3-seeds to minimize travel.

College Hockey News got some great quotes from committee chair Tom Nevala, the associate AD at Notre Dame, revealing of the Selection Committee's thought process this year.

"The greatest amount of feedback we get, whether it's from fans or participants, is that when they go to the national tournament, it should be a great atmosphere. When you plan in a eight-to-10-thousand-seat arena, and only three or four thousand are there, that's not necessarily the best atmosphere. The kids work all year to play in a great environment."

[snip]

"Providence was a spot we thought made a lot of sense (to help attendance), as it did in Toledo, and as it did in Grand Rapids," Nevala said. "We believe the kids in this tournament deserve the best atmosphere.

"It's one thing to say a team finished 5th and 8th, but if you look purely at RPI, the difference between the two is slim. There's not much difference."

Nevala talks about helping attendance in three of the four regionals -- the East (Providence), the Midwest (Toledo) and the West (Grand Rapids) -- which just so happen to be the three regionals where the host team didn't qualify for the National Tournament (Brown, Bowling Green and Michigan). To fix this, the committee sent Boston College and Union East, Minnesota State to the Midwest and Notre Dakota West, hoping that those three moves will help improve attendance in those three regionals.

Left out was the Northeast Region, where we were reasonably sure that Hockey East champ UMass-Lowell would get sent. As it turns out, Lowell, fresh off their first ever Hockey East title, is actually even closer to Manchester than host New Hampshire. Those two Hockey East programs will help to improve attendance in the Northeast Regional this weekend so the committee turned its attention to helping out the other three regions where the hosts didn't qualify.

As for the difference in RPI (the first metric used to break ties in the PairWise) for teams ranked 5-8, Nevala is correct. Miami, Boston College and North Dakota, the three 2 seeds that could be moved around, were separated by .0102 in the RPI. BC and North Dakota were separated by an even smaller margin, just .0038, which helped make the committee's decision to flip BC and NoDak even easier. Flipping Union and Minnesota State was also made easy by the fact that the Dutchmen and Mavericks RPI was separated by .0063.

For the conspiracy theorists out there, there's also this tidbit about York's ability to travel to Providence relative to a trip to Grand Rapids.

Personally, York was happy being placed in Providence. Since he had eye surgery last Monday for another detached retina, York cannot fly. Had the Eagles been placed in Toledo or Grand Rapids, he would have been in for a long drive. Now, he'll get to ride the team bus down to the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, a mere hour away from Chestnut Hill.

The selection committee's decision to shift Boston College, North Dakota, Minnesota State and Union around to help maximize Regional attendance does however raise the question whether this will signal a shift in how the tournament is seeded going forward. The resulting bracket leaves three of four regions with the top two seeds from the same conference (while the East has seeds 1 and 3 from the ECAC). It should be noted, however, that this is based on this year's conferences. Next year, the 1-2 in the West Regional -- Minnesota and North Dakota -- will be in different conferences. Same for the 1-2 in the Midwest Regional -- Miami to the NCHC, Notre Dame to Hockey East.

Even still, it feels much less like a national tournament and more of a regional one, at least until we get to Pittsburgh.

I'm not so sure any perceived regionalization of the bracket is a long-term issue or just a gripe with the way this year's bracket took shape. Next year with the western conferences realigning and Minnesota and Miami hosting Regionals in St. Paul and Cincinnati, respectively, the committee may not have to make as many moves (or any) as it did this year to boost attendance.

Regardless, if this year's selection process is a sign of shifting attitudes towards moving tournament games back to campus (or collapsing regional sites back down to two locations), then I think the sport will be better off in the long-run. Anything to bring the game closer to fans would be a good start at fixing what has become a pretty broken NCAA Tournament regional round.

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