This year 2011 NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament is the ninth year of the current 16-team, four Regional format. The NCAA voted to expand the tournament from 12 teams to 16 following the 2002 Tournament. In the first three years of the new, 16-team format, chalk reigned. Number 1 seeds were a perfect 12-0 in the First Round, while 2-seeds were 10-2.
The tide began to turn in 2006. That year, Holy Cross became the first 4-seed to knock off a 1 when they defeated the Minnesota Gophers in the West Regional Semifinal in Grand Forks, North Dakota. That same year, 3 seeds evened the score with 2 seeds, as #3 Maine topped #2 Harvard and #3 BC blanked #2 Miami to advance to the Regional Finals (both teams would make it to the Frozen Four, with BC falling to Wisconsin in the Finals).
After the 2006 Tournament, all hell broke loose. Here are the combined First Round records by seed for the last four Tournaments over the last 5 years:
1 seeds: 11-9 (.550)
2 seeds: 6-14 (.300)
3 seeds: 14-6 (.700)
4 seeds: 9-11 (.450)
For 1 seeds, only two advanced out of the First Round in 2007. Just one of four top seeds advanced during the 2009 Tournament, while two advanced out of the First Round of this year's Tournament. BC and Miami join a growing list of 1-seeds that have been bounced out of the first round of the 16-team NCAA Tournament:
2006: #4 Holy Cross defeats #1 Minnesota (West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D.)
2007: #4 Miami defeats #1 New Hampshire (Northeast, Manchester, N.H.)
2007: #4 Massachusetts defeats #1 Clarkson (East, Rochester, N.Y.)
2008: #4 Notre Dame defeats #1 New Hampshire (West, Colorado Springs, Co.)
2009: #4 Bemidji State defeats #1 Notre Dame (Midwest, Grand Rapids, Mi.)
2009: #4 Miami defeats #1 Denver (West, Minneapolis, Mn.)
2009: #4 Air Force defeats #1 Michigan (East, Bridgeport, Ct.)
2010: #4 RIT defeats #1 Denver (East, Albany, N.Y.)
2011: #4 New Hampshire defeats #1 Miami (Northeast, Manchester, N.H.)
2011: #4 Colorado College defeats #1 Boston College (West, St. Louis, Mo.)
In each of the last three 4-seed upsets, the top seed had to play much further from home than the #4 seed. The most egregious examples of this have been Denver losing to RIT in Albany and Miami losing to New Hampshire in Manchester.
The fact that top seeds are just 11-9 in the NCAA Tournament over the last five seasons to me suggests one of two things. Either the PairWise -- the NCAA's Selection Committee's "objective" measure of selecting teams -- is flawed and isn't selecting the top teams correctly, or the Tournament format doesn't do enough to reward regular season play.
Let's table the discussion of the PWR and focus on the reward for a solid regular season. In nearly every ice hockey tournament known to man, some advantage is afforded to that Tournament's top seeds. That advantage usually takes one of a couple different forms -- home ice advantage, multiple game series, byes or reseeding of teams after a round of the playoffs.
The annual Hockey East Tournament doesn't utilize the concept of a bye, but does give home ice to the top four seeds and reseeds the semifinal round, giving an edge to the conference's top seed. The WCHA's Final Five also awards home ice to the higher seeds in the Quarterfinal round, and gives byes to the top two teams that advance to the Final Five, based on the final regular season standings. The NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs is set up to reward home ice to the higher seed in a best-of-seven series. In addition, the NHL reseeds the bracket after the Conference Quarterfinals, rewarding the highest remaining seed with a date with the lowest remaining seed.
The NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament doesn't use any of these mechanisms to reward the field's top seeds. The only advantage given to top seeds is a first round matchup with one of the final teams in the Tournament. This used to be sufficient reward for #1 seeds (say from 2003-2005), but in recent years, the gap between teams seeded 1 and 16 has decreased significantly.
One of the main reasons that gap has closed is the demise of conferences like the MAAC and College Hockey America. While a 1 seed used to face automatic qualifiers from these conferences -- teams like Wayne State or Mercyhurst -- they are now seeing teams like Colorado College, a WCHA program that won 23 games this year, or New Hampshire, which went into the final weekend of the regular season with a shot at the Hockey East regular season title. With fewer college hockey conferences, the gap between 1-seeds and 4-seeds has closed considerably.
While the gap has closed, nothing has been done to compensate for this lack of an advantage afforded to top seeds. No byes, no home ice, no reseeding, no multiple game series. I think it's time for the NCAA to take a look at the current tournament format and possibly tweak it to provide some advantage to the Tournament's top seeds.
A few humble suggestions:
- Get rid of the regional hosting rule or modify to consider placing only top seeds in their own regional.
- Decrease the number of regionals from four to two, which would decrease the host team home ice edge since there would be two less Regional hosts. (Would also lessen the movement of seeds between brackets to create favorable geographic matchups).
- Best-of-three series for the NCAA Regional Semifinal round. (They used to do this)
- Regionals held at the top seed's home arena. (They used to do this and should do this)
- Go back to the 12-team field (circa 2002) that gives first-round byes to the top 4 teams.
- Adopt the Big East Tournament's double-bye format ... Just kidding. Even Big East coaches think that format is stupid.
I want to take an in-depth look at each of these suggestions to see what this year's Tournament would have looked like given an alternate format. Over the coming weeks, I want to take a look at each of these proposals to see if they would be better for the sport.