After months of waiting we now have some idea of how the NCAA hockey tournament field will be selected. Pairwise criteria will be used to help rank teams within their conference, and then the eye test will give the traditional committee plus a panel of six coaches the flexibility to sort teams out and award bids to each conference.
Now that we know roughly how things will look we can take our first swing at predicting what the tournament field would look like if the season ended today.
A few ground rules:
1) This is based on ending the season today - not predicting what is going to happen the rest of the season. There are still three full weekends of regular season play plus conference tournaments, so things will certainly change.
2) Since the usual method of picking the teams through straight Pairwise is out the window, this will be an attempt to guess how the Committee will think - which is a difficult task, given that we’ve not seen them select a tournament field subjectively in recent memory. But we’ll do our best to mirror how we think the committee will look at things, not go by who we necessarily think are the best teams.
3) We are going to assume that the committee’s usual mandate - to preserve some sense of bracket integrity, while also reducing travel and maximizing attendance when possible - will remain intact unless we are told otherwise. (The NCAA is hoping to fill venues to 25% capacity for the regionals... make of that what you will, and insert all ‘that is the usual crowd’ jokes here.)
Okay let’s go!
We will start with the six autobids.
The first-place teams in each league right now:
Hockey East: Boston College
Atlantic Hockey: AIC
Big Ten: Minnesota
NCHC: North Dakota
WCHA: Minnesota State
We’ll assume the six of them earn their league’s autobids.
Let’s move on from there and predict how the rest of the field of 16 would shake out, offer our explanations, then assemble a bracket with four one seeds, four two seeds, four three seeds, and four four seeds.
Remember, to the best of our knowledge, the Committee is going to use the traditional Pairwise criteria (record, opponents’ record, record vs. common opponents, etc) to rank teams within their conferences, but will also be able to use some subjectivity in factoring in teams’ strength of schedule and comparing across conferences.
Our projected field of 16
1) Boston College (HEA, PWR #3, 13-3-1)
1) North Dakota (NCHC, PWR #5, 15-4-1)
1) Minnesota State (WCHA, PWR #1, 13-2-1)
1) Minnesota (B1G, PWR #6, 17-5-0)
2) Wisconsin (B1G, PWR #14, 14-8-0)
2) Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC, PWR #16, 13-6-1)
2) St Cloud State (NCHC, PWR #17, 13-8-0)
2) Michigan (B1G, PWR #18, 11-7-0)
3) Quinnipiac (ECAC, PWR #10, 13-5-4)
3) Boston University (HEA, PWR #2, 8-2-0)
3) Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC, PWR #19, 12-7-2)
3) UMass (HEA, PWR #13, 11-5-3)
4) Clarkson (ECAC, PWR #20, 9-7-4)
4) Bowling Green (WCHA, PWR #9, 14-8-0)
4) AIC (AHC, PWR #6, 13-3-0)
4) Providence (HEA, PWR #22, 9-6-4)
First four out: Michigan Tech, Northeastern, Robert Morris, Lake Superior State
Next four out: Bemidji State, Canisius, UConn, Notre Dame
For the order of teams within their conference, we largely stuck by the Pairwise rankings within each conference, with three exceptions:
1) Putting BC (#3 PWR) ahead of BU (#2 PWR) in Hockey East. To be clear, we think BU is good, and we think the fact that they are ranked #11 in this week’s poll is silly. But it’s clear that they are being held back somewhat in subjective rankings by how few games they have played and it’s fair to assume the committee would probably do the same.
2) Putting AIC (#6 PWR) ahead of Canisius (#4 PWR) within the AHC. This is kind of a challenging one because by our logic, this knocks Canisius out of the tournament (more on this later). But AIC’s 13-3-0 is clearly going to hold more weight to the committee than Canisius’s 7-2-0 right now. Of course, this will all be made moot when the AHC teams get to settle it on the ice and likely fight for one bid in the tournament.
3) In a similarly tough choice, moving Bowling Green ahead of Michigan Tech in the WCHA, on the basis of their similar pairwise ranking and Bowling Green’s two wins over Michigan Tech head-to-head, as well as impressive nonconference wins over Quinnipiac.
For selecting the number of teams in each conference to qualify, we went with:
4 from Hockey East
4 from the NCHC
3 from the Big Ten
2 from the ECAC
2 from the WCHA
1 from Atlantic Hockey
And came up with this through a combination of recent tournament history, the limited cross-conference comparisons we have this year, and some subjectivity.
For comparison’s sake,
2019 featured: 3 NCHC, 2 B1G, 1 AHC, 2 WCHA, 3 HEA, 4 ECAC, 1 Independent
2018: 3 NCHC, 4 B1G, 1 AHC, 2 WCHA, 3 HEA, 3 ECAC
2017: 4 NCHC, 3 B1G, 1 AHC, 1 WCHA, 4 HEA, 3 ECAC
For an average of 3.67 NCHC, 3 B1G, 1 AHC, 1.67 WCHA, 3.33 HEA, 3.33 ECAC, 0.33 independent.
With the ECAC only featuring four teams this year, their number is obviously going to be dropped down to about 2, and there won’t be an independent team as Arizona State is not playing particularly well as a quasi-Big Ten member this year.
Given those numbers, the figure we came up with is basically on track with what we have seen in recent seasons.
The limited inter-conference records we have are:
The ECAC is 10-2-2 vs. Atlantic Hockey
The ECAC is 0-2 vs. the WCHA
The WCHA is 3-3 vs. Atlantic Hockey
There isn’t a ton to go by here obviously but it kind of bears out our pre-existing knowledge.
From there you have the subjectivity factor.
You could swap in a 3rd WCHA team, which would be the first time the New WCHA received three bids, by putting a 14-6-1 Michigan Tech team that the KRACH computers really like in over a 9-6-4 Providence or a 12-7-2 Duluth. That would be pretty reasonable. But historical precedent here suggests that at a bare minimum Duluth has the edge, and Providence likely does too. While not a perfect predictor of how the committee will think, the USCHO poll has Providence in 15th and Michigan Tech in 18th. That said, Providence over Michigan Tech probably counts as the biggest and most controversial snub in our projected field.
You could theoretically make a case for Northeastern as a 5th Hockey East team at 8-5-2, but it’s been a while since Hockey East put five teams in, and Northeastern is 0-1-1 against Providence, 0-2 against UMass, and 0-2 against BC. They don’t have the resume to justify a spot at this point.
The 5th place teams in the NCHC and B1G, Denver and Notre Dame, are sub-.500 and lingering in the “also receiving votes” category in the polls. I don’t think even the biggest western hockey honks will try to put them in the tournament, but hey, who knows.
There is no real justification for considering putting 3 out of 4 ECAC teams in under any circumstances, so we won’t even take a look at that.
That leaves the question of what to do about Atlantic Hockey. The (obviously to be taken with a huge grain of salt) Pairwise LOVES Atlantic Hockey teams, with Canisius in 4th, AIC in 6th, Robert Morris in 10th. We could maybe see the logic in letting this crazy year be a year of letting two of these oft-unheralded programs into the tournament, but it’s harder to justify when AIC, the generally-regarded best team in the conference, got swept by Quinnipiac; Robert Morris, the third best team in the league, lost two to Bowling Green; and the league overall is 2-10-2 against the ECAC.
Unfortunately for AHC lovers, there’s juuuust enough evidence that the league should remain as it usually is - a one-bid league.
With that out of the way, let’s set the field:
“Manchester” regional - Was supposed to be in Manchester; now TBD, but maybe Springfield, MA
1) Boston College
Bridgeport, CT Regional
4) Bowling Green
Loveland, CO Regional
1) Minnesota State
3) Minnesota Duluth
Fargo, ND Regional
1) North Dakota
2) St Cloud State
3) Boston University
The reasoning here:
BC is the #1 overall seed, tracking the way they’ve been ranked in the polls, and they likely will remain there if they do end up winning Hockey East. So in this scenario, they get AIC. Providence as the last at-large team in gets to go to Fargo and play North Dakota, which seems fair.
Since the NCAA is planning/hoping/considering(?) filling venues to 25% capacity, attendance comes into play somewhat by putting Quinnipiac, AIC, and UMass all close to their home venues, and giving 3 of the 4 regionals ‘home’ anchor teams (Loveland will be a disaster, they can blame Denver and CC for not being good enough this year... the good news is, I doubt anyone will be turned away by the social distancing requirements).
BU gets a little bit of a raw deal here having to go out west and potentially face a back-to-back NCHC gauntlet... but we suspect their ranking will improve if they keep winning and no longer are hampered by having played so few games.
The idea of Minnesota fans being mad about being sent east and then maybe having to play Quinnipiac in their backyard fills us with glee, so let’s keep it.
There’s your projected field if the tournament started tomorrow. Now let’s go shake it all up this weekend!