The NCAA Women’s Hockey Tournament selection show was Sunday night, and it certainly provided some serious entertainment value. Absent objective, hard-and-fast criteria with which to select teams for the field, the committee was left with total subjectivity as their only way to assign the four at-large spots and to seed the eight team NCAA tournament bracket. I didn’t think the women’s hockey world would ever miss the Pairwise, but wow, it sure seems like the women’s hockey world misses the Pairwise!
Now that we’ve had a couple days to digest what happened, let’s talk about it. Here is the field with how the committee set the bracket, in the order that the matchups were revealed:
No. 8 Robert Morris vs. No. 1 Northeastern
No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth vs. No. 4 Colgate
No. 6 Boston College vs. No. 3 Ohio State
No. 7 Providence College vs. No. 2 Wisconsin
RMU vs. NU was as expected. The Huskies had pretty firmly grabbed the #1 seed before blitzing their way to the Hockey East title, and Robert Morris was the bottom seed after their upset win in the CHA tournament.
We had our first real surprise with the reveal of the second matchup. Based on just about any numerical method of ranking teams within conferences, Minnesota was ranked above Minnesota-Duluth. The Gophers were higher in WCHA KRACH, higher in WCHA RPI, and were 2-0-0 against the Bulldogs on the season. Make no mistake, both teams were sweating it out as members of the pack vying for the final spots, but most of us doing bracketologies were pretty sure the Gophers would slide into the field in fifth as the top team among those on the bubble.
Minnesota head coach Brad Frost spoke with the media late Sunday night, and he, like many of us, knew that something was afoot when he saw Minnesota-Duluth, instead slotted in at #5:
When the Bulldogs were announced as the five seed against No. 4 Colgate, Frost’s stomach dropped. “The Colgate coach texted before the pairings were announced and said we’ll see ya next week,” Frost said. “I thought we’d be the 5 seed. I’ve been doing this 21 years and I thought we were right there in the five spot.”
The bracket was being revealed pretty quickly, so at least for me watching, the implications of Duluth being #5 weren’t quite felt right away. The third matchup to be revealed was pretty ho-hum with BC paired with Ohio State as we expected, but if anything the lack of a curveball at this juncture only served to hammer home the point that something surprising was going to come in the final reveal.
With Northeastern at #1, we knew Wisconsin would be slotting in at #2 as the home team in the final pairing. But with Minnesota somehow still missing from the screen and only one at-large spot left to be unveiled, a hundred thoughts just kind of crashed into everyone’s frontal lobe all at once.
“Huh, Duluth at #5? Wow... Wait, so, Minnesota’s gotta be... what, the #7 then? But wait, that means they’d have to be paired with Wisconsin like they are every season... No, there’s absolutely no way the committee would have done that in this year of all years... So... wait... Oh my God, Minnesota’s going to miss the tournament, aren’t they?! Wow, good for Penn S...
I realize a lot of you don’t follow women’s hockey, but this was as big of a selection show shocker as you will ever see. Minnesota missing the field alone would have been wild enough. That would be the equivalent of a men’s hockey team — and the bluest of blue-bloods, no less! — being ranked eighth in the polls and missing the sixteen team tournament without a single unexpected autobid taking the place of an at-large. It’s even more stunning when you consider the fact that the Gophers have never missed the tournament under Brad Frost, and they’ve made the field every season dating back to 2006-07 and won the whole thing four times in that span.
A lot of the surprise in the bracket came from the fact that Providence was seemingly put into the tournament head to head over Minnesota, but I would argue that that’s not really the case. As we posited in our bracketology on Sunday afternoon, Providence was definitely in the conversation — we had them as the second team out — behind Penn State (and, obviously, Minnesota). Knowing the politics of how these things tend to shake out after following the sport for the last 15 years, it seems clear that there were two factors at play here, and two decisions made based on those factors:
1a) First, it seems obvious that the committee — as they have for the entire history of women’s hockey as an NCAA-sponsored sport — did not feel comfortable having the WCHA represent half the tournament field, regardless of its perceived strength. That means that...
1b) ...a choice was made between the two WCHA bubble teams, UMD and Minnesota.
I’ve been on record for the last few days saying that the Gophers should have been in over the Bulldogs, and I stand by that now:
UMD is in the tournament as the #5 seed, while Minnesota, who was ahead of UMD in both intra-WCHA KRACH and intra-WCHA RPI, and was 2-0-0 against Duluth, misses the field entirely. That's the craziest thing I've ever seen in this tournament which has a history of crazy-ass things— Grant Salzano (@Salzano14) March 8, 2021
Having said that, both teams were squarely on the bubble. There’s also been quite a lot of chatter coming from out west about how Minnesota didn’t deserve to be in the tournament field. When Minnesota’s own fans are saying things like “Put Minnesota out of its misery and do not select this team for the tournament. Please,” it does give you a bit of a chuckle to see the outrage when the committee actually up and did it.
Obviously nobody’s saying we should use the rantings of an angry fan on USCHO to set the tournament field, but from what I’ve heard behind the scenes from some well-connected folks out west, there are plenty of WCHA administrators who have been privately saying the same things.
2a) The second point that was made clear on Sunday is that committee was not convinced that the CHA, which has never been even close to strong enough to warrant getting two teams into the field, was somehow out of nowhere that much better this one year when they didn’t have to play any other conferences (except for Syracuse, who, surprise, lost both games). That mean’s that...
2b) ...the choice to put Providence into the field was probably one in which the Friars were considered head to head against Penn State, not Minnesota.
If you figure that the committee just didn’t feel comfortable putting in four WCHA teams, then the choice came down to the next two teams on the bubble, Penn State and Providence. CHA fans will argue with you until they’re blue in the face that the conference is better than its reputation, but the fact is that this year, of all years, the committee wasn’t given any evidence to go on to suggest that the conference finally improved enough relative to the rest of the conferences to warrant a second bid. That would have left the final at-large bid to fall to Providence... and there was your bracket.
Now, there’s one last point to make about this whole situation. Taking issue with whether or not the WCHA should have gotten a fourth bid or whether the CHA should have gotten a second bid is totally fine and absolutely part of a good-faith debate over the process. But a lot of the anger about the bracket has spilled over into conspiracy theories...
...and in some cases, fans and commentators directing their anger toward individual members of the committee. That’s where you leave the realm of constructive debate.
First and foremost, coaches and administrators representing schools under consideration (so, Katie Crowley of BC and Josh Berlo of Minnesota-Duluth) are not allowed to be part of the discussion regarding their own teams’ selection. That alone should be enough to nip this in the bud.
In particular, the ire on Twitter and USCHO and elsewhere suggesting Katie Crowley’s bias toward her own team is the reason the Eagles are in the tournament is a little nuts. Obviously we’re going to put in a defense of Coach Crowley here as a BC website, but before all this went down, a strong majority of prognosticators were pretty on board with BC being one of the teams that would get in, once there weren’t any surprises other than Penn State.
And while I get the frustration with UMD being in over Minnesota, an individual member — especially one such as Josh Berlo who isn’t even allowed to advocate for UMD — is not the whole committee, and lest we forget, there’s been plenty of grousing coming from out west (and even some coming from the Twin Cities in particular) about how the Gophers didn’t deserve to be in the field.
Fans and the like pointing their frustration at any one committee member in particular is really not justified and it’s unnecessarily personal. This was a committee-selected bracket, and for all we know, Coach Crowley or AD Berlo or any other member of that committee could have been arguing in the minority on any particular decision. Furthermore, it’s also pretty crass and offensive to suggest, as plenty have, that these members didn’t take their jobs seriously or couldn’t put aside their biases to set a field unlike they do any other year.
Let’s not act like the prevailing factors at hand here (a perceived disrespect of the WCHA and CHA, in their own ways) were something unique to this season’s selection process. If anything, seeing the WCHA and CHA get slighted like they do every year is just further evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s always been the case even in normal seasons that the committee will not go out of its way to treat the CHA as an equal or to treat the WCHA like an exceptional conference. The only difference this season is that without the Pairwise, the stakes were higher because we were talking about tournament selection and not just seeding.
So, yeah, this bracket was a stunner. Yeah, the Gophers probably should have been in over Duluth. Yeah, it would have been a feel-good story to see Penn State and the CHA get an at-large after the Nittany Lions’ great year. But it’s not great seeing frustrations over how the field turned out morph into personal vendettas against the folks tasked with making what were almost certainly excruciating decisions, especially in a year without a Pairwise to make things black and white.
You can disagree with the decisions made all you want, but in the one year where selection was going to be subjective, this was the one season where your team should have made sure to take it out of the committee’s hands and win their conference to get in. Someone was going to be upset about getting left out no matter what.
This year was tough, there’s no doubt about it. But at least we’ll have the Pairwise back next year to set the field like normal where the committee never, ever, ever makes any controversial decisions.