clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NCAA Hockey Bracketology: January 11, 2017

New, 1 comment

Gaming out what the bracket would look like if the season ended today - plus, praise for the 16-team tournament format

2015 NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Championships Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We talk a lot here about the narrow margins of success in college hockey. Sunday was a good example. BC scored in the final four minutes to pick up a win against Providence, and in so doing, dramatically bettered their chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

Their chances of qualifying went from 57% to 71%, as BC moved from 14th to 12th in the Pairwise and essentially buried Providence as a team that can pass them in the rankings, given the Eagles hold a 2-0 mark in head-to-head matchups. Had BC lost the game, they would have lost that edge over PC, and Providence in fact would have leapfrogged BC and dropped the Eagles below the cut line.

The state of play right now is such that there are 7 teams that look to be in pretty good shape, then a group from #8 to #20 whose chances of qualification range from 78% to 20%. With one autobid each coming from WCHA and Atlantic Hockey from further down the board, 6 of those competitive teams will miss out on the tournament field.

We should state, for the record, that this is a good thing. Sports organizations have a tendency to mess with something that’s working for no good reason, and the NCAA should resist any efforts to expand the NCAA tournament past 16 teams. It’s good that the race to qualify is dramatic, and it’s good that quality teams that could theoretically pull a Providence or a Yale and make a run to Chicago have to grind out wins here and really earn their spot in the tournament field.

Despite the fact that hockey picks its national champion through the crapshoot of a four round single elimination tournament, college hockey is in a position right now where every game and every week throughout the regular season is dramatic, because good teams like BC, Minnesota and Union have a lot of work to do if they want to ensure themselves a tournament spot. These are all quality teams, but nobody would confuse any of them with the 1990 Edmonton Oilers - they should have to earn their spot, and qualification shouldn’t be easy.

With that said, let’s take a look at the tournament bracket if the season ended today.

As a reminder, the tournament field itself is set objectively, based on the PairWise rankings - but the committee then has limited flexibility to change matchups to promote attendance or reduce travel. Let’s talk through the process.

STEP ONE: Setting the 16-team field

Six conference tournament champions and 10 at-large teams will make the tournament. For sake of discussion, we’ll say the highest-ranked team in each conference will win the tournament title, though obviously that won’t happen.

1- Penn State, Big Ten #1 (97% chance of qualifying)
2- Harvard, ECAC #1 (97%)
3- Denver, NCHC #1 (98%)
4- Minnesota-Duluth, NCHC #2 (98%)

5- Boston University, Hockey East #1 (89%)
6- UMass-Lowell, Hockey East #2 (92%)
7- North Dakota, NCHC #3 (82%)
8- Western Michigan, NCHC #4 (74%)

9- Union, ECAC #2 (69%)
10- Vermont, Hockey East #3 (78%)
11- Minnesota, Big Ten #2 (69%)
12- Boston College, Hockey East #4 (71%)

13- Ohio State, Big Ten #3 (73%)
14- St Lawrence, ECAC #3 (47%)
AUTOBID 15- Air Force, AHC #1 (57%)
AUTOBID 16- Bemidji State, WCHA #1 (37%)

FIRST TEAMS OUT: #15 Cornell (44%), #16 Notre Dame (35%), #18 Quinnipiac (22%), #19 Omaha (20%), #20 Providence (20%)

EVERYONE ELSE: You better start channeling your inner Northeastern right about now.

STEP TWO: Assigning hosts

Host institutions automatically play in their home regional. This year’s regionals and hosts are Providence (Brown), Manchester NH (UNH), Fargo (NoDak), and Cincinnati (Miami). Presently, North Dakota is the only qualifying host, so they would automatically be the #2 seed in the Fargo regional.

STEP THREE: Assigning the one seeds to regionals

The four one seeds are assigned to regionals geographically, with the #1 overall team (Penn State) getting its closest regional. Technically, Providence, RI is the closest regional to Penn State.

#1 Penn State -> Providence
#2 Harvard -> Manchester
#3 Denver -> Fargo
#4 Minnesota-Duluth -> Cincinnati

Would the committee put Duluth in Fargo since it’s such a short trip, whereas Denver would have to fly some distance to either one? We say yes. So swap that one.

Duluth-> Fargo; Denver -> Cincinnati

STEP FOUR: Filling the field

First we put together the field based on strict bracket integrity, keeping in mind that NoDak must go to Fargo. At the end of it, we’ll have to un-tangle any in-conference matchups.

Providence
#1 Penn State vs. #16 Bemidji State
#8 Western Michigan vs. #9 Union

Fargo
#4 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #13 Ohio State
#7 North Dakota vs. #11 Minnesota

Manchester
#2 Harvard vs. #15 Air Force
#6 Umass-Lowell vs. #10 Vermont ——> nope

Cincinnati
#3 Denver vs. #14 St. Lawrence
#5 Boston University vs. #12 Boston College ——-> nope

STEP FIVE: Fixing in-conference matchups

We can’t have in-conference first round matchups unless absolutely necessary. This gets a bit tricky as there are two HEA 2 seeds and two HEA 3 seeds, so you have to basically put two of those teams and two west. I suspect the move would be to protect the higher seeded teams.

We bring BU East (a no-brainer) by swapping them with Western Michigan. We ship Vermont out to Fargo and bring Minnesota to Manchester (tantalizing though it may be to preserve a Gophers-Fighting Hawks first round matchup).

I would then make two additional swaps for bracket integrity purposes, giving higher-seeded teams lower-seeded teams when possible - leaving us with:

Providence
#1 Penn State vs. #16 Bemidji State
#6 Umass-Lowell vs. #9 Union

Fargo
#4 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #13 Ohio State
#7 North Dakota vs. #12 Boston College

Manchester
#2 Harvard vs. #15 Air Force
#5 BU vs. #11 Minnesota

Cincinnati
#3 Denver vs. #14 St. Lawrence
#8 Western Michigan vs. #10 Vermont

STEP SIX: Move teams within seeding bands to maximize attendance

Where possible, the committee is empowered to swap teams within seeding bands (a 1 seed for a 1 seed - so 3 can swap with 4, but 4 can’t swap with 5, etc etc) to maximize attendance, while preserving bracket integrity as best as possible.

Let’s look through the regionals and see how we can ensure the best attendance possible.

Providence as we have it includes UML as the anchor. Penn State and Union would probably draw some fans too. This would be OK but not ideal.

Fargo is going to sell out with NoDak present even if the other three teams were club teams. Next.

Manchester has Harvard and BU. This will be a well-attended regional even with Harvard’s notorious lack of fans.

Cincinnati is usually the cluster-bleep and this one could be a struggle with only Western Michigan as a local team.

The most logical swap we can make is putting #13 Ohio State in Cincinnati, swapping them with #14 St. Lawrence. That should make Cincy a little better than usual.

Is there anything we can do to make Providence a little better? Probably not. We can’t put BC or Vermont there without moving Lowell out.

I think this is what we end up with:

THE BRACKET

Providence
#1 Penn State vs. #16 Bemidji State
#6 Umass-Lowell vs. #9 Union

Fargo
#4 Minnesota-Duluth vs. #14 St. Lawrence
#7 North Dakota vs. #12 Boston College

Manchester
#2 Harvard vs. #15 Air Force
#5 BU vs. #11 Minnesota

Cincinnati
#3 Denver vs. #13 Ohio State
#8 Western Michigan vs. #10 Vermont

Obviously, this puts BC in probably the toughest possible first round matchup. There’s thankfully a long way to go before this becomes a major concern, but as long as BC stays in the 3-band and there are two HEA teams in the 2-band, things could get tricky.