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The NCAA Hockey Tournament Selection Plan... Actually Makes Sense??

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I’m as surprised as you are!

2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Hockey Championship Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

The end of the college hockey season is rapidly approaching (the women’s conference tournaments start next week!), and we’ve finally gotten our first look at how the NCAA will be selecting the national tournament fields for men’s and women’s hockey.

Checking in with USCHO’s Jimmy Connolly:

This should apply to both men’s and women’s hockey, per our own sources.

Alright, let’s unpack. The gist of this is that the NCAA is still going to “use the Pairwise,” in the sense that they are going to use the traditional Pairwise to rank teams within conferences, and then use the eyeball test to intermesh the teams from there. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

Now, don’t get us wrong: the Pairwise is bad and it will always be bad. KRACH is a million times better for reasons we won’t get into here, but at least the Pairwise is The Devil You Know, it’s what the NCAA usually uses, everyone knows how it works (to the extent that they ever did in the past, anyway), and it’s transparent (*cough* looking at you, Hockey East). Mathematically speaking, it’s should do no worse ranking teams within their conferences using only league games compared to how it’s used nationally in a normal year. It might actually be better, frankly, since there’s limited interconference games in a normal season anyway. It’s not KRACH, but KRACH’s always been a pipe dream, and it wouldn’t solve the main issue this season anyway.

No, the main issue — zero non-conference games — is a tough nut to crack this season. Normally we here at BC Interruption decry subjectivity and lack of transparency, lest we have to endure the wrath of the likes of the Lowell Sun who already complain even when things are totally objective. Putting aside the fact that men’s and women’s hockey are two of the only Boston College sports in which name recognition would actually help, having a clear-cut mathematical system means you don’t have anything to whine about (unless you’re the Lowell Sun) if you don’t make it. You knew the criteria going into the season and you didn’t meet it; the end.

But this season’s challenges are a special case, and there’s just no easy answer to how to set the tournament. What could you even do?

One option that’s been floated out there would be to award extra auto-bids to each conference based on historical performance. But that poses its own problems — what do you do about partial conferences like the ECAC? With the Ivies sitting out the season, the ECAC women only have four teams playing right now, two of which appear to be pretty strong candidates to make the national tournament. Should one league really get half its teams in? Or do they deserve it anyway?

Another potential issue with this is if you only assign extra auto-bids, then you could very well have a team like Boston College end up #1 in the polls, lose the regular season title, lose in the Hockey East final, and be left on the outside looking in. Of course, that could be mitigated by leaving some slots for at-large bids, but then we’re right back where we started in trying to figure out how to assign those at-larges.

No, unfortunately, this is probably the one time where getting the old Smoke Filled Room together is probably the right call. Invariably there’s going to be frustration around the bubble for those teams that don’t make it, but let’s face it: (1) If they were on the bubble this season, they wouldn’t have made it in a regular year anyway without several teams sitting the year out, and of course, (2) there’s the old standby argument of “you should have just won your conference tournament.”

Something that will help matters is that there will be some extra hockey minds in the room to help sort things out:

One person associated with the NCAA told us that the committees’ directives were going to be left “intentionally vague” this year, in order to give those in the room the flexibility needed to put together the men’s and women’s tournaments as fairly as they can. And I think that’s just about all any of us can ask for given the circumstances. No solution is going to be perfect, but at least there’s hope that some wise hockey minds can put together a reasonably fair tournament field. If your team doesn’t make, it, well, that’s tough luck. At least you’ll have a committee to complain about this time if it makes you feel better.