Bracketology: Taking a look at how a different season across college hockey will impact the NCAA tournament

Michigan sophomore defenseman Cam York was the captain of Team USA in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship that brought home gold (photo: Michigan Photography).

It certainly is a strange year in college hockey and thus this year’s Bracketology column regarding the selection and seeding of the men’s NCAA Division I ice hockey tournament will be a little bit different than in the past.

Some things will be identical to the past, namely that all six conferences will receive one automatic qualifier for the tournament. All six conferences have identified that this qualifier will be awarded to the conference tournament champion.

But at-large selection of teams will change. Based on the extremely limited amount of inter-conference play, it is very difficult to compare one league to another and thus, one team to another.

The NCAA has attempted to clarify the process. In a memo from the NCAA that was issued on February 16, it states:

“Due to the limited number of inter-conference games played this year, the committee has determined that the statistical value of the PairWise and RPI is not what it is in a typical year. As a result, the committee will not be using a strict PairWise comparisons as the sole determinant for at-large selection and seeding; however, the various criteria that have made up the PairWise and the RPI will be the primary basis for consideration by the committee in its selection and seeding process.

The criteria include:
• Won/Loss Record
• Strength of Schedule
• Head-to-Head Results
• Results vs. Common Opponents
• Quality Wins
• Home/Away Weighting

Due to the unusual nature of this year’s selection process, the committee will institute the use of two regional advisory committees comprised of six members each. Three national committee members from each region, as well as additional coach from each conference in the region, will serve on the regional advisory committees. The representatives were provided to the committee based on recommendations from the conference commissioners. These committees will assist in the observation and evaluation of teams and provide recommendations to the national committee.”

Let’s attempt to translate.

Basically, the PairWise, as we all know it can be thrown out. But the criteria used to establish the PairWise can and will be used to rank teams, particularly within each conference. From there, though, there will be an “eye test” provided by two regional committees that will help the six-member NCAA committee select the field.

Thus, in this year’s Brackteology, Jim Connelly and Jayson Moy will work each week to give their best guesses based on games played to date, which teams should qualify for the 16-team field.

Jim: Well Jayson, given everything we’ve read, my guts says that the best approach might be to identify teams within each of the six conferences should be given consideration.

And while the PairWise itself isn’t being used, I’m going to use it as a guide to determine conference-by-conference which teams I think should be considered.

I’ll start with the six leaders in the conference standings. As we did in past years, for the sake of selection, let’s award these six teams the automatic qualifiers.

Those teams are: AIC (AHA), Minnesota (Big Ten), Quinnipiac (ECAC), Boston College (Hockey East), North Dakota (NCHC) and Minnesota State (WCHA).

From there, I’m going to make a list of other teams to consider in each conference (note: teams must be .500 or higher AND play a minimum of 13 games prior to the tournament to be selected as an at-large team):

Atlantic Hockey: Robert Morris, Canisius, Army
Big Ten: Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State
ECAC: Clarkson
Hockey East: Boston University, Massachusetts, Providence, Northeastern
NCHC: St. Cloud, Omaha, Minnesota Duluth
WCHA: Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Lake Superior, Michigan Tech

There are a total of 10 at-large bids available, and I have 18 teams on this list above, so I’m going to have to make some tough decisions, not too different from those the committee will be tasked with.

For me, when you can’t make conference-by-conference comparisons, it is important to determine just how strong each conference is. For me, that process includes looking not at the top teams, but the bottom. How many teams have been bottom feeders and elevated the win counts of each club?

For instance, in Atlantic Hockey, Air Force and Holy Cross have a combined six conference wins and 18 conference losses. Compare that to the bottom two teams in the NCHC, which have a combined nine wins and 29 losses. Or the WCHA, where the bottom two teams have just three conference wins and 18 conference losses.

It’s not an exact science, but nothing will be this year. I think it’s a decent way of measuring how strong a conference is.

So I’ve given personal grades to the strength of each conference, taking into account the number of strong teams in the conference as well as the number of weak teams:

Big Ten: B
Hockey East: B

I put the asterisks next to the ECAC because it has just four members this year with eight teams sitting out this season. For me, that conference deserves one bid and should only get two if the automatic qualifier is not the top team, Quinnipiac.

I’ll then try to allot bids based on the strength of each conference.

That’s my process. Before I give a field, Jayson, why don’t you outline your process.

Jayson: Yes, it certainly is a strange process and I think there will be a lot of people out there who will say that this year we are back to the smoke-filled room.

But, I am sure the committee will be as fair as possible.

I am going to agree with you in the fact that you have to look within each conference and see who is worthy within each conference. Just how do you do that, I am not sure.

I like your attempt at grading the conferences based on the strength of the teams within the conference, but, I am not really sure. You can also say that because teams like Holy Cross and Air Force have so many conference losses because the teams at the top are so much stronger. Conversely, in the NCHC, you can argue that the records are more even because there are no strong teams and there is parity.

So while I like the idea of a grading system, I am not sure that would be the way I would go because it involves some sort of bias as well.

This year you can honestly say that there is no way of knowing which conference has stronger teams than others. It is just statistically impossible.

If I am the committee, I would look at all six conferences equally since no one knows the relative strength within the conference. I think it’s unfair to draw conclusions based on previous seasons (e.g. Atlantic Hockey only had 1 bid in x number of years, so they must be a weaker conference) and I think it’s also unfair to penalize the ECAC because eight teams decided to opt out.

Therefore, I would go with this:

– Each conference gets two bids – no matter what. If the Regular Season champion and the Tournament champion are different, you have fulfilled your quota. If the Regular Season champion and the Tournament champion are the same, you still get one more bid from your conference. If I am the committee, I designate that as the second place team in the regular season. This guarantees the strongest teams in my opinion
– This leaves four “at-large” bids

How would I determine who the remaining four bids go to? I would prioritize and then select.

Here is my Selection Criteria:

– Regular-Season Champion (6 bids)
– Tournament Champion (0-6 bids)
– Second-Place Teams (0-6 bids)
– Third-Place Teams (0-6 bids)

By this point the field should be selected.

Now, we have to determine how to select amongst the second place teams, etc.

That’s where we need to look at who they have beaten (e.g. how many times did they beat the regular season champion? Lost to the last place team? Etc, etc, etc.)

That’s how I would choose the field this year.

It’s equitable, it’s fair, takes no bias into account and leaves the meaningless statistics out of it for this year.

Jim: So I agree that there should be a balance, and at some point this season, I was highly in favor of the two bids per conference. And though my approach ultimately reaches that mark, I’m not sure I totally agree. I would be okay with only one AHA or WCHA team making the field if AIC and Minnesota State each win their tournaments.

The reality is, I see this 16-team field:

Minnesota State
Boston College
North Dakota
Boston University
St. Cloud
Bemidji State
Minnesota Duluth

I have controversy, no doubt. Technically, UConn can’t be in the field at 8-9-2. So it is possible to replace the Huskies, but I think at the end of this if they win some games, the UConn team needs consideration. Other than that, I am non-apologetic.

What do you say, Jayson?

Jayson: I can see it, but let’s face it, this year, controversy will reign supreme and I do not know if it will ever avoid not having an asterisk appear next to it.

If I look at my method, I get (winning percentage for standings in this case):

AHA: AIC, Army

Big Ten: Minnesota, Wisconsin

ECAC: Quinnipiac, Clarkson

Hockey East: Boston University (I will assume they get to the required number of games), Boston College

NCHC: North Dakota, St Cloud

WCHA: Minnesota State, Lake Superior

Now we need to add four more teams. Let’s look at the third-place teams:

Robert Morris
Bemidji St

Let’s rank by winning percentage/GP in conference:

Robert Morris (.667/15 GP)
Michigan (.556/18 GP)
Colgate (.429/14 GP)
Massachusetts (.675/20 GP)
Omaha (.614/22 GP)
Bemidji St (.562/8 GP)

We can eliminate Colgate because it is not over .500. That leaves four spots for five teams.

Going by winning percentage it looks like Bemidji St over Michigan for the last spot.

Since I have thrown out all debate and arguments and gone strictly with numbers, it is Bemidji St for me.

My 16 teams:

Robert Morris
Boston College
Boston University
North Dakota
St. Cloud
Minnesota State
Lake Superior
Bemidji State

Controversial, of course! Different, of course!

But Jim, this is a different year.