There were some very nervous moments for a couple different teams on Saturday, especially when Minnesota stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead on Michigan in the Big Ten finale. But Michigan's comeback win made determining which teams will be in the NCAA Tournament field pretty academic. Figuring out who will play who, and where, was a much tougher exercise this year.
I'll take you through the process so that if this projection goes off the rails tomorrow, at least it will be clear why.
We'll start at the very top with the teams that will be in the NCAA Tournament. According to the Pairwise Rankings, these 16 teams are guaranteed to be in the NCAA Tournament field:
1. Quinnipiac(ECAC autobid)
2. St. Cloud State(NCHC autobid)
3. North Dakota
5. Boston College
7. Michigan(Big Ten autobid)
8. UMass Lowell
9. Boston University
12. Notre Dame
13. Northeastern(Hockey East autobid)
14. Minnesota Duluth
30. Ferris State(WCHA autobid)
36. RIT(Atlantic Hockey Autobid)
Those teams will be seeded thusly:
#1 seeds: Quinnipiac, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Providence
#2 seeds: Boston College, Denver, Michigan, UMass Lowell
#3 seeds: Boston University, Yale, Harvard, Notre Dame
#4 seeds: Northeastern, Minnesota Duluth, Ferris State, RIT
A true 1 -16 bracket with absolutely no considerations for location, intra-conference match-ups, etc. would give us a bracket that looks like this:
#1 Quinnpiac vs. #16 RIT
#8 UMass Lowell vs. #9 Boston University
#4 Providence vs. #13 Northeastern
#5 Boston College vs. #12 Notre Dame
#3 North Dakota vs. #14 Minnesota Duluth
#6 Denver vs. #11 Harvard
#2 St. Cloud State vs. #15 Ferris State
#7 Michigan vs. # 10 Yale
Obviously there are a couple problems here, caused by six Hockey East teams, mostly in the middle of the field, all making the tournament. Intra-conference match-ups between UML/BU, PC/NU, BC/ND, and UND/UMD will have to be switched up, if at all possible.
There's also location to consider. Minnesota missing the tournament really helps, because there are no worries about teams having to be placed in a home regional. I like to start at the top with the #1 seeds, because they've had the best season, and deserve whatever help they can get in this Yahtzee shaker of a tournament in terms of location.
The western regionals seem straightforward. Conventional wisdom for the past few weeks was that whichever team came out ahead between St. Cloud State and North Dakota would play at the West Regional, while the loser would be relegated to Ohio, as losers often are. I see no reason to change that, especially after St. Cloud State is coming off an impressive NCHC playoff title to pull ahead of North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks would probably be better for overall attendance, but St. Cloud State in St. Paul is the right thing to do.
The eastern regionals are a little trickier. Quinnipiac is the number one overall, so the usual logic is that they would be at the closest regional. Worcester is about 50 miles and an hour of driving closer to Hamden than Albany. But Providence is about 120 miles closer to Worcester than Albany. This will be something to watch on Sunday, but I think Quinnipiac gets Albany and Providence gets Worcester. I'll bet on the committee deciding the travel distance between the two for Quinnipiac is nominal enough to be moot, and Providence ends up getting a little more benefit as a #1 seed. We'll get to this later in this post, but that set-up will also give #5 the advantage of being closer to home rather than giving that advantage to #8.
The biggest argument against that idea and putting Quinnipiac in Worcester might be that it doubles the drive time for their first round opponent, giving a little more protection to the top seed. That could go either way.
Next step is to figure out who they will play. Quinnipiac deserves the weakest team in the tournament in RIT. St. Cloud State is next and they get #15 Ferris State, who stays in the west. We eliminate two intra-conference match-ups by swapping #13 Northeastern and #14 Minnesota Duluth from where they would normally go. There's some extra travel by having UMD go east and Northeastern going west, but that seems unavoidable.
The bottom half of each regional is much trickier. Lowell can't play BU and BC can't play Notre Dame. It becomes a question swapping around the two seeds or swapping around the three seeds. I started by swapping Michigan into the Midwest and Denver into the West, putting each team in their correct geographic region.
That still left the UMass Lowell/Boston University match-up to fix. The easiest way to do that is by moving Yale and Harvard back to the east, which moves Notre Dame into the Midwest bracket, a nice geographic fit , and Boston University into the West.
That gives us a final projected bracket that looks like this:
Northeast Regional (DCU Center, Worcester, MA, March 25-26)
#4 Providence vs. #14 Minnesota Duluth
#5 Boston College vs. #11 Harvard
East Regional (Times Union Center, Albany, NY, March 26-27)
#1 Quinnipiac vs. #16 RIT
#8 UMass Lowell vs. #10 Yale
Midwest Regional (US Bank Arena, Cincinnati, OH, March 25-26)
#3 North Dakota vs. #13 Northeastern
#7 Michigan vs. #12 Notre Dame
West Regional (XCel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN, March 26-27)
#2 St. Cloud State vs. #15 Ferris State
#6 Denver vs. #9 Boston University
Nobody is more than one spot off from who they should be playing in a perfect bracket except #7 Michigan playing #12 Notre Dame, and #6 Denver drawing #9 Boston University. That makes for an extremely difficult bracket for St. Cloud State, but there's going to have to be some tough choices made somewhere to shoehorn six Hockey East teams into the field.
A more equitable bracket would flip Notre Dame to the West and Boston University to the Midwest, but I think keeping Notre Dame in the Midwest holds a certain appeal.(Not that Notre Dame did much to help attendance in Toledo three years ago. Catholics celebrate Easter. Who knew?)
Overall, this year was much, much tougher to put together than previous. We've lucked into some straightforward brackets, or brackets that had one or two big decisions in recent years. This year, there are a lot of different directions the committee could go to break up all the intra-conference match-ups. I don't have a great amount of confidence in this being how the final bracket shakes out, but I gave my reasoning as to why I would go in this direction.
We'll know for sure Sunday morning at Noon EST when the official bracket is revealed on ESPNU