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Picking the Men’s NCAA Tournament Field: February 16th Edition

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Empty Net Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

It moved!

Uh.....okay.

Teams currently inside the tournament field according to Pairwise: Canisius(as a #1 seed!), American International, Michigan Tech, Robert Morris, Lake Superior State

Teams currently outside the tournament field according to Pairwise: Anyone from the NCHC that isn’t North Dakota, Michigan, Providence, Northeastern

Yes, adjustments will be made. But you’d have to make adjustments so big to gain any semblance of reality that you’re basically not using the Pairwise at all, which is the right call.

Guessing the source here who said it’s “basically the Pairwise” is not a big numbers guy.

The other option here, which might make more sense is that they’re using ‘Pairwise’ to mean they’re going to compare each individual team’s resume against every other individual team’s resume and selecting the teams that win the most comparisons. It doesn’t necessarily have to be so dependent on RPI, which needs interconference play to work.

You still run into the fundamental problem of this exercise, which is that you have to assign a value to how good you think the Big Ten is versus how good you think the NCHC is versus how good you think Hockey East is and opinions are definitely going to differ there with so little hard data. But there may be enough of a cohort of teams we can all agree are Very Good—maybe the top five-ish teams—and a cohort that we can agree are Not Good and use the records against each group to give some clarity in sorting out the teams in the middle.

That’s not perfect. Some would argue, and I would agree, beating Denver is a much more difficult task than beating Michigan State or New Hampshire, even though they all have similar records. But I’m not sure there’s a better system.

Anyway, here’s how I have the men’s field ranked this week.

Tier I: Yes

  1. North Dakota
  2. Boston College
  3. Minnesota State
  4. UMass
  5. Minnesota

I’m sticking with UMass in the top group. The Hockey East Power Index has BU ahead at the moment, but to me, UMass has the more extensive body of work with almost twice as many games played as BU, so I think you have to give them the edge for now.

I’m also moving Minnesota back into the top group after they seem to have righted the ship with a tough road sweep at Notre Dame. It’s an admittedly acute and rather meaningless distinction.

Tier II: Probably

6. Boston University

BU keeps winning games despite missing various key players. They’re up to 10 games now and getting closer to moving into that top group.

7. Minnesota Duluth

The Bulldogs had a disaster of a weekend at Western Michigan, getting swept by the Broncos. It’s just one weekend, so I don’t think it’s time to panic, but it certainly brings them closer to the pack of teams just behind them. They’ve got a single game this Thursday hosting Colorado College that will be very important in terms of getting things back on track.

8. St. Cloud State

The Huskies narrowly avoided disaster of their own this past weekend. They blew a 1-0 third period lead on Friday night in a wild third period that saw three goals scored in 16 seconds and ended up losing that game 3-2 to Miami. They trailed the RedHawks 2-1 heading into the third period on Saturday night, but were able to rally for a 4-2 victory. They left some points on the table Friday night, but a road split is never that terrible of a result in the NCHC and enough to hold steady for them. They can also feel a little better about getting swept at Western Michigan earlier this year after the same happened to UMD.

9. Wisconsin

Wisconsin bounced back from a blowout loss on Saturday to get a win on Sunday, and a road split against a team most people think is a tournament team is a positive result. I remain skeptical that the upper tier of the Big Ten is better than the upper tier of the NCHC, but I seem to be in the minority there and am willing to accede a little bit.

10. Michigan

When things are going well for Michigan, they look great. But a four-goal win and a one-goal loss count the same. Wisconsin is a good team, so it’s by no means a terrible result, especially coming off a long lay-off due to Covid protocols. Losing on Sunday was a bit of a missed opportunity to put themselves solidly in the tournament field.

I still think they get a little too much credit for being the team people read about in The Hockey News or The Athletic’s draft rankings rather than the 11-7-0 team they are. But they’ve played better of late, and if they can take care of business in their next couple games, which they should win, they’ll likely remove all doubt.

11. Omaha

Omaha doesn’t get a ton of attention because they don’t really have any well-known players, but they’ve been very good this year. Isaiah Saville is an elite goalie, Chayse Primeau has developed into a major NHL free agent target, and their blue line looks like the Monstars from Space Jam. They quietly took care of business last weekend with a home sweep of Colorado College.

Again, this gets into the debate that I don’t necessarily view their splits with Denver as bad results in the same way I view Michigan’s split with Michigan State, even though Denver and Michigan State have similar records.

They’ll have four cracks at North Dakota coming up and a couple wins there would remove any doubt I have about them belonging in the tournament.

Tier III: The Bubble

12. Providence

13. UConn

14. Northeastern

These three are all pretty much interchangeable. There is 1.02 separating them in the Hockey East Power Index which, who knows, but that feels pretty close to me. Hockey East ranks UConn a nudge ahead of the other two, but I went with Providence, who had a 4-0 win over UConn last week.

Again, however the field is selected, they’re going to have to square just how good they think Hockey East is compared to the other leagues. These three could be anywhere from solidly in the tournament to solidly outside the tournament depending on how you view the league this year.

15. Bowling Green

16. Quinnipiac

This is one of the other key debates we keep having in this exercise. Quinnipiac has played very well of late while Bowling Green has decidedly not, losing their last four in a row. As a result, the Bobcats have moved ahead of the Falcons in the national poll.

Here’s where I have a problem with that, and with using the national poll in general. I think the goal should be to try to mimic the regular tournament selection process as much as possible, even if it’s an impossible task this year. The problem I have with the national poll is that there is a heavy bit of recency bias baked into it. There’s the assumption that Team A wins, they move up in the poll, Team B loses and they move down in the poll.

(I’m amused weekly to find someone complaining “My team had a bye and still moved down in the poll!” because it relies entirely on the assumption that the entire college hockey world begins crafting their rankings with that fan’s random-ass 11th-ranked team and works around that given.)

But tournament selection should be a different animal from a poll. We know the selection process focuses on the entire body of the work for the season and doesn’t give added weight to what happened most recently. How often do we see a swing of four or five spots in the Pairwise based on the result of one series in the first weekend of the season?

The other thing I consider is that the selection process factors head-to-head results fairly heavily.

So I keep going back to Bowling Green’s road sweep of Quinnipiac. To me, I think it’s going to take something significant for that to be outweighed by more recent results. And while we may be heading in that direction, I don’t think we’ve reached that tipping point quite yet.

17. Clarkson

I guess it depends on how good you feel the ECAC is. I personally don’t feel the four teams playing this year are strong enough to justify considering a team that is 9-7-4 out of that league.

18. American International

I would have liked to see how this team would fare against better non-conference competition. As it stands, getting swept at Quinnipiac probably closes the door on any discussion of an at-large bid.