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Picking the Men’s NCAA Tournament Field: February 23rd Edition

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 22 Notre Dame at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Updating from last week, various people on the NCAA Tournament Committee have further clarified/walked back the idea of using the Pairwise this year to specify that they meant they’ll use it within each conference to determine the rankings of that conference. Which is terrific, but not entirely helpful since, with an exception or two, that’s already pretty easy to do. The real difficulty in this process is going to be determining how many bids each conference receives and how you compare teams from two different conferences with no common opponents.

In that sense, even if the committee tries to give the appearance of some mathematical process being used, it still all comes down to what a handful of dudes in a room decide. That’s fine, since there wasn’t a better way to do it this year—at least there wasn’t once we decided two teams one podcast-length drive away from each other couldn’t play because Covid apparently respects the arbitrary, absolutely ridiculous conference lines we drew. But we should all be clear of the process involved.

We talked a little bit last week about how and why the national poll is a little different from what the Tournament Committee should be looking at when they select the field, and why the two might not match once things are ultimately decided.

This week provided a couple more great examples that I think are worth focusing on:

-Michigan took a 3-2 loss to Ohio State on Friday before rebounding with a dominating 6-0 win over the Buckeyes on Saturday. This marks the third time this season that Michigan finished a weekend series with a win by 4+ goals and a one-goal loss. If you’re a poll voter, I think it’s very fair to infer that Michigan is probably a better team than their record shows. Their Pythagorean record is about two wins better than their actual record, which is a big swing when they’ve only played 20. And using that data, I can see where the pollsters have Michigan ranked seventh in both national polls.

But if you’re the committee, those game scores are irrelevant. All you see is a 12-8-0 Big Ten team and not how they got to that point. And how good is that team? Again, it comes down to the unsolvable issue of how strong you feel each conference is compared to the other conferences. I think the Big Ten is getting the benefit of the doubt right now from pollsters because they’ve got a lot of individual names that people have heard of. But historically, a Big Ten team with that record is usually a handful of spots lower than Michigan is currently ranked.

-The same issue comes up in the NCHC this week as well. Minnesota Duluth extended their losing streak to three games this past week with a home loss on Thursday to Colorado College. Watching this game, Minnesota Duluth led in shots on goal 28-2 at one point just past the midway mark of the game. Final shots were 43-14, but the Bulldogs ended up losing 2-1 in one those games that is college hockey at its’ most execrable. My inclination is to just chalk that up to one of those games every good college hockey team has from time to time—though I don’t know if most poll voters are even digging that shallow into games—and not punish UMD too much. But from the committee’s perspective, a home loss to a bad team is a pretty big deal.

-On the other end of the coin, Omaha went to Grand Forks last weekend and was swept by a combined scored of 11-2 against North Dakota. The Mavericks didn’t look much like a tournament team last weekend, but in the grand scheme, two road losses to the number one team probably shouldn’t drop them much. I think they’re still in decent shape if they can pull a win in one of the next two against North Dakota.

Here’s how I have the field looking this week:

Tier I: Yes

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

Minnesota seems to be back on track, taking care of business with four straight wins. Boston University creeps into the top group with their 11th game, an OT win over a pretty good UConn team. UMass finally returns to the ice tonight, which is good because poll voters apparently like shiny things and seem to have forgotten about them.

Tier II: Probably

7. St. Cloud State

8. Wisconsin

9. Minnesota Duluth

10. Michigan

St. Cloud/Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth/Michigan have similar records. I’ll defer to history and say a win in the NCHC is worth more than one in the Big Ten, but really, who is to say this year?

Tier III: On the Bubble

11. UConn

12. Omaha

13. Quinnipiac

14. Providence

15. Northeastern

16. Bowling Green

17. Clarkson

UConn’s OT loss to Boston University kept them a slight notch ahead of Providence and Northeastern in the Hockey East Power Index, which I’ll defer to, even if we have no idea how they’re actually calculating it. It’s got a decimal point in it though, which in the analytics world, means it’s pretty official.

Last week I said it would take something significant for me to move Quinnipiac ahead of Bowling Green after the Falcons swept them earlier this season, and I’m finally at that point after Bowling Green’s dreadful stretch continued with an ugly 0-0 tie at Northern Michigan(The Falcons did finally end their winless stretch with a win on Sunday). Quinnipiac keeps chugging along, going 8-1-3 over their past 12 games. It’s going to be a very interesting scenario to see if the ECAC gets two teams if the Bobcats don’t receive the league’s autobid.

Meanwhile, Bowling Green’s 3-6-1 stretch over their past 10 games probably eliminates any hope of the WCHA getting a second team as an at-large if Minnesota State were to win the conference tournament. The Falcons, Lake Superior State, and Bemidji State are all pretty decent teams this year, but historically, you’ve got to be pretty bulletproof to get an at-large bid coming out of the WCHA.