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Men’s Tournament Bracket Watch: Prepare for the Smoke-Filled Zoom

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COLLEGE HOCKEY: JAN 04 Ice Vegas Invitational - UConn v Western Michigan Photo by Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We had our first go-round with the Smoke-Filled Zoom process of selecting the tournament this past weekend with the selection of the women’s tournament field and the results were......a disaster.

Without getting too deep into the weeds, the committee made two decisions that were completely indefensible:

  1. Providence was selected for an at-large. No one—and I literally mean no one; I searched—thought the Friars were even in consideration for an at-large bid. Even after being given the tournament selections, USCHO’s pollsters kept Providence ranked at 9th, behind two teams that weren’t selected for at-large, including fifth-ranked Minnesota.

The five-member tournament selection committee features a Hockey East head coach, and a member of Hockey East’s league office.

2. But, fine. It’s a weird year, you say. And with no non-conference games, relative conference strength is entirely dependent on the eye of the beholder. That brings us to the second issue.

Even if the Pairwise is useless when comparing teams from two different conferences this year, everyone seems to be in agreement that it is still a worthwhile venture when comparing teams within a conference. And while there have been claims that intra-conference Pairwise will be used, it certainly wasn’t here. Minnesota, by nature of their extremely tough schedule heavy on fellow Big Ten schools Wisconsin and Ohio State finished considerably higher than Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA’s intra-conference Pairwise, and KRACH, and Massey, and RPI, and any ranking you want to use that factors in strength of schedule. But Minnesota Duluth got into the tournament and Minnesota did not.

Minnesota Duluth’s athletic director was one of the five members of the selection committee.

All of that is to say, buckle up for what will likely be a wild Selection Sunday. Anything could happen.

There are going to be a lot of different ways to look at this, and I guess not surprisingly, where a committee member sits tends to be where they stand. If there is good news, it’s that the men’s committee has a more diverse group. In addition to the regular six-person committee, there will be a group of six coaches, one from each conference, that will serve on an advisory panel that does not get a vote in the tournament selection process, but does get to give their input. I tend to put very little faith in the input from coaches on anything other than how to run a 0-0-5 forecheck—taking coach input has gotten us regionals in Bridgeport, 55% OT wins, 16 years without recruiting reform, etc.—but, and maybe this is willfully naive, it just seems a lot harder to emerge with a truly insane decision like the women’s committee with a group of 12 people as opposed to a group of five.

There are two weekends left before the committee has to make their final decision, so it’s probably too late to make any changes to the system, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing to bring in a group of independent statisticians and give them a greater say in how the field is determined beyond the set of numbers they already get, which are apparently easily ignored.

Anyway, onto the tournament field...

The good news this week is that the list of teams that are virtual locks—as much as one can be when the selection process is “Do what you feel like”—continues to grow.

The bad news is that I don’t know that we’re any closer to sorting out the bottom of the field. There are 16 spots to fill and there just aren’t 16 really good teams to fill them. There are a lot of teams with a lot of big negatives on their resume, and with no Pairwise to sort through and synthesize that information, it’s going to be really difficult to pick.

Tier I: Safe As One Can Be In These Trying Times

  1. North Dakota
  2. Boston College
  3. Minnesota State
  4. UMass
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Boston University
  7. Minnesota
  8. Michigan
  9. St. Cloud State
  10. Minnesota Duluth
  11. Quinnipiac

I’ve been slower than most to move the Wisconsin/Michigan and UMD/SCSU into the safe category, but we’ve reached that point. With single-elimination conference tournaments, they can lose at most one more game. Even if they go 0-1, they make not look super-impressive, but it’s almost impossible to justify putting the number of teams ahead of them required to leave them out of the field.

I threw Quinnipiac in there too. The general opinion on the Bobcats out there seems to be a little higher than my own, but again, if they’re out, who is in? If they lose in their conference tournament, I think the committee would prefer to take a second ECAC team over some of the other options out there.

Tier II: Checking the Committee List to See Who They Need to Lobby

(In no particular order, because who the hell knows)

NCHC: Omaha

Hockey East: UConn, Providence, Northeastern

Big Ten: Notre Dame

ECAC: Clarkson

Atlantic Hockey: American International

WCHA: Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, Bemidji State

This is going to be a mess, and if there’s a bright spot, it might be that things are so muddy that whatever decision the committee comes to, short of giving the Providence women’s team another at-large bid, will probably fall within the “It depends on how you view the strength of each conference” margin of error.

I think I said Omaha would be safe with one win out of four against North Dakota and they got 55% of a win in game that counted as 80% game because it was at home. A win over Denver in the NCHC quarterfinals would make me feel a lot better about their chances. This shouldn’t matter but being the fourth NCHC team as opposed to the second ECAC/WCHA/Atlantic Hockey team is probably a strike against them.

It’s also maybe worth noting that Omaha hockey godfather Mike Kemp is chairing the selection committee. Yes, you may say committee members allegedly recuse themselves from discussions of their own team, to which I would counter with a broad gesture towards the women’s tournament selection.

Hockey East is going to present an interesting conundrum. My gut feeling based on what I’ve seen, as well as history says a fourth Hockey East team should probably be in the field. The question is: who? UConn probably looks the least impressive at first glance, with a 10-10-2 record, but their win over Providence last weekend was enough to keep them ahead of Providence and Northeastern in the Hockey East Power Index. It doesn’t help matters that Hockey East, for some reason, refuses to release how they’re actually calculating the HEPI, but it’s got a decimal point in it, so we’ll assume it’s legit.

Pollsters don’t have any of the three in right now, and I could see the committee giving an extra bid to Atlantic Hockey or the ECAC under the theory of having more conference representation in a weird year where you can’t compare the conferences. Hopefully one of those Hockey East teams goes on a run in the playoffs to make this decision easier.

I don’t think Notre Dame is in, but if they went 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament, there might be a compelling argument to be made for them.

The WCHA is going to be another interesting conundrum between three good, not great teams. Pairwise likes Bowling Green a little better of the three because they swept Quinnipiac out of conference. KRACH likes Bemidji State by virtue of their wins over Minnesota State. Historically speaking, it feels right that a second WCHA team is right on the bubble, and it may come down to who wins conference tournaments and how many at-large spots are available.