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The Saint Anselm Problem Explained

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There are 36 women’s hockey programs competing at the NCAA Division I level. As of today, the number one ranked team in the RPI has a strength of schedule of......38th. Sitting above traditional powers like Wisconsin, Boston College, Minnesota, and Clarkson, Saint Anselm College is ranked as the top team in the country according to the computer ranking that plays a significant role in selecting the NCAA Tournament field.

So how did the Division II school from Wikipedia tells me New Hampshire get there? And could they really find themselves hosting an NCAA Tournament quarterfinal for the right to participate in the Frozen Four?

The answer to the latter is the easier question. Yes, Saint Anselm absolutely could make the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has never offered a Division II national tournament because there are only a handful of teams, so Division II has always technically been lumped in with the Division I tournament. Any D-I or D-II team that plays at least 20 games against other D-I/D-II teams is eligible to make the tournament.

Why this is becoming an issue this year when it never has in the past is a slightly more complex and interesting story.

When Saint Anselm added a women’s hockey program in 2004, there were not enough D-II programs to form their own conference. So in order to find a conference home to make scheduling workable, the few D-II schools in the east joined the D-III New England Hockey Conference. They weren’t eligible for postseason play in D-III because schools aren’t allowed to play down a level, and they weren’t playing enough games against D-I/D-II schools to meet that 20 game threshold to be eligible for the D-I/D-II tourney, but they had enough games to play against a reasonable level of competition. The NEHC conducted two separate postseason tournaments, one for the league’s eight D-III schools in which they competed for an NCAA bid, and another “open” championship in which five schools not eligible for a national tournament played.

This arrangement worked for a while. But in 2016, the NEHC announced that they wanted their conference to be entirely D-III and would not be renewing the contracts of the league’s non-D-III members, which expired June 30, 2017.

The move wasn’t a huge surprise. The year prior, Saint Anselm entered into the first step towards moving their athletics program to Division III, which was met with protests from the athletic program at-large who had a larger base of D-II teams to compete against. Ultimately, the school decided to stay at D-II after they were not accepted into the New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference, the parent of hockey’s NEHC, which again, was met with protests, this time by the hockey programs, who don’t have much D-II competition to play against.

The men’s program at Saint Anselm was able to cobble together a six-team D-II conference, though with no postseason tournament to play in and apparently so unpalatable that successful long-time coach Ed Seney resigned over it.

The women’s program announced a “scheduling alliance” for the 2017-2018 season with five other programs—D-I independents Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, and D-II independents Franklin Pierce, St. Michael’s, and Post. Each team will play the other five teams four times this year, for a total of 20 games, bringing each school to the magical threshold for NCAA Tournament eligibility.

That’s really only a temporary solution since Holy Cross is set to join Hockey East next season, but while the future remains in limbo, Saint Anselm is at least tournament eligible this year.

That brings us to the current season where the Hawks are a perfect 8-0-0 against D-I/D-II opponents this year. They’ve also won a non-conference game against D-III UMass Boston, and lost an exhibition to their old NEHC rival Norwich.

RPI isn’t a perfect rating system, but overall I think it does a pretty good job, and is worthy of the incredible amount of trust placed in it in college hockey. But it seems reasonable to say that Saint Anselm is probably not the best women’s college hockey team in the country, as RPI says. The problem is that there are two things RPI, or any computer ranking system hates: undefeated records and lack of comparative data.

The undefeated part is fairly obvious. It’s very difficult to assume losses for a team that hasn’t lost yet. But even if Saint Anselm drops a game somewhere along the way, they might not fall that far.

Lack of comparative data is already problem in women’s college hockey with relatively few non-conference games between teams from the east and west. It becomes a huge problem with a schedule as insular as the scheduling alliance teams, which only play nine games total against D-I opponents outside of their group. This is especially problematic when using RPI, which has a bias towards interconference parity.

Grant Salzano has a wonderful breakdown of the issue here:

Since these teams will be, essentially, only be playing each other, there’s a two-pronged issue here. First, with no head-to-head or common opponents, RPI will be the only ranking criteria relative to the rest of the D-I programs. Second, without any “connecting” games to compare the Group of 6 with the “regular” D-I teams, RPI will be mathematically unable to determine how good these teams are relative to the rest, and will effectively treat them like they’re in an “average” conference.

That’s right — even though the eyeball test puts these teams somewhere in the middle of the D-III pack, the math will essentially assign them an average strength of schedule relative to the rest of the D-I teams and rank them accordingly.

His maths said it would take 4-5 losses from every alliance team to keep one out of the top 8 against an entirely insular schedule. The nine outside games perhaps bump that loss number down some, but likely only a bit. Holy Cross’ shocking upset win over Harvard two weeks ago only helps too. The odds are very good that Saint Anselm has a good enough record to be inside the NCAA Tourney bubble on Selection Day, even if they drop a game or two along the way.

So that leads to the million dollar question: If the computer says Saint Anselm belongs in the NCAA Tournament, will they make the NCAA Tournament?

The selection process for the women’s national tournament is similar to the men’s in that they use the same Pairwise comparisons you’re probably used to. The big difference is that while the men’s side is entirely beholden to the numbers on their spreadsheet, occasionally against all prevailing logic, the women’s side maintains at least a little bit of wiggle room to deviate from the numbers in extreme cases. And Saint Anselm would certainly seem to be the most extreme case.

Nobody seems to know what will happen if Saint Anselm is technically qualified to be in the NCAA field. The closest we’ve seen to answer was this interview Grant Salzano conducted with selection committee chair Sarah Fraser at the beginning of the year.

Fraser is very reserved in her remarks, and doesn’t give an answer either way. More than anything it seems like the committee hopes this is an issue that will go away on its’ own. But if we were to parse her comments as much as possible, the part that sticks out to me is the addition of “each team’s full body of work will be evaluated” to the championship manual.

Fraser said games against D-III opponents would not be counted in the RPI, as has always been the case, but would Saint Anselm’s blowout loss to Team China in an exhibition game, or loss to D-III Norwich(who is probably pretty good, to be honest) factor into the measure of their “full body of work”?

As the bracketology stands today, Saint Anselm getting in would push mighty Minnesota onto the wrong side of the tournament bubble. It’s a tough call if Saint Anselm has met all the criteria as laid out to make the tournament, but clearly isn’t one of the eight best teams in women’s college hockey. Either way, this issue doesn’t appear to be going away, and though no one seems sure how the committee will rule, it’s starting to look like they are going to have to make a very tough decision when selecting their tournament field.