Little mystery left for NCAA hockey tournament field, but postseason could be strong as ever
Each year, the NCAA Division I men's ice hockey committee gathers to determine the 16-team national tournament.
Unlike their much-scrutinized counterparts in basketball, who hunker down in a hotel for a long weekend of analysis and strategy in picking the field, this five-person group essentially puts the selection process subjectivity on ice and lets the stats do all of the deciding.
Sure, there's a human element to assigning the four regions and seeding the teams before the bracket is unveiled late Sunday night. But unlike the handful of basketball teams sitting on pins and needles when the pairings are revealed, rarely is there suspense about which schools get in the hockey field.
The numbers are there online for anyone wondering. All that's left for fans, players and coaches, usually, is to find out which site they'll be sent to.
"If there's any subjectivity involved, it's in the criteria that we use in that statistics package," said Tom Nevala, the committee chair. "So if you want to look at it that way, if we make an impact on which teams make the tournament from a criteria standpoint, that's done before the season ever starts and how we've set up the math when we meet in June.
"After that, it's up to how the teams fare with their record and who they've played and their strength of schedule and things like that. Basically, everyone kind of goes into the season knowing how it's going to turn out based on those criteria and how they perform."
Contrast that with what men's basketball committee chair Mike Bobinski said earlier this month about teams under consideration passing the so-called eye test.
"We look beyond the pure results and pure numbers. How has that team looked over an extended amount of time?" Bobinski said. "Even among the teams that are generally considered to be among the top teams in the country, if you look at their individual results, there are going to be a couple in there for darn near every team where you say, 'How the heck did that happen?'"
In hockey, all the games count the same, whether a first-round exit from the conference playoffs or an October win over a highly ranked foe from another part of the country. The Ratings Percentage Index, which factors the winning percentage of teams, their opponents and the opponents of their opponents, plays a significant part in the math. Records against common opponents and other teams under consideration, defined as with an RPI rating of .500 or better, also contribute to the formula that determines where the 11 at-large spots go. The tournament champions for each of the five conferences get automatic bids.
By next season, there will be 59 teams and six leagues, meaning one less at-large bid available. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association will fold, and the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will spawn out of core of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The gutted WCHA will play on, with the leftovers from the CCHA.
The pending shakeup won't hurt the intrigue surrounding this year's tournament. Neither will the field, without a clear front-runner.
"It just wouldn't shock me if a No. 4 seed bit a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed in the rear end and wound up in Pittsburgh," said CBS Sports Network analyst Dave Starman, referring to the site of the Frozen Four.
If there's a controversy to sort out, it's the future of the four-team regionals.
Next weekend, they'll be played at Grand Rapids, Mich., Manchester, N.H., Toledo, Ohio, and Providence, R.I. There might not be any of the hosts (Michigan, New Hampshire, Bowling Green State and Brown) in the tournament, and none of those arenas are on anyone's actual home ice. The committee tries to draw the best crowds by the way they assign the regions, also avoiding first-round matchups between conference foes if they can, but coaches in the sport have been pushing for campus sites to create better atmosphere.
Minnesota, for example, could play at a packed Xcel Energy Center, which seats 18,000-plus, for a WCHA semifinal game and then see 4,000 fans in the stands at a regional final on Easter Sunday night. Host teams are automatically placed in their region if they're in the tournament, which can provide a significant advantage for a lower seed in particular, but strengthening a uniquely regional niche sport is just as much on everyone's minds as is competitive fairness.
"I don't like the situation we seem to find ourselves in sometimes when we play in empty arenas in regionals," said North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison, who will join the committee in the fall. "I'd love to be in a situation where you could play on campus sites for the first round. ... I'd love to see us get into a different format, and I think it's better for the sport. It's a great game.
"And you want that game in the best locations that you can to showcase."
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