Minnesota Hockey: NCAA Hockey Tournament Selection Process

J. Meric

We've got a large contingent of basketball fans in this community, so here's an analysis of the NCAA hockey tournament and how it works, just in case you want to watch a Gopher team in the NCAA tourney this March. Note: only after I made all the PNGs did I realize that i misspelled "weakest." UPDATE: Fixed.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the casual fan has not spent a ton of time spent studying the NCAA tournament selection process. Most would guess that the hockey committee’s selection process is similar to the basketball committee’s process. It’s true that the committees operate with similar criteria, however their respective tasks are shaped by two factors: the size of the tournament field and the size of the pool from which the field is chosen.

Obviously, the pool and the field are much bigger for the basketball tournament than for the hockey tournament, resulting in a much larger number of bubble teams and at-large bids to dole out.

Only 59 schools play Division I hockey, and only sixteen will be selected for the tournament. At most, there are four or five teams on the tournament bubble at selection time.

Since comparing 348 separate teams is very difficult due to the varying quality of conferences and schedules, the selection committee has a difficult task separating the deserving teams from the undeserving based on wins and losses and other statistics. For this reason, a lot of the NCAA tournament discussion (both here and at other, less reputable sources) centers on "quality wins" and "bad losses." It’s these subjective-first objective-second determinations that create the high level of stress and drama around selection day.

In contrast to that subjective-first format for bubble teams, the hockey committee uses an objective-only process for selecting the tournament field and assigning seeds to each team. The only subjective consideration in the selection process is attendance at the four regional sites, but even that factor does not change a team’s seed in the overall tournament. The committee will simply swap teams in the same seeding band (regional 1 seed gets swapped into a different region and replaced by another regional 1 seed, but a 1 seed will not get swapped with a 2, 3, or 4 seed) to try and keep teams close to home and increase the number of spectators willing to travel to see the game in person.

The Gophers vs. the Whioux will put 18,000 butts in Xcel Energy seats, so the committee will make that matchup happen, if the seeding bands allow it.

While the selection formula is not broadcast or openly discussed by the committee, it is known and reproducible, right down to swapping teams into and out of regional sites to increase attendance. In fact, the committee is so predictable that Jayson Moy at USCHO.com has predicting the NCAA field down to a science. He has correctly predicted the NCAA field, right down to which seeds to go to which regional, for the past three years.

While I admire the hockey committee for their strict adherence to their formula, which sticks to objective measures, I abhor the fact that once the field is chosen, the committee tinkers with the regionals for the purpose of attendance. Here’s why I hate the tinkering: attendance at the regionals is terrible, and it has nothing to do with which teams are in a given city.

Here’s is the list of regional cities this year: St. Paul, Bridgeport Connecticut, Worcester Massachusetts, and Cincinnati Ohio. Two of these regionals are located well, St. Paul and Worcester. The Bridgeport regional is at least close enough to a large number of teams that some people will make the drive to attend.

If the season ended today, there would be no Ohio teams in the tournament, meaning you might as well have played that Cincinnati regional on the surface of the sun. It doesn’t matter who plays there, attendance will be terrible.

If we’re actually concerned with attendance, we shouldn’t put regionals in places where nobody with an interest in the game cares to travel. Regionals are awarded to cities based on which city is willing to give the tournament the sweetest deal and not based on things like attendance and game day atmosphere.

Now that we’ve exposed the fallacy of "attendance" considerations, let’s examine why swapping teams damages bracket integrity.

In a pure sixteen team tournament, the objective seeding determines the path of every team to the championship. In the first round, the 1 seed will play the 16 seed; the two plays the 15 seed; and so on. The bracket is set up so that the only game in which the 1 and 2 seed could meet is the championship. That’s a pure tournament.

I wish we could see a tournament played with all sixteen teams playing all the games in the same arena. Logistically, that could be difficult, so I wouldn’t mind seeing all sixteen teams in the same city with multiple arenas with games. The Twin Cities would be a good site with the Excel Energy Center, Target Center, Mariucci Arena, and Ridder Arena all in close proximity.

Since we’re married to the regional system, I would like to see the bracket integrity be the primary consideration in placing teams. That way, you can still play a pure tournament in five different cities. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen, and the tournament is damaged because of it. When teams are swapped between regionals, one of those regionals will become more difficult to win, and one will become easier to win.

First, here’s how the regional seeds are assigned based on the overall tournament seeding.

Bracket_01_pure_medium

As you can see, the best of team of each band is on the left, and the weakest team of each band is on the right side of the table. In a pure tournament, each regional would have an even balance of teams on the left side of the table and teams on the right side of the table. For instance, here are the teams that should appear in the regional to which the #1 overall seed is assigned:

Bracket_02_bc_pure_medium

Balance achieved. Now, here the teams that should appear in the regional to which the #2 overall seed is assigned:

Bracket_03_mn_pure_medium

Balance achieved once again, but the road to the Frozen Four will be slightly tougher for the #2 overall seed because of the stronger 2 seed (7th overall) and 4 seed (15th overall).

Here are the teams that should appear in the regional to which the #3 overall seed is assigned:

Bracket_04_union_pure_medium

Balance achieved again, and an even tougher road for the #3 overall seed due to the even stronger 2 seed (6th overall) and 4 seed (14th overall).

Here are the teams that should appear in the regional to which the #4 overall seed is assigned:

Bracket_05_scsu_pure_medium

Balance achieved, and the weakest 1 seed (4th overall) faces the toughest road to the Frozen Four because its regional contains the best 2 seed (5th overall) and the best 4 seed (14th overall).

If the season ended today, the Gophers would be the #2 overall seed, so their regional should feature the 7th, 10th, and 15th overall seeds. Based on Moy’s work to predict the swapped teams, the regional would contain the 7th, 9th, and 14th teams. In essence, the Gophers must play a better 4 seed and a better 3 seed than they would in a pure tournament. The regional is more difficult than it should be. Look at what it does to the balance of the regional.

Bracket_06_mn_revised_medium

But Minnesota’s regional isn’t the only one affected. Here’s #1 overall Boston College’s regional:

Bracket_07_bc_revised_medium

Balance lost (shifted right/easier), and BC’s road to the Frozen four is easier because the regional should have contained the #9 overall seed, but now contains the #10 overall seed.

Here’s #3 overall Union’s regional:

Bracket_08_union_revised_medium

Balance lost (shifted left/more difficult), and Union now faces a more challenging first round matchup against #13 overall seed than it should.

Here’s #4 overall St. Cloud State’s regional:

Bracket_09_scsu_revised_medium

Balance lost (shifted right/easier), and the weakest 1 seed (SCSU) now faces the second weakest 4 seed in the first round.

If you’re looking for an objective way to score these changes, assign values to each of the columns. If the seed is in the "Best" column, give it four points. If it’s in the "2nd Best" column, give it three points, then two points, then one point for "2nd Weakest" and "Weakest" respectively. Then, add those scores up for each regional. In a pure tournament, the sum of each regional will be 10 points.

However, the committee will make the switches I’ve highlighted above, creating tougher regionals and easier regionals. The tougher regionals will have a higher sum, and easier regionals will have a lower sum. Don’t worry; I’ve done the math for you.

#1 Overall BC’s regional: 9 points.

#2 Overall Minnesota’s regional: 12 points.

#3 Overall Union’s regional: 11 points

#4 Overall SCSU’s regional: 8 points.

As you can plainly see, the changes made by the committee will give SCSU the easiest route to the Frozen Four, despite the fact that they’re the weakest 1 seed in the tournament. BC’s route to the Frozen Four is slightly easier than it should be, and Union’s slightly more difficult than it should be. Of course, Minnesota’s path to the Frozen Four is objectively much harder than it should be. What sense is there in this situation? None.

A pure tournament is preferable, in my opinion, to the mess created by the committee in playing with the regionals.

So, what do you think hockey fans? Are you for playing a pure tournament, or are you more intrigued by rivalry/geographical matchups that are the result of swapping seeds? Let me know in the comments!

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