Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Pohl Talk: What does Minnesota need to do to clinch a NCAA Tournament berth?

It's Monday Tuesday which means the weekly rankings have been released. (Full disclosure: I don't vote in either.) Both Minnesota teams are ranked fifth in the USCHO.com poll with the men moving up two spost and the women moving down one following sweeps over Penn State and Minnesota State, respectively.

The Gopher women moving down to fifth matches its Pairwse ranking, which is the ranking which mimics the criteria used by the NCAA to determine the at-large bids. It wasn't by much. Minnesota moved by a single point among the 15 voters.

In the case of the men, the Gophers are, perception-wise, one back of its current Pairwise ranking although Minnesota is fourth in the other major poll, the USA Today/USA Hockey poll. So are the Gopher women, for what it's worth.

This week I wanted to answer two of the most frequently asked questions. What is the Pairwise and what do the Minnesota men need to do to clinch a NCAA Tournament berth?

What is the Pairwise?

Composed of three different criteria (RPI with a few adjustments, record against common opponents, and head-to-head record), the Pairwise, simply put, is the end result used to determine at-large teams and who is ranked where. Teams are ranked by comparing the three criteria and seeing which teams have won the most comparisons over the other 59. RPI acts a tiebreaker so unless teams have played one another it will be the deciding factor.

Teams also need to finish above .500 to be eligible, which has yet to come in play since the rule was implemented in 2008.

As mentioned, the Pairwise is looked at because it's a good snapshot of where teams are in terms needing to make the NCAA Tournament. If one thing has changed with players in the time I've been covering college hockey it's the growing number of them who understand and bring up the Pairwise on a regular basis. At the end of the season the teams at the top are the teams that make the NCAA Tournament.

It's not a perfect system (especially when it comes to women's hockey and a lack of crossover match-ups - see the very last note), but it's the one used and takes away any subjectivity or back room deals.

If you want to find out more as to the history behind why the system was created or what constitutes RPI, College Hockey News has the best in-depth explanation.

Minnesota is fourth. That's good, right?

Yes and no. Being fourth on February 6th 7th is a better position than being in Ohio State, Wisconsin or St. Cloud State's shoes and having to go on a run to make the NCAA Tournament. However, right now the Pairwise decides nothing.

Minnesota would be a #1 seed in the 16 team tournament if the season ended today, but it doesn't. There are six weeks left in the season. Until the Big Ten championship game is concluded on March 18th, there will be moving parts. We are three weeks removed from Penn State, currently 11th, being ranked first.

The Pairwise is fluid and ever-moving until it's not.

What's the Pairwise cutoff for making the NCAA Tournament this year?

Short answer: We won't know until the end of the conference tournaments.

Long answer: Somewhere between 10-15. Probably closer to 13-14 because ten would require each of the six conference tournament winners who receive an automatic bid to have needed one to make the NCAA Tournament. In theory possible, just not very likely.

To be safe a team would want to be at least 12th to clinch an at-large bid. Any lower and there's a chance too many automatic bids take up space. That's certainly going to be the case with the teams in 15th and 16th.

The WCHA automatic bid is guaranteed to have come from a team that needs one. No team is within at-large distance. Thanks to a poor non-conference record throughout the conference, WCHA leaders Bemidji State (who went winless in NC games) and Michigan Tech are currently 25th and 27th in the Pairwise, respectively. Neither gets any help by playing a team ranked in the top 30 the rest of the season.

The same is likely true with Atlantic Hockey besides Air Force.

Air Force, on the heels of a non-conference win against BC and ties against Western Michigan and Ohio State, is the top Atlantic Hockey team at 17th. Unfortunately the Falcons can't move up much. Of the team's remaining six regular season games, all come against teams in the bottom 20 of the Pairwise. A win treads water. A loss sets back.

This has been the same problem for the Gophers and Big Ten the past couple seasons. It's hard to move up in the Pairwise when remaining games are against teams near the bottom. It's easier to move up or hold a spot when teams are facing other top teams. Being able to face three other conference teams in the top 19, as is the case right now, helps raise all ships. (In theory Michigan could work its way up 20 spots if the Wolverines won out because of who remains on the schedule.)

Being in a conference with higher Pairwise teams also means Ohio State (19th) ends up with an easier path than Air Force to an at-large bid. The Buckeyes can afford a slip-up or two with games against Minnesota and Wisconsin. Air Force has to run the table and lose to either Canisius or Robert Morris in Atlantic Hockey playoffs. Even then it's no guarantee.

Have the Gophers clinched an at-large bid?

Not yet. It's early. Minnesota still has at least 11 games left (10 + 1 in the Big Ten conference tournament) and 4 against Michigan (38th) and Michigan State (50th). Get ice cold and being fourth on February 6th 7th would be a distant memory.

What does Minnesota need to do to clinch an at-large NCAA Tournament berth?

The big question.

2017 holds a different scenario than the past two seasons where the Gophers, with the results being a mixed bag, had to go on a late season run, winning 9-10 of the 12+ games after the North Star College Cup to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

In each of those cases Minnesota had to work its way into position. Minnesota's improved non-conference record (9-5-2) and playing teams that have improved in non-conference play, creating a tougher schedule, are big reasons why the Gophers are in a better position.

In theory the team is in one where it controls its destiny, according to Jim Dahl's College Hockey Ranked, which runs hundreds of thousands of scenarios.

To completely back into the tournament, the Gophers essentially need to win all four remaining games against Michigan and Michigan State. Do that as a worst case scenario and the chance of missing as an at-large bid is ~20%. It would likely require a couple additional teams getting in via an automatic bid.

That's the worst case. (Well besides winning less than four and missing the tournament.) Win all four of those games and one against Penn State, Ohio State or Wisconsin for good measure and Dahl's scenario ends with Minnesota finishing in the top 10. Winning five of the last ten games guarantees an at-large bid.

In contrast to 2015 and 2016, the Gophers needed to win 5 or 6 of its last 12-13 games to safely be an at-large team. Two wins over Penn State last weekend helped massively. Minnesota jumped into a #1 seed, however, to keep one the Gophers would likely need to keep its precedent of winning 9-10 of its last 12 games.

There's one more way to guarantee a NCAA Tournament berth. Win the Big Ten conference tournament.

Let's say Minnesota makes it. Where are the regionals this year?

West: Fargo, ND
Midwest: Cincinnati, OH
East: Providence, RI
Northeast: Manchester, NH

The 2017 Frozen Four is in Chicago, IL.

Is there anything else I should know?


First, a decent portion of this explainer comes three good websites to keep an eye on for Pairwise information as the season continues.

College Hockey News and College Hockey Ranked are great for predicting where teams can finish. CHN has a Pairwise predicting tool (under "Customize") to show which results would help or have hurt. CHR shows the variety of scenarios and a much simpler explanation as to how many wins a team needs.

USCHO's weekly bracketology helps break down the various factors the NCAA committee historically use to determine who plays where. While teams will be in stuck in their seeding bands (1-4 overall is a #1 seed, 5-8 #2, etc.), attendance and other issues mean it's not always as simple as 1 playing 16, 2 playing 15, etc.

Second, North Dakota will automatically be in Fargo as the West Regional host provided the Fighting Hawks make the NCAA Tournament.

Third, due to that and Scheels Arena seating 5K, it also sold out in -3 seconds. If the Gophers head to Fargo that ends up meaning, Minnesota finishes a different seed as UND. The ticket situation would mean the closest region is the hardest to get tickets.

Fourth, Minnesota Duluth will always win a comparison against the Gophers.

If you clicked on the "how many wins" link and wondered why Minnesota didn't show as the #1 overall even by winning out that is why. The maximum number of comparisons the Gophers can win is 58.

The Bulldogs take both non-RPI criteria against Minnesota, which would flip it in UMD's favor. UMD defeated the Gophers head-to-head and hold a better record against common opponents with no remaining games. Even if Minnesota finishes with a better RPI, the Bulldogs would take the comparison 2 to 1.

To become the #1 overall seed Minnesota would need to have 2 more comparisons than UMD and a better RPI than the team in 2nd to break the tiebreaker since those two teams would have a . According to College Hockey Ranked, there is currently a 5.5% chance of Minnesota coming through with that scenario if the Gophers win every remaining game.

Fifth, Minnesota's non-conference schedule helped. There's a difference in playing a tough non-conference schedule versus an easy one. If any game looks to have made a difference, it's coming back and tying St. Lawrence (currently second in the ECAC) and beating Boston College (leading Hockey East) on the road.

Sixth, the Pairwise explanation skips over the Gopher women, who remain in good position yet fighting for a spot in the eight-team tournament. The reason for that is because the two have enough differences where the criteria opens a different can of the worms.

Given the lack of crossover games, travel and more willingness for the committee to seed teams off the Pairwise lines it's harder to predict the exact lineup. For example, Minnesota was the third seed last year and hosted Princeton (7th) instead of Northeastern (6th) due to travel and opinion of the committee.

To try and predict anyways, BC Interruption has a Pairwise Predictor to use.

Simply put, the difference between fourth and fifth means home ice or the road for the NCAA Quarterfinals (which are played at home rinks). The Gophers will get a chance over the next two weeks to move up into home ice by facing North Dakota and Wisconsin over the last two weeks.

There you go. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments or ask me on Twitter @gopherstate

No comments:

Post a Comment