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One look at the dry-wipe board in the Bright Hockey Center press box told you where the Harvard men’s hockey team stood in its quest to make a second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Media relations staff spent Friday and Saturday night juggling markers and erasers, updating scores that would otherwise be of little importance in ECAC country—Alaska-Fairbanks at Michigan State, Denver at North Dakota and St. Cloud State at Minnesota-Duluth—all in the name of the PairWise Rankings (PWR).
As Harvard fans listened to the updates of PA announcer Mike Brewster, they hoped for losses by other NCAA tournament bubble teams. The Crimson faithful also paid close attention to underdogs in the CCHA, Hockey East and WCHA tournaments, who had the potential to bump Harvard out of its tenuous at-large bid were they to earn their leagues’ automatic bids as conference champs.
Overall, Harvard had to be pleased with the weekend’s results. The Crimson ended up No. 13 in the PWR.
A quick rundown of the good news from Harvard’s standpoint:
—Denver, which began the weekend tied with the Crimson at No. 14 in the PWR, won Game 1 of its best-of-three WCHA first round series with North Dakota on Friday night before losing two straight in overtime. The Pioneers fell all the way to No. 19, and their season could be over.
—St. Cloud State began the weekend ahead of Harvard, but the Huskies were knocked out of the WCHA playoffs in the first round and dropped to a tie with Providence at No. 15.
—Massachusetts was the only team in last weekend’s Hockey East Final Four capable of “bumping” someone out of an at-large spot if it won the championship since the other three teams (BC, BU and New Hampshire) were going to the NCAA tournament regardless. Luckily for Harvard, UNH won the title.
The only bad news for the Crimson came from Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni’s alma mater, Michigan State. The Spartans swept Alaska-Fairbanks in two games, moved up to No. 14 in the PWR—just one comparison point behind the Crimson—and will play Northern Michigan in a CCHA play-in Thursday night.
So, at roughly the same time Harvard players and coaches attend the ECAC awards banquet in Albany, N.Y., a couple Michigan schools will play a game that could decide the Crimson’s postseason future if it doesn’t win the ECAC title this weekend.
Three comparisons exist between Harvard and Michigan State in the PWR—the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), records against other teams with RPI above .500 and records against common opponents. Right now, the Crimson has the edge in RPI, MSU wins the comparison against teams with a .500-plus RPI and the two teams are tied in common opponents (Harvard 3-3, MSU 2-2). RPI is the tie-breaker, which is why Harvard wins the overall comparison now.
But recall that the Crimson lost to Northern Michigan, 3-2, back in December. So if MSU wins on Thursday, it would win the common opponents comparison with a 3-2 record, move up to No. 13 and bump Harvard to No. 14, a precarious position to be in if underdogs win either the CCHA or WCHA.
In other words, it’s a safe bet that Mazzoleni won’t be packing his MSU letter sweater this weekend.
The NCAA men’s ice hockey selection committee has been known for its predictability in recent years based on the PWR.
However, the committee has added a new “bonus points” category this season and intrigued the college hockey community by refusing to disclose its statistical weight.
The new category, adopted on the recommendation of coaches following last spring’s meeting in Florida, allows teams to earn bonus points in the RPI with “quality wins,” defined as non-conference victories over teams with the 15 highest RPI ratings. This has the potential to influence selection because the committee uses the teams’ RPI in a system of comparisons—the PWR, essentially—to arrive at the 16-team field.
Bonus points have added ambiguity to the selection process, and NCAA officials emphasized their intent to keep it that way during a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon.
“That has not been made known to the public; it’s just going to be something for the committee,” said Ian McCaw, selection committee chairman and athletic director at the University of Massachusetts. “The bonus points aren’t subjective. They’re a mathematical calculation. They don’t add subjectivity, but they add a new factor.”
The impact that bonus points will have on tournament selection and seeding depends on the number of points given for each “quality win” and whether or not that boost will be enough to move teams past those in front of them.
“Bonus points could make a difference, or there could be a reasonable gap between the teams and it wouldn’t make a difference,” said Tom Jacobs, NCAA director of championships. “There might be an impact on the final seeding, but it’s really hard to say at this point because we don’t know the disparity. But I would think they would tend to have a more modest impact than a significant one.”
If Harvard has to rely on an at-large bid to get in, it will hope for the former. The Crimson would be in the tournament if it began today, but today’s PWR does not include bonus points. Given Harvard’s 0-3-1 record against top-15 non-conference teams, the Crimson’s situation in the PWR looks better now than it might actually be.
After last season’s regionalized tournament, in which six Eastern teams played in the East Regional because of travel concerns arising from the Sept. 11 attacks, the committee decided in the off-season to make the NCAAs more of a “national tournament,” avoiding intraconference match-ups in the first round when possible.
With war in Iraq appearing imminent, however, questions were asked during the conference call whether this season’s tournament would again be regionalized. Jacobs, for one, did not think that was likely.
“We’re trying to look at all possible contingencies, but we don’t have a policy of a certain mile radius that we’re going to keep teams within,” he said. “As it stands now, we’re business as usual. We’re planning on doing what we did prior to last season. But we’re going to take a look at different factors, and they could change on an hourly basis depending on the state of affairs.”
—Staff writer Jon P. Morosi can be reached at email@example.com.
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