In the waning weeks of the regular season, the national tournament bubble seems as crowded as ever. It’s not the most fun place to be for the teams residing there, but it should make for some especially compelling hockey over these next few weeks.
In the latest Pairwise rankings, we’ve seen some interesting teams slide to bubble status. Notably, the defending national champions — the University of North Dakota — sit 14th in the Pairwise, putting them at risk of being bounced by a tournament champion if they don’t win their own conference tournament. The Fighting Hawks still have four regular-season games before the NCHC tournament begins, so they could change their situation in a hurry, but three wins in their last 10 games puts them in rather precarious position.
Meanwhile, the Hockey East-leading Boston College Eagles find themselves tied for 17th with conference foe Vermont in the latest Pairwise rankings. BC is in our bracket this week as a mock tournament champion, but they’d certainly prefer not to leave their national tournament hopes up to the Hockey East playoffs.
North Dakota and Boston College have plenty of company on the bubble, too. Notre Dame, Vermont, Omaha and Wisconsin are among teams that aren’t on this week’s bracketology, but could still claw their way into a spot without automatically qualifying via tournament championship. Then there are the teams in the latter half of the Pairwise like St. Cloud State, Providence and Ohio State, among others, whose national tournament plans are marked in pencil on their calendars.
The rest of them can be envious of the teams at the top. Denver is the new No. 1 in the Pairwise, unseating Minnesota Duluth. Those two teams have been far-and-away the best in the country for the longest stretches of the season and look likely to retain top-seed status. Meanwhile Harvard and Minnesota are sitting pretty as well and rank third and fourth, respectively, in the Pairwise right now.
There is bound to be more shuffling and one can never tell exactly how the conference tournaments will ultimately shake out, but crunch time is upon several teams already. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this week’s bracketology.
As a reminder, check out our first bracketology for a rundown of how the selection committee places teams. Also, for our purposes, teams with the highest in-conference winning percentage as of right now are the mock conference tournament champions.
Here is the tournament field as of Feb. 21 (Mock conference champions in parenthesis)
1. Denver (NCHC)
4. Minnesota (Big Ten)
5. Western Michigan
6. Boston University
7. Union (ECAC)
11. Penn State
12. St. Cloud State
13. Ohio State
14. Air Force (Atlantic Hockey)
15. Boston College (Hockey East)
16. Bemidji State (WCHA)
Step 1: Awarding seeds
No. 1 seeds: Denver, Minnesota Duluth, Harvard, Minnesota
No. 2 seeds: Western Michigan, Boston University, Union, UMass-Lowell
No. 3 seeds: Providence, Cornell, Penn State, St. Cloud State
No. 4 seeds: Ohio State, Air Force, Boston College, Bemidji State
Step 2: Placing hosts
Normally, we would be placing the host teams, but for the first time since we started bracketology this season, the University of North Dakota – hosting in Fargo – didn’t make our top 16. They’re currently ranked 14th in the Pairwise, but get bounced by our mock Hockey East champions Boston College, who are currently ranked tied for 17th in the Pairwise.
Step 3: Placing the teams
This was a really difficult bracket to put together this week. Using Boston College as a stand-in for the Hockey East tournament champion makes it trickier to avoid first-round in-conference matchups. On top of that, there is quite a challenge with three western-based top seeds. There are so many different directions that this could go, but I gave a fair amount of consideration to attendance concerns while still trying to do right by the top seeds.
West - Fargo
1. Denver vs. 16. Bemidji State
8 UMass Lowell vs. 10. Cornell
Rationale: Losing North Dakota from this field opens up a lot of possibilities. I do think the committee would do everything they can to get Minnesota Duluth in this regional, especially if North Dakota is out. That said, attendance is less of a concern at this regional than it would be at others. On top of that, Denver should have a chance to play at its closest available regional (it’s still pretty far) and this is as close as we could adhere to bracket integrity based on the combinations available within the selection committee’s criteria.
Midwest - Cincinnati
2. Minnesota Duluth vs. 13. Ohio State
5. Western Michigan vs. 11 Penn State
Rationale: As I mentioned before, I could see the committee putting UMD in Fargo, but this is the next closest regional. With Ohio State being among the four-seeds, I think the committee would prefer to keep them closer to home. Western gets to play in its closest regional and then Penn State should be able to have a decent traveling party for their national tournament debut if they make it.
East - Providence
3 Harvard vs. 14 Air Force
7. Union vs. 9. Providence
Rationale: With the abundance of western-based teams in the bracket, there was more of an emphasis on keeping Providence in Providence despite the Friars not technically being the regional hosts (Brown is). Harvard, meanwhile, fits well in either Manchester or Providence based on distance. Also, flipping UMass-Lowell and Union away from their natural opponents based on seeding allows each to avoid in-conference opponents in the first round.
Northeast - Manchester
4 Minnesota vs. 15 Boston College
6 Boston University vs. 12 St. Cloud State
Rationale: Minnesota won’t love having to travel, but since they’re the lowest of the three western-based top seeds, it’s essentially unavoidable, especially with the committee’s preference to avoid in-conference matchups in the first round. That knocks Minnesota out of Cincinnati. Having both Boston teams on this side with a pair of teams out of Minnesota should help the attendance situation in Manchester as well.