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Chris Peters | NCAA.com | February 21, 2018

Can Michigan use a second-half surge to make the tourney?

As it comes down to crunch time in the regular season, there has been some movement among the teams vying for a spot in the national tournament. The tournament bracket as of today is still dominated by teams from the west as the NCHC and Big Ten have nine teams between them on this week’s bracket.

However, one of the western teams making the most noise of late is Minnesota State, which finds itself No. 4 overall in this weeks’ Pairwise rankings. The Mavericks have been a tough team all season, especially in the WCHA where they are 21-5-0. They’ve also supplemented that conference dominance with key non-conference wins over Boston University, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth this season.

RELATED: Minn. St.'s Suess is making sure his (new) name is remembered for years

Minnesota State has been led by exceptional senior captain C.J. Suess, who has 20 goals and 38 points in 32 games so far this season. The Winnipeg Jets draft pick is having a career year in his final collegiate season, but he’s hardly alone in production for this team. Fellow senior Zeb Knutson has 36 points. The outstanding senior duo are two of six Mavericks who have already topped 30 points this season. One of them is junior defenseman Daniel Brickley, who has nine goals and 21 assists from the blue line this year. He is one of only three defensemen across the country to have 30 or more points at this point in the season.

This team is legit and they’ll be a threat come tournament time, both in the WCHA playoffs and on the road to the Frozen Four. 

Meanwhile, there’s a familiar name in the mix for the tournament at this late stage of the season. After sweeping Notre Dame in a home-and-home series, Michigan is on our bracket for the first time this season. First-year head coach Mel Pearson has helped pilot the Wolverines through early struggles and inconsistency. Back-to-back sweeps of Minnesota and Penn State certainly helped turn things around and now Michigan is very well positioned for a spot in the national tournament.

It used to be a seemingly annual occurrence, but Michigan has been to the NCAA tournament just once since 2012. While many believed Pearson could lead a solid turnaround effort with the quality student-athletes Michigan hockey still attracts,  it was a little harder to imagine they’d be on the doorstep this soon.

So let’s get to this week’s bracket.

Reminder: Check out a full breakdown on how the committee makes its decisions here. For the purposes of this Bracketology, we’re using the teams with the best in-conference winning percentage as of today as proxies for the tournament champions receiving autobids. RPI is used as a tiebreaker for teams with similar resumes.

The Results

Here’s a look at the first 16 teams considered for our first Bracketology. (Conference names in parenthesis denote mock conference tournament champion). 

1. St. Cloud State (NCHC)
2. Notre Dame (Big Ten)
3. Cornell (ECAC)
4. Minnesota State (WCHA)
5. Denver
6. Ohio State
7. Clarkson
8. Minnesota
9. Providence
10. Minnesota Duluth
11. Michigan
12. Northeastern
13. North Dakota
14. Omaha
15. Boston College (Hockey East)
16. Mercyhurst (Atlantic Hockey)

Step 1: Placing the seeds

No. 1 seeds: St. Cloud State, Notre Dame, Cornell, Minnesota St.
No. 2 seeds: Denver, Ohio State, Clarkson, Minnesota
No. 3 seeds: Providence, Minnesota Duluth, Michigan
No. 4 seeds: North Dakota, Omaha, Boston College, Mercyhurst

Step 2: Place regional hosts

As has been the case for some time, North Dakota is the only host in the mix. They automatically go to Sioux Falls. Their presence pushes St. Cloud State, an in-conference foe, away from their most convenient regional.

Step 3: Avoid in-conference matchups

The presence of five NCHC teams and four Big Ten teams does make things a little tricky here, but the way things shook out, we were able to move things around just enough. It’s not a perfect solution, but I don’t see many other ways for the committee to go. As noted, North Dakota’s presence in Sioux Falls forces St. Cloud to hit the road. We also had to jumble the No. 3 seeds a little bit. Ohio State’s opponent in a natural bracket would be rival Michigan, so that forced a two-team flip-flop that you’ll see more below. Otherwise, this didn’t have to get too creative to make it work.

East: Bridgeport, Conn.

1. St. Cloud State vs. 16. Mercyhurst
8. Minnesota vs. 9. Providence

Rationale: This is a natural No. 1 bracket in a somewhat unnatural spot. St. Cloud State wasn’t going to be able to be put in their closest regional because of North Dakota having to stay in Sioux Falls as host. The rest of the bracket just follows the ranking. This is not an ideal bracket for attendance, but Providence being there gets at least one eastern team in the mix.

West: Sioux Falls, S.D.

4. Minnesota State vs. 13. North Dakota
5. Denver vs. 11. Michigan

Rationale: I think a potential Minnesota State-North Dakota matchup would be a really good 4-13. Meanwhile, Michigan had to be moved from Allentown to get away from in-conference opponent Ohio State. Denver gets its natural spot in the same regional as the No. 4 overall team and also ends up in its nearest regional, if there is such a thing for the Pioneers.

Northeast: Worcester, Mass.

2. Notre Dame vs. 15. Boston College
7. Clarkson vs. 10. Minnesota Duluth

Rationale: Since Notre Dame can pretty much go anywhere when considering their geographical placement, it just makes sense to plant them here against their natural opponent – in this case, our Hockey East champion proxy, Boston College. You could also make a case for placing Northeastern here since we’re already jumbling No. 3 seeds, but I leaned more towards bracket integrity with Boston College already in Worcester. This is a natural No. 2 overall seed bracket.

Midwest: Allentown, Pa.

3. Cornell vs. 14. Omaha
6. Ohio State vs. 12. Northeastern

Rationale: Cornell is the closest No. 1 seed to Allentown. Ohio State couldn’t play Michigan, so we simply flipped Michigan and Northeastern away from their natural brackets. As noted, perhaps you could try to squeeze Northeastern into Worcester, but I don’t think there’s much need to overcomplicate things when you have a bracket that is pretty close to its natural form. Ohio State also ends up in the regional closest to them.