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Nathan Wells | NCAA.com | January 30, 2019

College hockey bracketology: St. Cloud State, UMass lead the field of 16

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Welcome back to NCAA hockey bracketology. 

It’s been over a month since NCAA.com’s initial look at which teams were on pace to make the 2019 NCAA Tournament. A lot has changed since then, but the two teams at the top remain. St. Cloud State and Massachusetts, with the two best records in college hockey, continue to battle for the top overall seed. Several schools, meanwhile, have gotten hot in January and edged into the NCAA tournament conversation.

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For a refresher on how the NCAA selection committee chooses the 16 teams, check out this article on everything you need to know about the selection process. Otherwise, let’s get right to the teams and this week’s bracket.

This week’s bracketology (as of Jan. 30, 2019):

T-1. St. Cloud State (NCHC)
T-1. Massachusetts (Hockey East)
3. Minnesota Duluth
4. Quinnipiac
5. Ohio State (Big Ten)
6. Denver
7. Minnesota State (WCHA)
8. Western Michigan
9. Cornell (ECAC)
T-10. Providence
T-10. Clarkson
12. Arizona State
13. Northeastern
14. Notre Dame
15. Harvard
16. Air Force (Atlantic Hockey)

Since no team can earn an automatic bid before conference tournaments are played, this bracketology assumes the school with the top in-conference winning percentage in each of the six conferences earns the automatic bid. That school is noted with the conference in parenthesis.

By virtue, Air Force, out of the top 16 teams, takes away the spot held by Bowling Green, due to being the Atlantic Hockey automatic bid. Teams on the bubble at best need finish in the top 15 because of the Atlantic Hockey auto-bid and possibly higher if other conference auto-bids come from teams outside the top 15. 

There are two separate ties this week among teams having the same number of comparison wins. The tiebreaker is RPI. Since St. Cloud State has a higher RPI than Massachusetts, the Huskies get placed above the Minutemen. Providence gets placed above Clarkson for the same reason.  

Teams by conference:
ECAC: 4
NCHC: 4
Hockey East: 3
Big Ten: 2
Atlantic Hockey: 1
WCHA: 1
Independent: 1

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Here are the four seeding groups.
No. 1 seeds: St. Cloud State, Massachusetts, Minnesota Duluth, Quinnipiac, 
No. 2 seeds: Ohio State, Denver, Minnesota State, Western Michigan
No. 3 seeds: Cornell, Providence, Clarkson, Arizona State
No. 4 seeds: Northeastern, Notre Dame, Harvard, Air Force

Now that the seeds are assigned, Step 2 is to place the home team of each regional. Host institutions automatically play at its home regional, however, none are in this week’s bracketology. Despite the East Regional being in Providence, the Friars do not serve as host. Brown does.

Step 3 looks at filling the bracket to avoid first-round inter-conference matchups if possible. Fortunately, there are no inter-conference matchups this week. It helps that all of the NCHC teams are one and two seeds, and therefore not able to play each other. 

Using a straight 1-16, 2-15, etc. bracket, the matchups would be as follows:

St. Cloud State vs Air Force
Massachusetts vs Harvard
Minnesota Duluth vs Notre Dame
Quinnipiac vs Northeastern

Ohio State vs Arizona State
Denver vs Clarkson
Minnesota State vs Providence
Western Michigan vs Cornell

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Those matchups work well. However, let’s make one change to bracket integrity by switching the Massachusetts-Harvard and Quinnipiac-Northeastern games with one another. The end result: 

Northeast Regional (Manchester, NH):
2. Massachusetts vs. 15. Harvard
5. Ohio State vs. 12. Arizona State

East Regional (Providence, RI):
4. Quinnipiac vs. 13. Northeastern
7. Minnesota State vs. 10. Providence

Midwest Regional (Allentown, PA):
3. Minnesota Duluth vs. 14. Notre Dame
6. Denver vs. 11. Clarkson

West Regional (Fargo, ND): 
1. St. Cloud State vs. 16. Air Force
8. Western Michigan vs. 9. Cornell

How did we get here?

The long and short story has to do with Providence. While the Friars do not officially host the East Regional and could go anywhere, the committee has shown a willingness to place PC in Providence if possible, for attendance reasons. The Friars were there in both 2015 and 2017. 

At the same time, this puts Massachusetts, located midway between the East and Northeast Regionals, in a tough spot as the No. 2 overall seed. In a true bracket, the Minutemen would be in the same regional as Providence. But the committee tries to protect the No. 1 overall seed from being in brackets with host or nearby teams, however, and it has tried the same with the No. 2 seed.

A good example comes from last year’s bracket when No. 4 overall seed Ohio State was placed in the Allentown, Pennsylvania regional with a host team (Penn State) instead of No. 2 overall seed Notre Dame.

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Keeping that in mind, with current No. 4 overall seed Quinnipiac being an hour closer to Providence than Manchester, it makes sense to switch the two around and have Massachusetts in the Northeast Regional. As for why the matchups are switched completely intact, swapping the two with one another would have created a pair of first-round inter-conference matchups.

Within the Providence regional, Minnesota State catches a tough break with another cross-country flight as the No. 7 overall team against a lower-seeded Providence at home. The Mavericks get a trade-off, however, with a lower No. 1 seed (Quinnipiac) in its region. 

An argument can be made for swapping regional locations for Western Michigan and Minnesota State, to place the Mavericks in nearby Fargo and save a flight. But all four No. 2 seeds being from western conferences does not help in that department.

For now, let’s stick with bracket integrity. This week’s bracket contains fun matchups, including a rematch of last year’s national championship game. Ohio State and Arizona State played two good games earlier this season, plus St. Cloud State gets a chance to avenge last year’s first round upset to Air Force.

Overall, attendance looks pretty good — although the Midwest Regional in Allentown takes a hit without host Penn State. 

So what has changed since the last bracketology?

The past six weeks have seen the ECAC rise at the WCHA and Big Ten’s expense. 

Of the four teams in this week’s bracketology that weren't in December’s edition, three — Cornell, Clarkson and Harvard — come from the ECAC (Western Michigan is the fourth, from the NCHC). The conference has seen its share of change. Six different teams at one point have been in the tournament. Cornell and Clarkson have taken the largest leaps thanks to earning two of the best records to start the second half. 

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Cornell was 22nd in the Pairwise before going on a 6-1-1 run. Clarkson, meanwhile, has been a college hockey-best 8-1-1 since December 28th. In a way, it’s the opposite of last season when both teams got off to great starts and were able to coast to NCAA Tournament berths.

With the ECAC going from two to four berths, the WCHA went from three teams to one while the Big Ten dropped down to two teams. For the Big Ten, having seven good teams made it difficult for teams to stand out. Other than Ohio State, the entire conference beating up on one another draws everyone in close to one another near and outside the bubble.

Penn State, 3-5-0 in its last eight games, is the second-highest ranked team from December’s bracketology to drop out after Bowling Green. Notre Dame dropped from 6 to 14 after being swept by Minnesota and tying Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Between December and now:
Moved in: Western Michigan, Cornell. Clarkson, Harvard
Dropped out: Michigan Tech, Union, Penn State, Bowling Green,

From now on the changes will be seen weekly. We’ll be back each Wednesday with updated bracketology as the NCAA tournament gets closer and closer.

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