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Nathan Wells | NCAA.com | February 6, 2019

College hockey bracketology: St. Cloud State, UMass still lead field; 3 new teams enter the fray

Pioneer Brett Stapley stuns in overtime

In Boston it’s currently Beanpot season. But here at NCAA.com, bracketology season takes center stage.

The annual in-season tournament for Boston bragging rights marks a point in the year where the postseason begins to lurk closer and closer. Teams have between four and nine regular season games remaining. Time is running out for teams to make a move or solidify its spot in the NCAA tournament.

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

BEANPOT 2019: BC, Northeastern to play in Monday's final | Beanpot schedule & info

This week’s college hockey bracketology (as of Feb. 6, 2019):

T-1. St. Cloud State (NCHC)

T-1. Massachusetts (Hockey East)

3. Ohio State (Big Ten)

4. Quinnipiac

5. Minnesota Duluth

6. Minnesota State (WCHA)

7. Denver

8. Arizona State

9. Western Michigan

10. Cornell (ECAC)

11. Northeastern

12. Clarkson

13. UMass Lowell

14. Bowling Green

15. Providence

34. American International (Atlantic Hockey)

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

This week’s bracket sees some changes, led by American International taking the Atlantic Hockey autobid following a sweep of Niagara. Air Force was swept by Bentley and falls out of this week's bracketology.

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Bowling Green, a week after being the team knocked out by the Atlantic Hockey autobid, gets back into this week’s NCAA tournament bracket projections. Instead, Notre Dame, after being swept by Ohio State, ends up being the team barely on the outside looking in.

The only tie this week among teams having the same number of comparison wins is at the top between St. Cloud State and Massachusetts. The tiebreaker is RPI, which places the Huskies, with a higher RPI, above the Hockey East leaders. 

Readers of last week’s column might notice the same situation continues to happen between SCSU and UMass. Why is that? Since Union will continue to hold its comparison with St. Cloud State the rest of the season due to beating the Huskies and having a better record against common opponents, this situation will happen each week SCSU has the top RPI.

Teams by conference:

  • Hockey East: 4
  • NCHC: 4
  • ECAC: 3
  • WCHA: 2
  • Atlantic Hockey: 1
  • Big Ten: 1
  • Independent: 1

In this week: AIC, Bowling Green, UMass Lowell

Out this week: Air Force, Harvard, Notre Dame

Here are the seeding groups:

No. 1 seeds: St. Cloud State, Massachusetts, Ohio State, Quinnipiac

No. 2 seeds: Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State, Denver, Arizona State

No. 3 seeds: Western Michigan, Cornell, Northeastern, Clarkson

No. 4 seeds: UMass Lowell, Bowling Green, Providence, American International

Step 2 is to place the home team of each regional, if applicable. Host teams automatically play at its home regional. None are in this week’s bracket although Penn State (Midwest) and North Dakota (West) just miss. Brown, not Providence, officially hosts the East Regional in Providence.

Step 3 fills out the bracket with the idea of avoiding first-round inter-conference matchups. There is one this week between Hockey East teams Massachusetts and Providence, who dropped out over the weekend and got back in Monday after Harvard fell to Boston College in the Beanpot semifinals. 

To solve this issue, let’s switch Providence and Bowling Green. Unfortunately it takes away an all-Ohio first-round matchup which would be fun. However, two Hockey East teams (Providence and UMass-Lowell) as 4-seeds leaves us with little choice. Remember, teams can only be moved between its seeding band.

Outside of the one switch, a straight 1-16, 2-15, etc. bracket would be:

St. Cloud State vs. American International

Massachusetts vs. Bowling Green

Ohio State vs. Providence

Quinnipiac vs. UMass Lowell

Minnesota Duluth vs. Clarkson

Minnesota State vs. Northeastern

Denver vs. Cornell

Arizona State vs. Western Michigan

Although these matchups now avoid inter-conference games, there are still changes to be made. With a couple more switches (explained below) and this week’s bracket ends up:

Northeast Regional (Manchester, NH):

(2) Massachusetts vs. (14) Bowling Green

(7) Denver vs. (11) Northeastern

East Regional (Providence, RI):

(4) Quinnipiac vs. (15) Providence

(5) Minnesota Duluth vs. (12) Clarkson

Midwest Regional (Allentown, PA):

(3) Ohio State vs. (13) UMass Lowell

(6) Minnesota State vs. (10) Cornell

West Regional (Fargo, ND): 

(1) St. Cloud State vs. (16) American International

(8) Arizona State vs. (9) Western Michigan

How did we get here?

Beginning with setting up the No. 1 seeds, it makes sense to place top overall seed St. Cloud State in nearby Fargo. Massachusetts gets placed in Manchester as the nearest No. 1 seed, rewarded by being the No. 2 overall. Ohio State goes to its closest region, Allentown, leaving Quinnipiac up the road in Providence.

Doing so with our original bracket, however, leaves a couple regions with attendance issues. All four No. 2 seeds being west of Lake Superior in a year where the Midwest Region is in Eastern Pennsylvania means we need to make some creative decisions. Allentown could use a closer team to help fill the building and Providence, who end up as the closest team in the Midwest Region on our current bracket, could get closer to home and boost the East Regional attendance.

Once again, let’s switch the Friars into the East Regional in Providence for attendance purposes. The committee has shown a willingness to place PC there in both 2015 and 2017. Switching the Friars with UMass Lowell (entering the bracket after going a nation-best 7-0-1 in the last month) puts Providence in Providence against the lowest No. 1 seed. Quinnipiac faces a lower No. 4 seed than expect with the team being in its hometown, which seems like a fair trade. 

UMass Lowell keeps the Midwest Region with two teams less than 400 miles away between Northeastern and the RiverHawks. Still, is there a better option to get a closer team to Allentown that would help attendance?

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Yes, by switching Northeastern and Cornell. Located three hours from Allentown, the Big Red would be a boost while Northeastern gets to be closer to Boston with a spot in Manchester. Both are three seeds and neither creates an inter-conference matchup so it’s an easy swap for the committee. 

Which teams should feel safe?

One of the most frequently asked questions from our first two bracketology articles has been, “Is my team safely in the NCAA tournament?”

Well, the answer varies from school to school. With only a few regular season series remaining and most coming in conference against teams who have played one another, it’s more difficult to make a major rise or fall. After next week’s Beanpot championship, the only remaining non-conference games throughout college hockey are independent Arizona State facing AIC and Minnesota.

That isn’t to say it can’t happen, however.

Based upon five years of data since college hockey realigned into the current six conferences, no team among the top five overall seeds on today’s date has missed the NCAA tournament. 

While that would be good news for fans of St. Cloud State, Massachusetts, Ohio State, Quinnipiac and Minnesota Duluth, not every top team remains safe. At least one school in the top 10 has missed the NCAA tournament in each of the five years.

Highest teams on Feb. 6 who didn’t make the NCAA tournament:

  • 2018: North Dakota (8th), Minnesota (9th)
  • 2017: Boston College (7th), Vermont (14th)
  • 2016: Nebraska-Omaha (10th), Cornell (14th)
  • 2015: Bowling Green (7th), Michigan (15th)
  • 2014: Cornell (6th), Northeastern (8th), Michigan (10th)

Each case is unique although many share common traits. In most cases, the teams missing out finished the closing stretch below .500. Only Cornell in 2016 (5-4-3) and Bowling Green in 2015 (8-5-0 in a one-bid WCHA league) were able to finish above .500. The selection committee does not take into account how teams fare down the stretch - a game in early October counts the same as one in March — yet late fades can cost teams.

Some, such as Michigan in 2014, ended up with multiple bad losses. The Wolverines lost three times in February and March to a second-year Penn State team who went 8-26-2. Bad losses can come up more easily when a conference has teams lower among the selection criteria and looks to have 1-2 bids; something that also ended up hurting Michigan’s 2015 bid.

For North Dakota and Minnesota last season, a higher number of automatic bids (four of the six automatic bids went to schools who would not have earned at-large bids) last season meant fewer space for at-large teams. Both finished in spots that any other year would be in the NCAA tournament. Still, it’s a reminder bubbles burst and not every automatic bid goes to a team who would earn an at-large bid.

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While history has shown there is room for teams safely in today to drop out by March, the higher a team is, the better position it is in. Minnesota State, sitting in sixth, likely needs only a win or two the rest of the regular season to safely be NCAA tournament-bound. Arizona State, in eighth, needs to win at least two of its final four games while teams in the 10-15 range, clustered closely together, likely need to finish above .500 down the stretch. Those teams can’t afford bad losses or several automatic bids going to schools who would not earn at-large bids.

It’s advice the teams near the top have already been taking this season. That’s why they’re at the top.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another updated bracket and look at teams on and off the bubble as the NCAA tournament gets closer and closer.

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