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Nathan Wells | | January 29, 2020

College hockey bracketology: What things look like two months before tournament selections

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Another week of action-packed college hockey leaves us two months away from the official announcement of the 2020 tournament bracket. After several top teams struggled last weekend, the brackets shifted and tiers are forming.

To find out more about how the selection committee chooses the 16 NCAA Tournament teams, please check our Bracketology 101 article, which gives a deep dive on everything to know about the selection process. 

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Otherwise, let’s get right to this week’s bracket.

This Week’s Bracketology (as of 1/29/20):

1. North Dakota (NCHC)
2. Cornell (ECAC)
3. Minnesota State (WCHA)
4. Denver
T-5. Boston College (Hockey East)
6. Penn State (Big Ten)
7.  Massachusetts
8. Clarkson
9. Providence
10. Ohio State 
11. Arizona State
12. Minnesota Duluth
13. Northeastern
14. New Hampshire 
T-15. Northern Michigan
37. American International (Atlantic Hockey)

A caveat: 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 earns the automatic bid in each of the six conferences. That school is noted above with the conference in parenthesis.

There’s a new leader in Atlantic Hockey as American International takes over for Sacred Heart. The Pioneers had itself a weekend, winning the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament and Nutmeg State bragging rights. However, non-conference wins over Yale and Quinnipiac leave the Pioneers on the outside for now. Instead, AIC takes the 16th overall seed’s spot.

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Each of the other five conference leaders are inside the top 16. While Penn State and Michigan State are tied for first in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions get the nod due to having a better overall winning percentage.

Only one tie needs to be broken for seeding purposes. It’s a big one. Northern Michigan and UMass Lowell each have 44 comparison wins. Using RPI as a tiebreaker, the Wildcats get placed as the 15th overall seed and UMass Lowell the 16th overall seed, placing the River Hawks out of the tournament this week thanks to AIC’s Atlantic Hockey autobid.

Teams by conference:
Hockey East: 5
Big Ten: 2
Atlantic Hockey: 1
Independent: 1

In: New Hampshire, American International
Out: UMass Lowell, Sacred Heart

Time to seed. Based on step one, the seeding bands would be as follows:

No. 1 seeds: North Dakota, Cornell, Minnesota State, Denver
No. 2 seeds: Boston College, Penn State, Massachusetts, Clarkson
No. 3 seeds: Providence, Ohio State, Arizona State, Minnesota Duluth
No. 4 Seeds: Northeastern, New Hampshire, Northern Michigan, AIC

With the seeds assigned, step two is to automatically place the host institution of each regional at that regional if any made the field regardless of the bracket. Once again, both Denver (No. 1 seed) and Penn State (No. 2 seed) would make the field as host schools. Therefore Denver will be placed in the Loveland Regional and Penn State will go to the Allentown Regional.

Step three looks at filling the bracket to avoid first-round inter-conference matchups if possible. On a straight 1-16, 2-15, etc. bracket, no such matchup occurs. 

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This week’s bracket lines up easily with no changes, as can be seen below.

The Bracket:

Worcester Region (Worcester, MA - Host Holy Cross)
1. North Dakota vs. 16. American International
8. Clarkson vs. 9. Providence

Albany Regional (Albany, NY - Host ECAC)
2. Cornell vs. 15. Northern Michigan
7. Massachusetts vs. 10. Ohio State

Allentown Region (Allentown, PA - Host Penn State)
3. Minnesota State vs. 14. New Hampshire
6. Penn State vs. 11. Arizona State

Loveland Region (Loveland, CO - Host Denver)
4. Denver vs. 13. Northeastern
5. Boston College vs. 12. Minnesota Duluth

How Did We Get Here:

By following the previous steps, everything falls into place.

Knowing fellow No. 1 seed Denver needs to be in Loveland due to being a host, top overall seed North Dakota’s choices are all eastward flights. Since a flight is a flight, placing the Fighting Hawks as closely as possible does not matter as much as if a regional could be driven. 

Based on the options, it makes sense to protect North Dakota by avoiding the nearest available region in Allentown since host Penn State will be the No. 2 seed.  Choosing between Albany and Worcester, placing North Dakota in Worcester allows second overall seed Cornell to be in nearby Albany. After all, a flight is a flight. Minnesota State, by default, gets placed in Allentown.

With the No. 1 seeds placed, the rest of the bracket comes together. The easternmost regional has three eastern teams plus a large traveling fanbase. Albany has a nearby draw while the other two regions have its host. Some fantastic first round matchups occur, including a Cornell-Northern Michigan rematch, BC-UMD kicking off the 2020s with the latest in a long run of NCAA tournament games, and Penn State-Arizona State in a game between D1 men’s hockey two newest schools.

Now, could the committee go the other way and switch North Dakota and Cornell? Doing so would protect UND further by placing the Fighting Hawks in Albany to avoid playing an opponent only 50 miles away from its home rink. Since Cornell can drive to Worcester, it would be a local draw.

The number one overall seed facing the 16 overall seed in its home state hasn’t stopped the committee before. Minnesota faced Air Force in Denver in 2007. Quinnipiac faced RIT in Albany in 2016 instead of being placed in closer Worcester. 

In this case, the bracket makes more sense for attendance with Clarkson-Providence in Worcester over Albany, along with Cornell being in Albany. When that ends up being the biggest question for the selection committee, the bracket came together well. 

What’s Changed Since The Last Bracketology?

The biggest change sees two new teams jump into the fold as New Hampshire, 5-1-1 in 2020, and AIC, winners of four straight games, move into the conversation. The Wildcats were by far the biggest change of teams in the current NCAA tournament field. Two weeks ago, UNH was 22nd in the Pairwise.


Of the teams on the right side of the bubble two weeks ago, Arizona State moved up three spots thanks to a win over Clarkson and series split. The Golden Knights moved up two spots as well, along with Providence.

The biggest falls were Ohio State and Minnesota Duluth, who each dropped three spots. OSU was swept by Minnesota while UMD has gone 1-3 against St. Cloud State and North Dakota, who took over the top overall seed from Cornell.

NCAA Tournament Tiers:

As February rolls around, it’s more difficult for teams to drastically move up or down. It happens under the right circumstances — Maine went from 31 to 17 after sweeping Boston College last weekend — but those are few and far between.

To give a better idea of where teams are at the moment, here’s a look at where teams currently sits.

No. 1 seeds: North Dakota, Cornell, Minnesota State.
These three schools are above the rest. It would take a massive losing streak for either of the teams in the next tier to catch them.

Set at 4-5: Denver and Boston College.
Denver has a leg up on BC for the last No. 1 seed thanks to sweeping the Eagles earlier this season. The distance between Boston College (5th) and Minnesota State (3rd) in RPI is the same distance as BC and Harvard (21st). The Eagles would need to pass both.

Likely In: Penn State, Massachusetts, Clarkson, Providence, Ohio State, Arizona State.

How tight is this tier?: Penn State moved from 6th to 10th after being swept by Michigan. The Nittany Lions moved back up to 6th after defeating Michigan State. Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, sits 12th and would be 6th if the Bulldogs swept North Dakota.

This tier features teams who would make the NCAA Tournament with at least a .500 finish. Avoiding bad losses will be key; especially for Arizona State. 

The Bubble: Northeastern, New Hampshire, Northern Michigan, UMass Lowell, Maine, Michigan State, Quinnipiac.

This is another tier where the teams can flip in a weekend. Quinnipiac was 13th Sunday night and in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Sacred Heart and dropping to 19th. Some are in better shape than others, but the final at-large bids are going to come from this group barring a massive winning streak. Whoever plays the best will take it.

Two groups to watch are Michigan State and the four Hockey East schools. The Spartans get boosted by the rest of the Big Ten in the top half of the Pairwise. Hockey East ends up being an interesting race because those schools are fighting one another for the same 2-3 spots.

Needs help: Bemidji State, Harvard, Western Michigan, Dartmouth

These four are right off the bubble due to having a harder road. Bemidji State is hurt by Minnesota holding its comparison and only facing one team (Minnesota State) ahead of it. Bowling Green holds Western Michigan’s comparison. Of the group, ECAC travel partners Dartmouth and Harvard are in the best spot to move up yet can’t afford more than 1-3 losses from now until the end of the season. It’s that difficult to get into the right side of the bubble.

Needs an automatic bid or double-digit winning streak:

Atlantic Hockey: Every team

Big Ten: Michigan, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Wisconsin

ECAC: Brown, Colgate, Princeton, RPI, St. Lawrence, Union, Yale

Hockey East: Boston University, Connecticut, Merrimack, Vermont

NCHC: Colorado College, Miami, Omaha, St. Cloud State

WCHA: Alabama Huntsville, Alaska, Alaska Anchorage, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech

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