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Nathan Wells | | March 5, 2020

Women's college hockey bracketology: NCAA tournament field projections

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Only one weekend of conference tournaments separates us from selections for the 2020 NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.

Four automatic berths to the championship are up for grabs this weekend. A number of schools need to win an automatic bid to advance, leaving several teams on the bubble intently watching results.

In the end, eight teams will keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive and move one step closer to playing in the Frozen Four on March 20-22 in Boston.

Here is where the contenders stand entering this weekend and what work is left for the teams hoping to not see their bubble burst.

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A caveat: Since no team can earn an automatic berth before conference tournaments are completed, this bracketology assumes the bid is received by the highest remaining seed in each of the four conferences awarding an automatic bid. That school is noted with the conference in parentheses.

Here is a projected field before this weekend’s games:

The Teams (as of March 5, 2020):

1. Cornell (ECAC)
2. Wisconsin (WCHA)
3. Minnesota
4. Northeastern (Hockey East)
Ohio State
Mercyhurst (CHA)

Teams by conference
Hockey East: 1
CHA: 1

In a straight 1-8, 2-7, etc. bracket, Cornell would host Mercyhurst. Clarkson travels to Wisconsin while Princeton once again heads to Minnesota, and Northeastern hosts Ohio State.

Keeping in mind the four non-seeded teams can be sent to any seeded team if it makes sense geographically and saves a flight, a change can be made for the quarterfinal games March 14 or 15.

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The bracket

Mercyhurst at 1. Cornell
Princeton at 4. Northeastern
Clarkson at 2. Wisconsin
Ohio State at 3. Minnesota

The only change made is swapping Ohio State and Princeton in order to save a flight.

In past years, the No. 1 overall seed has been protected by being matched up with the lowest remaining team regardless of whether it involves a flight. In this case, Mercyhurst is within driving distance of Cornell, making that moot.

All four non-seeded teams must fly to both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Princeton, facing Minnesota, would be able to drive to Northeastern, unlike Ohio State. It makes sense to change the Tigers and the Buckeyes in order to have two flights instead of three. Swapping those two would create an all-WCHA quarterfinal game, but the committee allows those here.

In this current bracket, the winners of Cornell-Mercyhurst and Northeastern-Princeton would face one another in the Frozen Four. The winners of Wisconsin-Clarkson and Minnesota-Ohio State would play in the other Frozen Four semifinal.

Overall, it’s an interesting set of quarterfinal games. Cornell and Mercyhurst met earlier this season in Ithaca with the Big Red sweeping 6-2 and 2-1 in overtime. Wisconsin-Clarkson is a rematch of last season’s Frozen Four semifinal while Minnesota and Ohio State play one another Friday in a WCHA Final Face-Off semifinal.

However, the bracket will change between now and Sunday as the weekend progresses and schools claim conference titles.

Which teams remain?

18 teams remain at the start of the weekend.

By conference:
CHA: Lindenwood, Mercyhurst, Penn State, RIT, Robert Morris, Syracuse
ECAC: Harvard, Clarkson, Cornell, Princeton
Hockey East: Maine, Northeastern, New Hampshire, UConn
WCHA: Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State, Wisconsin

11 of the 18 teams with a chance to win an automatic bid are outside the top eight. Besides all six CHA schools, the outsiders include Harvard (ECAC), Maine, New Hampshire, UConn (Hockey East), and Minnesota Duluth (WCHA).

Additionally, Boston University, currently eighth, does not play this weekend.

Which teams are NCAA tournament locks?

Cornell, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northeastern all appear to be in the NCAA tournament regardless of this weekend’s results. All except Northeastern seem to be locked in among the four seeded teams.

The No. 1 overall seed remains up for grabs between Cornell and Wisconsin. If the Big Red lose in the ECAC semifinals and Badgers win the WCHA Final Face-Off, Wisconsin can jump over Cornell to become the new top overall seed. Regardless, these two will be the top two overall seeds unless Minnesota defeats Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Face-Off. That is the only scenario where the Gophers reach the second overall seed.

Minnesota can finish as low as fourth depending on the weekend’s results. Northeastern, meanwhile, can move up to third overall and be overtaken by either Ohio State and/or Princeton as the final seeded team, dropping to as low as sixth. More on that in a bit.

What teams need to win an automatic bid?

All 11 schools outside the top eight teams need to win the conference tournament to make the 2020 NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship. There is no scenario where Minnesota Duluth, currently ninth, can make the tournament with a single win.

Who are the teams to watch this weekend?

Besides seeing whether one of the schools outside the top eight can steal an automatic bid, the three schools to pay attention to are Ohio State, Princeton and Clarkson. All three are susceptible to being knocked out of the tournament with losses and upsets.

Both Ohio State and Princeton can become one of the top four seeds if results go their way. Princeton’s path involves winning the ECAC and Northeastern losing in Hockey East. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, need a perfect storm. A few scenarios exist in different variations, but the common ingredients involve, 1. Ohio State winning the WCHA against Wisconsin, 2. Northeastern losing to Maine, and 3. Princeton defeating Clarkson.

At the same time, Ohio State, Princeton and Clarkson can end up out of the tournament with a semifinal loss and fewer at-large spots. Depending on the scenario, it only takes two automatic bids taken by teams outside the top eight to separately knock out all three teams. Remember, one will happen with the CHA.

Perhaps no team has more on the line than Clarkson, who is rooting hard for Northeastern to win Hockey East and anyone besides Minnesota Duluth in the WCHA if the Golden Knights need an at-large bid. No game has greater at-large implications than the Clarkson-Princeton ECAC semifinal. The winner puts itself in a far better position to avoid being bumped out of the NCAA tournament by upsets.

While this doesn’t cover all of remaining scenarios, this should be an overview. This weekend’s games should be on pace to match the excitement no matter which scenario turns out to be the final one for the 2020 NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.

You can watch the NCAA Selection Show on Sunday beginning at 9 p.m. ET on

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How the teams will make the tournament

For those unfamiliar with how the selection committee chooses the eight participating teams, bracketology for the NCAA Women’s Ice Hockey Championship involves math and geography. Neither the nor USA Today/USA Hockey national polls play a role in the committee deciding which teams make the NCAA tournament.

According to the selection criteria, only the top four teams are seeded by the committee. To select the four at-large bids and seeds, the committee uses a computer ranking system comprised of three different criteria that compares each of the teams against one another. The more comparisons a team can claim over opponents, the higher it will be ranked.

Once selected 1-4, the four seeded teams host a single-elimination quarterfinal game on campus. Unlike the men’s tournament, those games can feature two teams in the same conference. The 2020 NCAA pre-championship manual states, “Pairings in the quarterfinal round shall be based primarily on the teams’ geographical proximity to one another, regardless of their region, in order to avoid air travel in quarterfinal-round games whenever possible.”

Although the committee does take the overall team strength into account when making matchups, relying on geography means, in theory, the fifth-best team can play the No. 2 seed if it makes geographical sense.

The three different criteria used for determining comparisons are Ratings Percentage Index (hereafter referred to as RPI), record against common opponents, and head-to-head record. A team earns a point in the comparison for having a better RPI and record common opponents, along with a point for each win in head-to-head play.

RPI is calculated by combining a team’s win-loss record (30 percent), its opponents’ winning percentage (24 percent) and its opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage (46 percent). Teams can also get quality win bonuses for beating teams in the top 12. The formula also takes out points awarded for a win which would lower a team’s RPI.

Finally, only four conferences — College Hockey America, ECAC, Hockey East, and WCHA — receive automatic bids in the 2020 NCAA tournament. While the first-year NEWHA is not yet eligible to receive an automatic bid, the six teams in the conference are eligible to be chosen for an at-large bid. None are currently in line this year. The NEWHA previously completed its conference tournament with first-year program Long Island University shutting out all three opponents to win the title.

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