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“One thing we were really successful with last year is the great bracket integrity that everyone seeks, and the coaches love, and quite frankly, we like too. I hope we can continue that this year.” — UNH associate athletic director Steve Metcalf, chair of the NCAA National Collegiate women’s ice hockey committee, on Feb. 4, 2006.

The committee loves bracket integrity, but at what cost? Last year the NCAA proved it could shoulder the financial burden of flying four teams, a rare expenditure for a championship that does not turn a profit.

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This year, the NCAA could face a different kind of cost — intraconference matchups. The rationale for avoiding intraconference matchups is that they should be avoided in order to create a truly national NCAA tournament. The conflicts between bracket integrity and intraconference matchups exist at both the top of the bracket, where No. 1 New Hampshire is set to play Boston College barring any upsets, and in the middle of the bracket, where three WCHA teams are ranked between third and sixth.

How the committee balances bracket integrity, avoiding intraconference matchups, and cutting costs is unknown, as such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. A few points worth considering:

–When the NCAA judges bracket integrity, it should do it based on the NCAA selection criteria, which are measured on wins and losses, and this column will assume as much. Whether a team played another team close and lost or played shorthanded at some point is entirely irrelevant. If such intangibles do become selection factors, teams should be informed in advance of the season in the tournament handbook. To do otherwise would be like changing the rules of hockey in the middle of the game.

–Protecting seeded teams (and there are only two) is more of a priority than protecting unseeded teams.

–Are certain intraconference matchups more acceptable? For instance, is a matchup between two WCHA teams that have not played since December more palatable than a rematch of a Hockey East conference championship game?

–How close do teams need to be to be swapped in order to avoid intraconference matchups? Is it a matter of total pairwise comparisons won? Is it a matter of how close those individual comparisons are – in terms of total criteria won or how close those criteria are?

–If bracket integrity and avoiding intraconference matchups conflict, might saving money serve as a welcome tiebreaker in favor of bracket integrity, as the intraconference matchups will likely be of lower cost?

–For what it is worth, I do not believe two teams should be swapped to avoid intraconference play unless one has solidly beaten the other in at least one NCAA selection criteria or narrowly in two or more, and that should be the only factor. And whether there is another team ranked between the two teams being swapped should be irrelevant, unless that team is a more suitable candidate to be swapped. Said another way, if there is more benefit to be gained by swapping No. 5 with No. 7 than No. 6 with No. 7, and No. 5 and No. 7 are close enough to be swapped, that swap should not be any less likely just because the teams are two spots apart in the rankings.

Now, onto specifics. First of all, who has secured what spots?

What We Think We Know

New Hampshire is solidly the No. 1 seed. There is nothing St. Lawrence or Wisconsin can do to catch the Wildcats in any selection criteria.

St. Lawrence has clinched the comparison with Wisconsin for the No. 2 seed. The best case scenario for the Badgers is to surpass the Saints in RPI and draw even in Last 16 games, but St. Lawrence would still have a clear edge in record against teams with RPI > .500, and in common opponents (SLU beat Minnesota, who beat Wisconsin once. Both teams have lost to St. Cloud.)

Wisconsin is solidly the No. 3 team, meaning the Badgers would get home ice but no official seed.

Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, and Princeton are all fighting between No. 4 and No. 6. The No. 4 rank is critical for home ice. More on that later.

Mercyhurst is solidly No. 7. The Lakers will be in the tournament unless St. Cloud wins the WCHA and Harvard or Brown win the ECACHL.

Now About that Last Spot…

If St. Cloud does not win the WCHA, Brown does not win the ECACHL, and Harvard does not beat St. Lawrence on Saturday, then Boston College is clearly in the tournament.

The tricky situation arises if Harvard beats St. Lawrence and loses to Princeton in the final (the case where Harvard loses to Brown in the final is irrelevant because then neither Harvard or BC would be in the tournament). Here’s how the comparison breaks down in that scenario.

Head-to-Head–BC 1, Harvard 0
Last 16 Games–BC 75%, Harvard 50%
Teams with RPI > .500–Harvard 46%, BC 39%
Common Opponents–Harvard 55%, BC 52%
RPI–Harvard would have about a .005 edge (about half a game)

In such a case, Harvard wins the comparison 3-2, but Boston College’s two criteria wins are much more convincing. Which team the committee would take in this situation is unclear. Bottom line for Harvard is the team must win the ECACHL title to be sure of its fate.

There is some past precedent here, and it involves Harvard. In 2003, Harvard had a 3-2 comparison win over Minnesota-Duluth, but UMD was awarded the top seed. Harvard had the head-to-head win, a slight edge in record against teams under consideration, and a half-game edge in record in last 16 games. But UMD had a more convincing edge in record against common opponents and RPI. So that precedent suggests the committee could take BC. On the other hand, the real reason for awarding UMD the No. 1 seed might have been that it avoided intraconference semifinals in the first round, in which case this example is less relevant.

So who do No. 1 New Hampshire and No. 2 St. Lawrence get to play?

If there are any conference tournament upsets, this question is relatively simple. If Brown or Harvard win the ECACHL title, the ECACHL champion goes to UNH. If not and St. Cloud wins the WCHA, then St. Cloud goes to UNH. If there are upsets in both tournaments, then St. Cloud gets goes to St. Lawrence. This is what makes sense in terms of preserving bracket integrity and avoiding intraconference matchups. St. Cloud, Harvard, and Brown are clearly close enough in the criteria that there are no worries about sacrificing bracket integrity by swapping them.

If Boston College is the No. 8 team, then the committee faces a tricky situation. Perfect bracket integrity would dictate that BC plays UNH, but that is an undesirable rematch of a conference final. So how much bracket integrity is too much to sacrifice?

What we do know is that Mercyhurst has BC beat solidly in three criteria and narrowly in two. At best BC can pass Mercyhurst in Last 16 games if the Lakers do not win the CHA. New Hampshire has St. Lawrence beat by between a half game and two games in four criteria, and the teams have not played head-to-head. So this is about as good a case as you could get for teams being too far apart to swap them one place in the rankings. Also, the committee saves money by pairing BC with UNH, and I personally believe neither school would consider it unfair if they have to play each other again.

Another tricky issue is that to avoid intraconference matchups between the top three WCHA schools, one of them must be paired with St. Lawrence. The comparison between Minnesota-Duluth and Mercyhurst is much closer than the comparison between Mercyhurst and BC, so this swap would be more justified. A UMD loss in the WCHA semifinals and a Mercyhurst CHA tournament win would make that swap a lot more likely, as the teams would each win two NCAA criteria against each other. But if UMD reaches the WCHA final, UMD would have a much cleared edger over Mercyhurst, and the swap would be tougher to justify.

About That Last Home Ice Spot…

Deciding the fourth home ice spot will all come down to the pairwise scenarios, and it is relatively straightforward.

Minnesota or Minnesota-Duluth should be able to secure the last home ice spot by winning the WCHA tournament.

If Minnesota loses to Wisconsin, the Gophers definitely have the last home ice spot if Princeton does not win the ECACHL. If Princeton does win the ECACHL, then the Gophers still seem to have the comparison secure. Princeton would win Last 16 games by a game and record against teams with RPI above .500 by a convincing margin. Minnesota would win RPI by a narrow margin (about .003) and record against common opponents by a convincing margin. RPI is typically the tiebreaker.

For Princeton to win home ice, the Tigers need to win the ECACHL, and hope Minnesota loses to UMD or St. Cloud, and UMD loses the WCHA tournament.

So Is There Any Projected Bracket?

I will provide a possible bracket under my preferred standard that the committee be restrictive in swapping teams for intraconference matchups in the manner I described above.

If there are no upsets – Wisconsin beats Minnesota in the WCHA final, St. Lawrence beats Princeton in the ECACHL final, and Mercyhurst wins the CHA, then this is the bracket I would pick.

Boston College at No. 1 New Hampshire
Princeton at Minnesota
Mercyhurst at Wisconsin
Minnesota-Duluth at No. 2 St. Lawrence

If UMD beats Minnesota or Mercyhurst fails to win the CHA, I would put Mercyhurst with St. Lawrence and force a WCHA intraconference matchup. The consequences to the bracket of autobid upsets and different home-ice scenarios can all be derived from what was written above. I leave that as an exercise to the reader for now, until Saturday night and the conference finals are set.