The calendar has flipped and the college hockey season is heating up. Jockeying for position in the NCAA tournament is full steam ahead. While it is still too early to worry about the specifics of the bracket could look like, this is the perfect time to begin discussions of who will be part of that bracket.
Today we will cover who is safely in the tournament, what has happened to Hockey East since we last spoke and the most interesting scenarios that could mess with the tournament field.
Who’s Definitely In?
Ten spots in the field are already occupied: eight teams are locked in, whether at-large or as eventual auto-bids, along with two unknown auto-bids from leagues without a safe representative. The safe list includes Minnesota, Quinnipiac, Boston University, Michigan, St. Cloud State, Penn State, Denver, Ohio State, the Atlantic Hockey champion, and the CCHA champion.
To be clear, I am not claiming that any of those eight teams can lose out and still make it. Surely that is not true. Rather, I’m saying I have a confidence level high enough to call it a virtual lock. That confidence comes from a combination of current Rating Percentage Index (RPI), remaining schedule and the odds that good teams like these will win enough games to not fall. To that end, there was a cutoff for me. Ohio State and Harvard are tied with 52 pairwise comparisons won, and yet Harvard is absent from my list. Why? Harvard’s RPI substantially trails OSU and they have a relatively weak remaining schedule, especially without the guarantee of facing BU in the Beanpot. Western Michigan, currently 10th in the Pairwise (PWR), has shot up the rankings with a torrid stretch since dominating the GLI. But the Broncos play six of their final eight games against teams outside the top 20, leaving them too much downside for me to put them in the lock category. Beyond that, the teams sitting 11-15 in the PWR simply are not high enough to be safe at this point in the year.
Conference Deep Dive: Hockey East’s Collapse Opens Doors for Everyone
Remember last month, where I said it was unlikely that the CCHA would get multiple teams in the tournament? As it stands today, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State sit 12th and 13th, and not entirely because of things they did. Instead, Hockey East has utterly collapsed since December. When we entered winter break, Merrimack was 3rd in the PWR and I called them a “near lock” for the tournament. They are outside the top 20 in just one month. UMass hasn’t won since January 3rd and is completely out of contention, after spending most of the fall within the bubble. UConn was a top ten team for months, but would miss the tournament if it started today. Providence, UMass-Lowell, and Boston College all spent time in or around the bubble but have fallen into the 20’s.
So what happened? Mostly, the bad teams started beating the good teams in conference games and the good teams also lost a lot of out-of-conference games to bad teams. For example, Merrimack and BC gave away 7 of 12 points to Vermont in the last two weeks, just after Merrimack lost and tied to Brown and Yale. Those results alone tanked Merrimack. UMass-Lowell was well in the hunt until being swept at home by Alaska-Anchorage, which dropped them double digit spots in the PWR. And so it went, with nearly every team discussed. The only two Hockey East teams to improve their standing were BU, who has been one of the best teams in the country, and Northeastern, who has recovered from an awful start to put themselves squarely on the bubble and in contention for regular season and postseason Hockey East championships.
Altogether, it is one of the biggest (and fastest) conference-wide collapses ever. The biggest beneficiaries? The CCHA, which now has a real shot at multiple teams and the NCHC, which has its top four teams within the bubble as of today after ending 2022 with only two inside the bubble.
Notre Dame Is Ruled Out on a Technicality
Every few years or so, this sport’s commentators break out the tournament selection procedures to remind everyone that the committee is required to skip over otherwise tournament-bound teams if they have a record below .500. Notre Dame entered last weekend 12-13-3 and 15th in the PWR, exactly the scenario contemplated above. They swept Wisconsin to move a game over .500, but they still remain in striking distance of triggering this technicality. If they wrap up the Big Ten schedule with a few ties and OT losses, they very well could end up on the wrong side of this rule, making for a surprise entry into the tournament for whichever team is just below in the PWR.
Atlantic Hockey Gets Two Bids
Rarely does AHA have a team anywhere within the top 20 in January, and yet RIT sits 17th with eight regular season games remaining. It will still be an uphill battle for AHA to get two teams in. Realistically, RIT needs to virtually win out and lose in the championship game of the conference tournament. Still, it’s not a position AHA ends up in every year, so it is certainly a situation bubble teams should keep an eye on.
The Big Ten Gets All Seven In
This is easily the longest shot of the three scenarios, made even more difficult by Michigan State’s recent 1-7-1 stretch. Still, it’s pretty clear to see how it could happen: strong finishes to the year by #18 MSU and #14 Notre Dame, along with the four aforementioned locks in the conference, could get 6 of 7 inside the bubble when the conference tournament games. A Wisconsin Big Ten tournament win would get them in as well, possibly resulting in all seven making it. Let me be clear: I do not think UW can win the Big Ten tournament nor do I think both MSU and ND end up inside the bubble by the end of February. But the exercise speaks to the incredible season the Big Ten has had. A ridiculous .721 interconference winning percentage is the the clear reason for six teams inside the top 18, as well as relative parity between 2nd and 6th in the conference. I can’t imagine THG readers are excited about the prospect of seven, or frankly even four, five or six Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament, but it’s been a major story of the 2022-2023 regular season. It’s worth monitoring during February, as these are teams that could affect Tech’s chances of a tournament bid.
What to Watch in February
At this point in the year, my suggestions are less about which series are the “best” series and more about which non-CCHA series have the most direct impact on Michigan Tech since I know you all monitor/watch the CCHA games closely anyway.
- Notre Dame and Michigan State face off this weekend with two games in East Lansing, with Saturday’s game on Big Ten Network. This series will have serious bubble implications, plus it’s a 4p EST start, so that is a good warmup to the 7p Tech game.
- I will never cease banging the drum for the Beanpot as someone born in Cambridge, but this year’s edition really affects Tech. Harvard and Northeastern are both bubble teams that need success in games against good opponents. Monday the 6th and Monday the 13th are the dates, and the games are often are televised by ESPN+ and/or NHL Network.
- I haven’t mentioned North Dakota yet, but they’re precisely the type of bubble team that could burn Tech if they get hot. Currently 19th in the PWR, they have ample opportunity to move up with series this month against #7 Denver, #4 St. Cloud, and #15 Omaha. Their games on February 10th against DU and February 17th Against SCSU are televised on CBS Sports Network.