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It’s that time again, friends. With about a month left in the regular season, it’s time to start getting serious about the NCAA tournament. And once again, I hope to prove that Bracketology is not an exercise enjoyed exclusively by basketball fans.

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The Pairwise rankings will be in the spotlight for the next month or so as teams make their final push for inclusion in the national tournament. Here’s a brief overview of the selection process.

The NCAA selection committee uses a complex series of statistical comparisons to fill out the field of 16. The Pairwise rankings, which can be found at most any college hockey website, mimic the method the committee uses to select the field. The methodology used for comparing one team to another consists of three criteria — RPI, record against common opponents, and head-to-head record. The RPI has been tweaked this year to include a home/away weighting (road wins have more clout than home wins) and a “quality win” bonus. Unlike the selection process for the NCAA basketball tournament, there is no subjectivity at play here.

There are also six automatic bids, which go to the conference (Atlantic Hockey, Big 10, ECAC, Hockey East, NCHC, and WCHA) tournament winners. Conference tournament winners that happen to be ranked outside of the top 16 in the Pairwise essentially reduce the number of at-large bids that are available. As a result, a team generally needs to be ranked 14th or higher as the conference tournaments wind down to be considered “safe.” UND is currently ranked right at No. 14 in the Pairwise.

The eve of tournament selection can be quite dramatic. This past spring, the field couldn’t be set until the final conference tournament (CCHA) was decided. A win by Michigan would have knocked Yale out, while a Notre Dame win over the Wolverines would put Yale in. Notre Dame did beat Michigan, allowing Yale to squeak in as the last at-large bid, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yale proceeded to go on an unlikely run, beating Minnesota, North Dakota, U Mass-Lowell, and Quinnipiac to win the national championship.

After the field is set, the 16 teams will be seeded, bracketed, and sent out to the four regional sites. This year the sites are Bridgeport, Conn., Worcester, Mass., Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Paul, Minn. The four regional winners will head to Philly for this year’s Frozen Four.

The committee follows a few general rules in setting up the brackets. These include financial success (attendance), competitive equity, and ensuring a playoff type atmosphere at each venue. The No. 1 seeds are kept as close to home as possible, and inter-conference match-ups are avoided in the first round.

So, if UND makes the tournament, what are the chances that the Fighting North Dakotans will be sent to St. Paul? Good question. The way it looks now, I’d say not great. Minnesota will be in St. Paul, that is a certainty. The Gophers are the “host” of the west regional, and will probably be the No. 1 one seed in the tournament. That would match the Gophers up with the 16th seed, which will be the Atlantic Hockey tournament champ

 If UND winds up a 13-15 seed, it will be heading east, possibly as far as Worcester for a tough match-up with Boston College. A seeding of 12 or higher would open up a lot of possibilities. How about this tasty scenario. UND winds up seeded 15th and Minnesota falls to the No. 2 seed. That would set up a first round North Dakota-Minnesota grudge match in St. Paul, a pairing that would have been verboten in past years due to the inter-conference prohibition. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you’ve got to make the field, and that is far from assured right now.

Current Pairwise Rankings

1) Minnesota, 2) BC, 3) Quinnipiac, 4) Union, 5) Ferris St., 6) Cornell, 7) St. Cloud St., 8) Northeastern, 9) U Mass-Lowell, 10) Michigan, 11) Providence, 12) Minnesota-Duluth, 13) Wisconsin, 14) North Dakota, 15) UNH, 16) Notre Dame, 17) Maine, 18) Vermont, 19) Clarkson, 20) Yale.

Stat of the Week

The top four U.S. states represented on Division I college hockey rosters are Minnesota (185), Michigan (143), Massachusetts (113), and New York (89). Surprisingly, North Dakota is pretty far down the list with just nine.

NCHC Report

Minnesota-Duluth followed its momentum building weekend at the North Star College Cup with a big sweep at Western Michigan. UMD is unbeaten in five and 6-1-2 in its last nine. St. Cloud and Omaha split a pair, including an entertaining 8-6 Saturday barn-burner won by Omaha. That game featured hat tricks by Omaha’s Dominic Zombo and St. Cloud’s Kalle Kossila. St. Cloud is 2-4-1 in its last 7, and allowing almost 4 1/2 goals per game over that stretch. The Huskies lead the NCHC with UND, Denver, and Omaha tied in second place, two points behind.

Big 10 Recap

Michigan State has been one of the few teams able to somewhat figure out Minnesota this season. The Spartans left Mariucci Arena last weekend with a 2-2 tie and a 1-0 loss. For the season, a pair of 2-2 ties and a pair of one-goal losses against the best team in the nation is an excellent performance for the rather ordinary Michigan State squad. Minnesota now faces a tough stretch, with Wisconsin up first followed by Michigan. The depleted Badgers (Nic Kerdiles and Tyler Barnes both out with shoulder injuries) could do no better than a loss and a tie at Michigan. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves hopes to have Kerdiles back for the Gophers series. Minnesota still holds a commanding lead over Michigan and Wisconsin in the league standings.

ECAC/Hockey East Capsule

The two teams that I featured last week went in opposite directions. Cornell beat Yale and Brown, while Colgate lost to the same two teams. Cornell is unbeaten in nine and sits sixth in the Pairwise rankings. U Mass-Lowell swept Merrimack and New Hampshire swept Notre Dame, while Boston College extended its unbeaten streak to 12 with a 2-0 shutout at Providence. Quinnipiac ran away with the ECAC last season, but this year it’s a dogfight, with five teams within four points of leader Union. BC has a safe lead in the Hockey East standings.

62nd annual Beanpot tourney

The first two Monday nights of February in Boston are reserved for the Beanpot, an annual hockey tournament that features Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Harvard. Some have called it Boston’s “social event of the winter season.” Many have said it’s the official battle for Boston’s hockey bragging rights. One thing is for sure, the Beanpot is one of the great, long standing traditions in college hockey. In Monday’s first round, Clay Witt picked up his fourth shutout of the season in Northeastern’s 6-0 win over Harvard and Boston College ran its unbeaten streak to 13 with a 3-1 win over Boston U. Northeastern and BC will play for the Beanpot Championship on Monday night.

UND-Nebraska Omaha Preview

Nebraska-Omaha (10-12-2) visits Grand Forks this weekend to face 16th-ranked North Dakota. It’s been a strange season for UNO. The Mavericks surprised everybody early and were 8-6 at the end of November, which included a home split with UND. Since then, however, Omaha is just 2-6-2. Offensively, UNO is 15th in the nation, averaging 3.21 goals per game. The Mavericks power play is a middle of the road 19.2 percent, which is slightly more successful than UND with the man advantage. UNO has five potent scorers on the forward lines (Josh Archibald, Ryan Walters, Brock Montpetit, Dominic Zombo, and Jake Guentzel). Defense and goaltending has been an issue in Omaha all season. UNO’s team defense is 49th in the nation at 3.38 goals per game allowed, and its penalty kill is 53rd in the land at 76.0 percent. UNO does not have a netminder with a goals-against average under 3.00 or a save percentage over .900. One stat to consider is Omaha’s plus-8 goal differential in the third period (UND’s is minus-4). This series has major implications on playoff positioning in the conference, and it goes without saying, all remaining games will impact UND’s Pairwise ranking and thus, chances of making the national tournament.

Games to Watch

Minnesota visits Wisconsin for a pair on Thursday & Friday, both to be broadcast on BTN. In the NCHC, WMU visits Miami, Colorado College is at Duluth, and Denver visits St. Cloud in the biggest match-up of the weekend. Maine visits Notre Dame for a pair with the NBC Sports Network covering both games.

Frozen Dozen

1) Minnesota, 2) Boston College, 3) Quinnipiac, 4) U Mass-Lowell, 5) Union, 6) St. Cloud State, 7) Michigan, 8) Providence, 9) Cornell, 10) Northeastern, 11) Ferris State, 12) Notre Dame. Where would I place North Dakota right now? I’ve got UND at No. 17 in the nation.

Mark Schuttenhelm

can be reached at marksch58@yahoo.com

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