Hockey Bracketology: Who will be in the NCAA tournament?

The official bracket will be unveiled at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 21, on ESPNU, but here's a look at some predictions.

2021 Frozen Four logo (Courtesy of NCAA)

The 16-team NCAA men's hockey tournament field will be revealed at 6 p.m. tonight on ESPNU.

The show will carry more drama than usual.

In a normal year, by now, we would already know exactly which 16 teams will be in the field. The NCAA uses the Pairwise Rankings to select and seed the field. But because there's virtually no cross-conference play this season due to coronavirus pandemic-altered schedules, the Pairwise is irrelevant.

The NCAA Division-I Men's Ice Hockey Committee -- Omaha associate athletic director Mike Kemp, Vermont athletic director Jeff Schulman, Penn State assistant athletic director Michael Cross, Cornell coach Mike Schafer, Ferris State coach Bob Daniels and Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley -- will be tasked with choosing the teams, seeding them and placing them in regionals.

This article is a look at how the Herald believes the Committee will approach this assignment and ultimately select the teams.


For starters, keep in mind:

  • Win-loss record is important, but you can't get too fixated on it. For example, Denver and Omaha played more games against No. 1-ranked North Dakota this season than Army played games against teams with a winning record. Think about the 2018 NCAA field. If you take out nonconference games, Bowling Green was 17-6-5, Northern Michigan was 19-7-2, Union was 16-5-1 and Minnesota Duluth was 13-11. One of those teams got in: Minnesota Duluth. Meanwhile, none of the others were even among the first three out of the tournament. In fact, with a conference record of 10-12-6, UND was ahead of all three of them, too.
  • Win-loss records within conferences can be deceptive, too, because every league outside of the Big Ten played unbalanced schedules, some of them with significant imbalances.

  • The Committee will not be looking at overtime results as full-value wins/losses. They will look at them as 55 percent for a win and 45 percent for a loss. They are much closer to ties than wins and losses in the Committee's eyes.

How is the Committee going to determine which teams are better, especially across conferences?
That is going to be a very, very difficult job. I believe the Committee will use historical data as a guide. It's not perfect, but it's the best option.

Conferences that traditionally don't get as many teams in the tournament will argue that the past doesn't necessarily dictate the present, and this season, their conference is better than normal and deserves more bids than normal. They might be right. Their league might be better than normal. But it also might be worse than normal. We just don't know. That's why I think the Committee leans on historical data.

In a sense, this is the practice used to select how many teams from each European soccer league get to advance to the Champions League -- historical data on the performances of each league.

Since realignment, the average number of teams each league has placed into the NCAA tournament are: Atlantic Hockey 1, ECAC 3.16, Big Ten 2.16, Hockey East 4, NCHC 3.83 and Western Collegiate Hockey Association 1.67. Rounding those numbers, it equates to: AHA 1, ECAC 3, Big Ten 2, Hockey East 4, NCHC 4, WCHA 2.

The ECAC only had a third (four of 12) of its teams participate this season. A third of the ECAC's three bids equals one. That leaves us with two wildcards to over-represent two leagues.

Let's start putting together the field.

Six teams are automatically placed in the field by virtue of winning their conference's postseason title. They are:


1. North Dakota (NCHC)

2. Minnesota (Big Ten)

3. UMass (Hockey East)

4. Lake Superior State (WCHA)

5. American International (Atlantic Hockey)

6. St. Lawrence (ECAC)

There are six consensus locks to make the field as at-large picks:

7. Boston College (Hockey East)


8. Wisconsin (Big Ten)

9. Minnesota State-Mankato (WCHA)

10. St. Cloud State (NCHC)

11. Michigan (Big Ten)

12. Minnesota Duluth (NCHC)

There's one team that might not be a complete consensus because of lack of games played (15), but it seems highly unlikely they'd get left out:

13. Boston University (Hockey East)

That leaves three spots available.


Let's start with the one that's most widely speculated as a lock: Quinnipiac of the ECAC. The more I look at it, the more I am convinced the Bobcats are a bubble team and not a lock.

Their 17-7-4 record looks impressive. But Quinnipiac went 7-0 against Atlantic Hockey/Long Island University, 10-7-4 against everyone else: 4-2-1 vs. St. Lawrence, 4-1-1 vs. Colgate, 2-2-2 vs. Clarkson and 0-2 vs. Bowling Green. The last one is going to be a big problem for the Committee considering Bowling Green also is a bubble team.

No, you can't discount the Atlantic Hockey wins. But keep in mind, the NCHC and Big Ten went 20-0 vs. Atlantic Hockey last season and 34-3-1 the last two seasons.

So, let's stick with the 13 locks for now.

Looking at historical data, here's where we are at this point:

Atlantic Hockey's historical average: 1. Teams confirmed: 1 (American International).

Big Ten's historical average: 2. Teams confirmed: 3 (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan).

ECAC's historical average (amended for fewer teams): 1. Teams confirmed: 1 (St. Lawrence).


Hockey East's historical average: 4. Teams confirmed: 3 (Boston College, UMass, Boston University).

NCHC's historical average: 4. Teams confirmed: 3 (UND, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth).

WCHA's historical average: 2. Teams confirmed: 2 (MSU-Mankato, Lake Superior State).

That means we've placed one of the two "wildcards" -- or over-representing spots -- with the Big Ten. I don't think anyone is going to argue that one.

We still have two leagues under-represented historically -- Hockey East and the NCHC.

Considering the NCHC's dominance both in regular-season nonconference and in the NCAA tournament in recent years, there's no real case for under-representing the NCHC this season. And I'm not sure if there's a great case to under-represent Hockey East, either.

Add a fourth NCHC team: Denver or Omaha.

Add a fourth Hockey East team: Providence, UConn or UMass Lowell.


Those teams are very, very close, so take your pick.

That leaves the final "wildcard" spot.

The eight possibilities here are: a fifth NCHC team (a leftover from above), a fifth Hockey East team (one of two leftovers from above), a fourth Big Ten team (Notre Dame), a third WCHA team (Bemidji State or Bowling Green), a second ECAC team (Quinnipiac) or a second Atlantic Hockey team (Army).

I think it's highly unlikely Atlantic Hockey gets a second team. Atlantic Hockey has not done that since realignment and it went 2-10-2 vs. ECAC this season.

I don't think the Big Ten gets a fourth team in, considering it's already slightly over-represented, and the fact that Notre Dame got to host its postseason tournament and lost first round.

Quinnipiac has an argument for the ECAC getting the final spot: There was an upset winner in the conference tournament, and leagues that have upset winners are generally over-represented. However, the only cross-conference data we have between these bubble teams is a Bowling Green sweep at Quinnipiac.

Considering Bemidji State went 3-1 against Bowling Green this season and made it farther in the conference tournament, I think the Committee will slate the Beavers ahead of the Falcons. Also, if it uses record against common opponents, I think this is an argument to slate Bemidji State ahead of Quinnipiac, too. The Beavers very well may end up with that final spot.

However, if the Committee believes it is splitting hairs over the last teams, I wouldn't be surprised if it falls back to the league that has best earned the benefit of the doubt to be over-represented. The NCHC is 32-16 in the national tournament since realignment. It has won the last four national championships with three different teams taking home the title. It has routinely posted the best out-of-conference winning percentage in the regular season.

The big question will be the optics of Denver's 10-13-1 record. But keep in mind: Three of those losses came in overtime, none of its wins did. Also, Denver was supposed to play a reeling Colorado College team (that went 1-13 in its last 14 games) to end the regular season, but had it wiped out -- to no fault of its own. The Tigers had a COVID-19 shutdown and Denver had those critical games erased.

If Omaha makes the tournament, then 16 of Denver's 24 games this season will have come against NCAA tournament teams, seven against the No. 1 team in the country. Yes, roughly 30 percent of Denver's games this season were against North Dakota.

There's no doubt the Committee followed what happened on the women's side, where the NCAA opted against over-representing the most historically dominant conference, the WCHA. Looking back on how the tournament played out, it was the wrong decision.

So, I think the last spot comes down to Bemidji State and the NCHC, but the Committee gives the NCHC the benefit of the doubt.

Overall seeding:

1. North Dakota

2. Minnesota

3. Boston College

4. Minnesota State-Mankato

5. Wisconsin

6. UMass

7. St. Cloud State

8. Michigan

9. Minnesota Duluth

10. Boston University

11. Providence

12. Omaha

13. Denver

14. Lake Superior State

15. American International

16. St. Lawrence

The Committee has historically tried to put 1 vs. 16 in the first round, and I don't believe they will stray from that this year. MSU-Mankato and Wisconsin could flip-flop at 4-5 -- especially if the Committee takes into account Wisconsin's three losses while significantly shorthanded due to players at the World Juniors and others in COVID-19 protocol.

After a few minor adjustments to get rid of potential conference matchups in the first round and to minimize travel a little bit, here we are:

Fargo Regional

1. North Dakota vs. 16. St. Lawrence

7. St. Cloud State vs. 10. Boston University

Loveland Regional

4. MSU-Mankato vs. 13. Denver

5. Wisconsin vs. 12. Omaha

Bridgeport Regional

2. Minnesota vs. 15. American International

6. UMass vs. 9. Minnesota Duluth

Albany Regional

3. Boston College vs. 14. Lake Superior State

8. Michigan vs. 11. Providence

Other bracket predictions

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at
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