Pairwise rankings cause confusion at tournament

Josh Linehan

As North Dakota streaked to the WCHA Final Five champioship this weekend, the action on the ice was fast and furious. All told, the teams combined for the most goals in tournament history.
But downstairs, deep in the basement of the labyrinth-like building, two men huddled over a laptop computer, poring over pages and pages of mathematical comparisons.
That’s where the real action was.
With the season winding to a close, and NCAA tournament berths becoming as scarce as people who understand how they are awarded, the guys from US College Hockey Online took over.
The actual formula the selection committee uses to pick the 12-team field is supposedly as secret as the recipe for Coke. But the web gurus have devised a system, called the Pairwise rankings, that has accurately predicted the last three NCAA fields.
The Pairwise, in the words of USCHO’s Web site, “is a ranking system which mimics the method used by the NCAA selection committee … judging (teams) by five criteria: record against common opponents, record in last 16 games, head to head competition, record against other teams at or above .500 and the Ratings percentage index.”
So between games, and between periods even, the numbers from upstairs and from around the country, were entered into the computer, and crunched to see who needed to show up for practice Monday.
Wisconsin was in, via an automatic berth. North Dakota was in, ranking third in the country in the Pairwise. But two bubble spots remained, and that was what teams were playing for.
The nuances of the system, however, were beyond the comprehension of your average fans.
Or coaches.
Or brain surgeons.
Minnesota, for instance, played itself into bubble contention by winning the play-in game Thursday. By Friday they had two ways to get themselves in: win the tournament and take the automatic berth, or win another game and place themselves firmly on the bubble.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Beating Wisconsin on Friday would have put Minnesota in the title game, but would have done little to help them in the Pairwise. They were actually better off, in the eyes of the computer, losing to the Badgers and then beating St. Cloud. The Gophers would have then “flopped” their comparison with St. Cloud, almost assuring them of the last spot available.
And if the coaches were unaware of why the rankings went the way they did, they were certainly aware of the scenarios.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia had a “just win, baby” mentality before the tournament, but changed his tune after scanning the computer screen late Thursday.
“Our whole idea right now is to get in to the NCAAs, so we’ll take a look. Do you sell out tomorrow, and save nothing for Saturday? A lot can change based on what happens with the Pairwise,” Lucia said Friday.
Minnesota State coach Don Brose stopped in after St. Cloud won to find out if he was retired or not Saturday. As it turned out, the Mavericks were the last team to miss the cut despite losing to Minnesota. They were edged out by CHA champion Niagara, a team many thought would be excluded from the process based on a weak schedule.
Even St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl poked his head in to reaffirm his travel plans after his team won its last game.
“We’ve been the 12th team a couple years and gotten bumped by some upsets, so it’s nice to know we’re in,” Dahl said after studying the rankings.
All of which begs the question: Is what’s happening on the ice dictating what happens in the rankings, or is it the other way around?

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]