Lucia hopes to solve scheduling woes

David La

After enduring a near-miss of last year’s NCAA tournament, Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia already has positioned the Gophers to avoid a similar situation this season.
Lucia guided Minnesota through the nation’s toughest schedule last year, managing a 20-19-2 record.
While the Gophers did not find an overwhelming amount of success on the ice, the complex computer formula used by the NCAA to select at-large tournament berths weighs strong schedules favorably.
For that reason, Minnesota stayed in the national tournament picture right up until their loss to St. Cloud State in the WCHA tournament last March.
Throughout the season, the Gophers — and all other programs — used the Pairwise ranking system to gauge where teams stood in terms of ranking.
The Pairwise system, developed by U.S. College Hockey Online to closely resemble the NCAA computer system, successfully predicted the national tournament field four years running.
A look at Minnesota’s 2000-2001 schedule shows a Pairwise-conscience Lucia providing his team with the best of both worlds.
The Gophers retain tough conference opponents like North Dakota and Wisconsin, while facing a team like Quinnipiac — a team that dominates its less competitive conference.
“There was some thought that (Quinnipiac) was going to have a good record,” Lucia said. “They are probably going to be in the NCAA tournament. It does help.”
The new schedule is likely to put Minnesota in a position to win more games, while still playing a strong schedule to bolster computer rankings.
The Pairwise Rankings
Pairwise rankings use five criteria to determine teams’ success: Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), record in the last 16 games, record against all other teams under consideration (teams with a .500 record or better), record against common opponents and head-to-head competition.
The key to the Gophers success in the Pairwise last season was its strength of schedule — a key component of RPI which weighs winning percentages of each team, its opponent and the opponent’s opponent.
While Minnesota’s strong schedule kept its Pairwise rankings afloat, the question to answer at season’s end was: At what cost?
Striking a balance
After the season’s first six games against Maine, North Dakota and Boston College — three teams who would go on to the Frozen Four — Minnesota was left with a 1-4-1 record to start and zero momentum.
“In hindsight, the schedule last year was extremely difficult, especially at the start,” Lucia said. “It was probably rough on our freshmen just trying to get confidence.”
The Gophers played seven national tournament teams (three in the WCHA, four non-conference) a total of 18 times last season.
Realizing the luxury of playing in a top conference, Lucia saw a lesser need to add-in national powers on a consistent basis.
“Fortunately for us, we’re in a good league,” Lucia said. “We start out with 30 good games every year. Now you want to strike the balance.”
While the Gophers non-conference schedule includes three games with Michigan (NCAA tournament participant), Michigan State and Quinnipiac, Lucia’s desire to strike the balance was achieved by scheduling seven games with four other lesser opponents. Two of those four teams had losing records last season, and none made the NCAA tournament.
Of course, this means games against teams figured to be rated high in the Pairwise — specifically the Dec. 9 meeting with Quinnipiac — are sure to be ones of great magnitude.
Serious implications
For a team in only its third year in Division I, Quinnipiac has created quite a buzz.
Last season, the Braves qualified for the national tournament after winning the MAAC conference, but were tossed from the tournament by the NCAA.
The decision was Quinnipiac did not play enough games against teams in the four major college hockey conferences to warrant such a high ranking.
In an effort to avoid similar occurrences this season, Braves coach Rand Pecknold jumped at the chance to take on Minnesota and an opportunity for legitimacy.
“We’ve had a lot of difficulty getting the major programs to play us,” Pecknold said. “But we’ll play anyone anywhere. With our non-conference games, if I could I’d schedule the best six teams in the country.”
Pecknold is aware of the Pairwise ratings implications that surround his team.
“When you play us, if we are as good as we were last year, you’re definitely going to get points in the Pairwise and RPI,” Pecknold said.
It’s those precious ratings points that Lucia is eyeing, points that will likely come to the forefront down the season’s stretch.
When it comes to the Quinnipiac contest, July is not too early to recognize a game that counts.
“That’s a huge game,” Lucia said. “(Quinnipiac) is going to be a team that has a good chance to get into the NCAA tournament this year.”
Thanks to a scheduling astute Lucia, the Gophers may have a good chance, too.

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]