Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Engineer Bracketology: Week 1

Well, we did promise that we'd do this if the Engineers were in striking distance in January. And it's January. And they are. And a promise is a promise.

Welcome to Engineer Bracketology. Each Wednesday, from now until the end of the season (or when it seems pointless to talk about, whichever comes first), we'll break down the NCAA field, show you where the Engineers line up, and talk about what needs to happen (besides the most important element, just keep winning) to boost their standing.

As a quick reminder, there are three elements to the PairWise Rankings (PWR), the objective method by which the field is chosen:
* Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)
* Record against Common Opponents (COp)
* Head-to-head wins (H2H)

And, as always, because RPI is both the name of a PWR criteria and the preferred nomenclature for our fair school, we use "Rensselaer" in order to make sure there's no confusion when referring to the Engineers. For more information, click here.

Here's the current PWR situation.

1. Quinnipiac*
2. Harvard
3. Omaha
4. St. Cloud State
5. North Dakota*
6. Providence*
7. Cornell
8. Michigan
9. Yale
10. St. Lawrence
11. Penn State*
12. Boston University
13. Notre Dame
14. UMass-Lowell
15. Rensselaer
16. Boston College
17. Minnesota State*
23. Holy Cross*

Last in: Notre Dame, UMass-Lowell
First out: Rensselaer, Boston College
League breakdown: 5 ECAC, 4 HEA, 3 NCHC, 2 B1G, 1 WCHA, 1 AHA

Albany's hosts are Rensselaer (15 PWR) and Union (18 PWR), Worcester is Holy Cross (23 PWR and leading AHA), Cincinnati is Miami (28 PWR), and St. Paul is Minnesota (19 PWR). Worth keeping in mind when it comes to placement, as hosts are required to be placed in their hosted regional (which could get messy if Rensselaer and Union both manage to qualify). For right now, though, it's just Holy Cross who has to be in a place, everyone else is (somewhat) fungible.

1. Quinnipiac
2. Providence
3. St. Lawrence
4. Holy Cross

1. Harvard
2. Cornell
3. Boston University
4. UMass-Lowell

1. Omaha
2. Michigan
3. Yale
4. Notre Dame

St. Paul
1. St. Cloud State
2. North Dakota
3. Penn State
4. Minnesota State

Been a while since I did this, so I'm a bit rusty and this may not comport with more professional bracketlogists. Basically, the rule of thumb is that the NCAA will place #1 seeds in their closest available regional starting with #1 overall and working down. Anywhere that requires travel of 400 miles or more is a flight, and the NCAA has traditionally tried to keep the number of flights down as much as they can while maintaining bracket integrity and ensuring that there are no intra-conference matchups in the first round (although, funny enough, 5 of the 8 first round matchups feature teams who were formerly in the same conference, some quite recently). In each regional, it's 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3. Winners compete for a berth in the Frozen Four.

So yes, as of now, that's a crazy five ECAC teams in the tournament, with an option on a sixth - and there eight ECAC teams including Union and Dartmouth that are within striking distance of the field. It seems, right now, that three will be a very bare minimum for the ECAC, and four a very strong likelihood. Five isn't out of the question, either. Six is probably a stretch.

Because there are only three Pairwise criteria, and the Engineers only face off this season against 21 of the 59 other programs, RPI is all that matters in the vast majority of comparisons. If two teams in a comparison don't play each other in a given year, COp simply doesn't matter because RPI is the tiebreaker (it also doesn't matter at all when a season series is split, or tied, so Miami can be treated like any other non-opponent in this respect). So in relation to how comparisons are flipped when looking at teams Rensselaer didn't play this year, it's exclusively a matter of having a better RPI. Generally, that means rooting against such teams.

We can, however, look more in depth at comparisons with teams the Engineers have played and either beaten or lost to. We'll ignore most ECAC comparisons for the time being, because there are far too many moving parts when it comes to COp/H2H this early.

Alaska-Anchorage: This is very cut and dried, and won't have to be brought up again, because it's a guaranteed loss for the Engineers. Just something to note. Rensselaer could win all of its remaining games while UAA loses all of theirs, and the Engineers still lose this comparison 2-1 on COp and H2H, just as they are now.

The reason is simple - the only two common opponents with the Seawolves this season are Alaska and Arizona State. The Engineers swept ASU but lost their only game to UAF, giving them a combined winning percentage of 1.000. Meanwhile, UAA beat ASU (barely, in OT, but it counts) and, in the first two out of at least four games against the Nanooks, lost and tied. That gives UAA a combined winning percentage of 1.250, which, when added to their head-to-head win over the Engineers, gives UAA the comparison win. Even if UAA loses their next two games against the Nanooks, they'll still have a combined winning percentage of 1.125 thanks to that tie they've already got, and Rensselaer can't rise above the 1.000 they have now.

This is a perfect illustration on the difference in how COp is now calculated. Before, the Engineers would have won with a 2-1-0 record against COp against 1-1-1 for UAA. But now, it's a matter of adding each individual winning percentage against each individual team. There are pros and cons to both methods, but it'll look awful strange at the end of the year if UAF sweeps UAA in February and the Seawolves still win COp despite a 2-1-0 and 1-3-1 total record difference.

At the moment it's not keeping Rensselaer out of the tournament (adding this comparison wouldn't move them ahead of Lowell), but it does stand as a possibility that the losses in Alaska could have an outsized impact on the Engineers' NCAA hopes.

As an aside, the Nanooks themselves are not a problem specifically because their only two COp are UAA and Arizona State - and the Nanooks lost to the Sun Devils. Otherwise, it's the same problem. So should the Engineers squeak into the tournament, ASU's first ever Division I victory -and Rensselaer's home sweep - could be the difference. It's the same 2-1-0/1-1-1 COp records, but it's how those games are divided up among opponents that makes this one a win for the Engineers, and a permanent one unless the wide RPI gap narrows (at which point it won't matter anymore).

UMass-Lowell: This, right now, is the most interesting comparison as the other of two comparisons that Rensselaer loses to a team they are ahead of in RPI. They fall 2-1, so it is imperative, as with any comparison with a team the Engineers have lost the season series to, that they win the COp comparison.

And that might be changing in Rensselaer's favor soon. Right now, COp is 1.500 to 1.000 in UML's favor based on common opponents of Brown (both tied) and Clarkson (Engineers tied, River Hawks won). But UML has yet to play two important Hockey East opponents that Rensselaer has beaten - New Hampshire and Boston College. Once that happens, the Engineers COp will increase by 2.000. UML also has a pair of games coming up with Arizona State. UML should be huge favorites at home, but even a single draw would be big for Rensselaer.

And would you look at that - UML plays UNH on Friday. Should the Wildcats win, that would flip this comparison to the Engineers - 2-1 on RPI/COp. If it's a tie, it would likely flip 1-1 on RPI with COp as a tie. So we're rooting hard for UML to lose at least once to UNH and BC this season, though they don't face the Eagles until late February.

But RPI is very close anyway in this comparison, so as a general rule of thumb, we're rooting against UML in Hockey East play right now.

Boston College: 2-0 RPI/H2H win for the Engineers at the moment. Obviously, we'd like to possibly win COp here as well as a hedge against BC's RPI improving (as it likely will), so the first game of the Beanpot against Harvard will be a big one here. A Crimson win would give Rensselaer a permanent edge in COp against Harvard, since it's BC's only game with them this season and the Engineers have already tied them.

The only COp right now is UNH, who both teams have beaten. BC plays them again in February - immediately after the Harvard game, so a UNH win or tie would be huge, too. No matter what else happens, a Harvard win in the first round of the Beanpot (since Beanpot games can't tie) and a UNH win or tie the following Friday would go a long way toward making this comparison a win no matter what the RPI is - but those BC-UML games at the end of the regular season loom large, too.

Union: Because of the unique nature of the series with the Dutchmen, the Engineers can practically guarantee themselves a comparison win with their rivals by winning the Mayor's Cup game. That would produce a third H2H point, enough to trump both RPI and COp completely, barring a playoff meeting.

One other thing about Union - if their RPI stays in the Top 20 (they are currently 18th), the Engineers get two quality win bonuses on a graduating scale depending on how high the Dutchmen are ranked. So there's a vested interest in Union remaining as high as they can in RPI - just not too high.

Speaking of which - here's the bonus cutoff. Teams the Engineers have defeated (and thus can get RPI bonuses for) will be bolded in our weekly RPI quality win bonus aggregate.

16. Boston University - .541
17. Minnesota State - .537
18. Union - .527
19. Minnesota - .526
20. Bowling Green - .525
21. Denver - .525
22. Holy Cross - .525
23. Dartmouth - .523
24. Minnesota-Duluth - .513
25. Robert Morris - .512

Quality wins
Yale (#9, at home)
St. Lawrence (#10, on the road)
Boston College (#14, at home)
Union (#18, at home and on the road)

Missed opportunities
Harvard (#2, neutral ice and at home)
Michigan (#8, at home)
UMass-Lowell (#12, on the road)

Upcoming opportunities in the next 10 games
Cornell (#7, at home) - Jan 15
Quinnipiac (#1, on the road) - Jan 21
Union (#18, neutral ice) - Jan 23
Yale (#9, on the road) - Jan 30
St. Lawrence (#10, at home) - Feb 5
Harvard (#2, on the road) - Feb 12

One other comparison worth mentioning due to games this week:

Yale: It's a long-shot, but Arizona State popping up in the Bulldogs' schedule this week could provide an unexpected and semi-unusual COp boost if the Sun Devils can get a result out in the Valley of the Sun. Normally, it makes the most sense to root for the ECAC in any non-conference games, but this could be a minor exception, if only because ASU is an independent, with a schedule that draws from pretty much all over the place, so their impact on overall league RPI is blunted a little here. Rensselaer's H2H win over Yale makes this comparison one that could be flipped, especially with an Engineers win over Princeton on Thursday (Yale lost to the Tigers).

General rules of thumb for the order in which we are cheering for other teams. Relevant numbers are listed next to the games/series.
1. Wherever there is direct COp assistance
2. For the ECAC out-of-conference
3. For improved quality win bonuses (QWB)
4. Against teams ahead of or just behind Rensselaer in the RPI or PWR
5. For non-conference opponents

Not including Rensselaer's games - the elimination of the old TUC cliff, for those that remember that, basically eliminates any real impetus to succeed by losing. Let's go Red.

Engineer Cheering Section
Harvard over Boston University - 1/2/4
Union over Quinnipiac - 1/3 (despite Union getting a big RPI bonus themselves from beating QU)

Weekend series
Boston College over Providence - 3/5
Michigan State over Michigan - 4
Minnesota over Penn State - 4 (although Minnesota is not far back either)
Cornell over Merrimack - 2
Colgate over Maine - 2
St. Lawrence over Northeastern - 2/3
Miami over Minnesota-Duluth - 4
Western Michigan over Notre Dame - 4/5
Northern Michigan over Minnesota State - 4
Alaska over Alabama-Huntsville - 5
Alaska-Anchorage over Bemidji State - 5
Bentley over Robert Morris - 5

New Hampshire over UMass-Lowell - 1/4
Union over Princeton - 3
Arizona State over Yale - 1/4/5
Dartmouth over Vermont - 2

Harvard over Quinnipiac - 1 (not terribly important either way, both way out in front on RPI/PWR)

Yale over Michigan Tech OR UConn - 2/3
Dartmouth over Holy Cross - 2

Clarkson over St. Lawrence - 4 (SLU win at least helps QWB)

Important COp/H2H games for currently relevant comparisons
Friday, January 8: UMass-Lowell at New Hampshire
Saturday, January 23: Union vs. Rensselaer (Mayor's Cup)
Friday, January 29: Arizona State at UMass-Lowell; Rensselaer at Brown
Saturday, January 30: Arizona State at UMass-Lowell
Monday, February 1: Harvard vs. Boston College (Beanpot)
Friday, February 5: New Hampshire at Boston College
Saturday, February 6: New Hampshire at UMass-Lowell; Clarkson at Rensselaer
Friday, February 26: UMass-Lowell at Boston College
Saturday, February 27: Boston College at UMass-Lowell

Unwinnable comparisons (H2H loss, will lose COp)

Clinched comparisons (H2H win, will win COp)
Western Michigan, Bentley

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