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NCAA Hockey Tournament 2012 Bracketology: How Are 16 Teams Selected?

It's conference tournament weekend in NCAA hockey, and on Sunday, college hockey's 2012 tournament bracket will be decided.

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With NCAA hockey Selection Sunday rapidly approaching, the semifinals and finals of this weekend's five conference tournaments will be the final chance for those on the bubble to play their way into the National Tournament.

Two teams, North Dakota and Denver, already have essentially clinched NCAA Tournament berths (a small percentage of the 1.1 million remaining possibilities have them out) with wins in the WCHA Final Five quarterfinals Thursday while, others sitting at home like Northern Michigan and Merrimack are clinging to faint hopes.

The 16 teams for the NCAA Hockey Tournament are determined by the Pairwise rankings, a system similar to the BCS in college football. They combine four criteria — RPI, record vs. "Teams Under Consideration," record against common opponents and head-to-head record — and compare each against the other teams under consideration to create the rankings. If the comparison ends in a tie, it's broken by the team which has the better RPI.

There are no subjective rankings, extra points for or against teams with injured players, or back-room politics. The five winners of the conference tournaments get automatic bids and the rest of the field is made up of however many at-large bids (normally 13-15) needed to fill up the field.

If an automatic bid is not one of the top 16 teams in the Pairwise, they end up taking the spot of the lowest available team. At least one conference, Atlantic Hockey, will do this because none of their teams will be in the top 16 but there is a chance (however small it is) of having only 12 at-large bids. The WCHA bid, meanwhile, will go to a team in the top 16 after both St. Cloud State and Michigan Tech lost Thursday.

The Pairwise rankings, as of Friday morning:

  1. Boston College*
  2. Michigan*
  3. Minnesota Duluth*
  4. Miami (Ohio)*
  5. Boston University*
  6. Union*
  7. Ferris State
  8. Minnesota*
  9. North Dakota*
  10. Maine*
  11. Massachusetts-Lowell
  12. Denver*
  13. Cornell*
  14. Michigan State
  15. Western Michigan*
  16. Northern Michigan
  17. Merrimack
  18. Notre Dame
  19. Harvard*

*Teams still playing Friday

Although the NCAA hockey tournament committee is subjectively limited on which teams to invite, they do play a major role in where the remaining 16 end up playing. This year's tournament takes place in four separate regions, with four teams making up each region:

  • East - Bridgeport, Conn.
  • Northeast - Worcester, Mass.
  • Midwest - Green Bay, Wis.
  • West - St. Paul, Minn.

The regional round takes place the weekend of March 23-24, while the Frozen Four falls two weeks later at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in St. Petersburg, Fla. The National Semifinals will be held Thursday, April 5 and the National Championship game will be played Saturday, April 7.

Other than the host school (Minnesota hosting the West Regional in St. Paul is the only team this applies for this year), any team can go anywhere. The committee normally tries to think about attendance, however, keeping schools close to home if the seeding allows for it. This is especially true for the No. 1 and No. 2 overall teams.

Each of the four seeding bands (one through four are permanent but the teams' places in them are not, so the team finishing 11th can play the team finishing 5th even if it's not the true integrity of the bracket. The main reason the tournament committee does this is to avoid two teams in the same conference from playing each other in the first round. Other than that and the occasional attendance issues — such as three Eastern teams playing in Green Bay — the committee tries to keep bracket integrity.