College Hockey: Pairwise and Bubble Teams Heading Into Conference Championships

posted March 21, 2019 in CommRadio, Sports by Nathan Pullen

With the NCAA Selection Show this Sunday, it’s make or break for teams on the bubble, but before the hopes of the bubble teams can really be discussed, the complicated selection process of college hockey must be properly understood.

Most people that follow college hockey have a vague understanding of the process; all six conferences get an automatic bid (like basketball) and the Pairwise Ranking comparison, a mathematical algorithm that takes in rating percentage index, record versus common opponents, and head-to-head records, combines them in to a complicated math equation, and spits out rankings of college hockey teams.

The hardest part of this concept for new college hockey fans to understand is how a team outside of the top 16 winning their conference tournament can cause havoc near the bubble (the 14-20 spots in the Pairwise). The Atlantic Hockey Association is one of the best examples in the NCAA. In the Atlantic, the highest rated team is American International College, which falls at No. 32 in the Pairwise, but the Atlantic will still send the Atlantic Tournament Champion to the NCAA Tournament. So, a No.16 team that would receive an at-large bid if the automatic bid were nonexistent, is out of the tournament completely if they don’t win their conference tournament.

That’s been expected all year with Atlantic Hockey though, teams knew that they’d have to be ranked 15 at the least to have any hopes of an at-large bid to the tournament. What really makes the month of March so hectic is when upsets happen in the conference tournaments. Teams can be unsure of their future until the last conference championship game happens.

The bubble usually plays out similarly each year, in the sense that teams no longer playing in their tournaments and not in the top 16 spots already have virtually no chance or very little chance of making the tournament. This year, upsets have been the trend in the conference tournaments: Brown over Quinnipiac, Boston University over UMass Lowell, Boston College over Providence, Penn State over Ohio State, and Colorado College over Western Michigan.

These results leave the door wide open for tournament upsets in almost every conference, putting the teams in the backend of Pairwise’s 16 in jeopardy of having the cut line moved above them. Number 16 is already out, thanks to the Atlantic. With two of the four teams in the Hockey East Tournament falling in the 30s of the Pairwise, the winner of that tournament could easily knock the No. 15 off.

The Big Ten Championship between Notre Dame and Penn State has little implication. It is already set that the team that loses will not make the tournament, so teams on the bubble can be sure of the fact that the Big Ten will be sending two teams to the NCAA this year in No. 7 Ohio State and the Big Ten Tournament Champion.

Most teams left in their conference tournaments are in similar situations to Penn State and Notre Dame. According to College Hockey News’s Pairwise probability matrix, which runs simulations and calculates each team’s chance to make the tournament, the current top 10 teams in the Pairwise (St. Cloud State, UMass, Minnesota State, Minnesota Duluth, Quinnipiac, Denver, Ohio State, Northeastern, Clarkson, and Arizona State) are all locks to make the tournament.

Cornell and Harvard are both near-locks at 98 percent. Any team after that are considered "bubble" teams. Providence likely would have locked their tournament bid if they had won their series against Boston College, but that loss kept them on the ropes at a 92 percent. Bowling Green still looks pretty good with an 82 percent.

As stated earlier, Penn State and Notre Dame are in control of their own destiny. Notre Dame stands at 51 percent and Penn State at 49 percent.

After that, the only teams that even have a chance of making the tournament are those still playing in their conference, but there are quite a few of them this year (Colorado College, Boston University, Brown, American International, Boston College, RIT, Niagara, and Robert Morris). It’s do or die for all 10 teams playing this weekend.

It’s the tournament or bust. It’s March.


Nathan Pullen is a journalism major. To contact him, email