The Michigan hockey team was expected to face an uphill battle on its quest to make it back to the NCAA Tournament from the get go.
There’s really only one reason: the PairWise Rankings.
Many experts believed the Wolverines’ weak non-conference schedule — which featured only one team in the NCAA’s Top 20 preseason ranking (No. 8 Boston University), coupled with a weak Big Ten — would be Michigan’s biggest downfall.
But with six weeks before NCAA Tournament teams are chosen on March 20, Michigan currently sits at No. 4 in the PairWise Rankings.
So, how did this happen?
Well, for one, the Wolverines have won games and continue to win games.
More importantly, though, the teams Michigan played have fared better than many have expected.
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But let’s backtrack for a second.
What are the PairWise Rankings?
The PairWise Rankings were first instituted in 2001, when the NCAA moved to the computer formula after many experts around the country called for it.
How the PairWise Rankings work is that three different variables (RPI, head-to-head results and common opponents) are used to compare every team in the NCAA.
For example, since Michigan matches up well against 56 other teams in the NCAA, the Wolverines have 56 PairWise Ranking “points,” which puts Michigan at No. 4 in the rankings. (A full grid of PairWise Ranking comparisons for each team can be found here.)
Along with the three variables described, there are also bonuses, such as a quality-win bonus, which is given to any win against a top-20 team, and weights given to different wins and losses, such as home losses and road wins.
Of course, no new system is perfect — tweaks and changes need to be made to make it fit in with what the formula was meant to do.
“(The NCAA) explained that it would start off being 75-percent win-loss record and 25-percent strength of schedule,” Berenson said. “Then they kept tweaking it until they found the right system.
“There was a point where if you won a game against a bad team, your PairWise could drop. Now, how can that be? You shouldn’t be able to go down if you win the game, so they’ve had to tweak the percentages, and I’m sure there’s more to it than that.”
The biggest problem with the PairWise Rankings is that while we can talk about the variables that determine a team’s rankings, the NCAA keeps the formula, and the math behind it, a secret.
The PairWise Rankings are also very elastic. For example, while Michigan may be No. 4 now, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for it to drop outside the top 10, even if it loses only one game the rest of the season.
For the most part, most people around college hockey have enjoyed the change and the fact that the NCAA Tournament teams aren’t chosen by a committee of people.
One positive change Berenson has noticed is that the rankings have forced teams to create more competitive regular-season schedules.
“What it does do is it tries to eliminate teams going out and having easy schedules, and getting credit for all of those wins when they weren’t really quality wins,” Berenson said. “(The PairWise) tries to evaluate the strength of your opponent and the strength of their opponents.
It is important to note that the PairWise Rankings only pick the 16 teams in the tournament. However, there is a committee that determines the NCAA Tournament matchups according to seeds, proximity to home and attendance, among other various factors.
With an explanation of the PairWise Rankings out of the way, let’s talk about Michigan’s opponents this season. Most importantly: Dartmouth, Rensselaer and Robert Morris. None of those teams were expected to make noise in the NCAA this season.
Despite this prediction, the complete opposite has happened.
The Big Green — whom Michigan beat, 7-1, before tying, 1-1, the next night — have played well since the New Year. With just two losses in 2016 (one came against No. 1 Quinnipiac, in which the Bobcats needed a six-goal third period to come back and win, 7-5), No. 15 Dartmouth has strung together impressive victories over then-No. 10 Cornell, then-No. 18 St. Lawrence and Holy Cross. The Big Green will get a chance to add to that resume when they take on No. 11 Yale this weekend.
The Engineers — whom the Wolverines beat, 5-2, back in October — started off the year with a bang after a win over then-No. 1 Boston College. Rensselaer has collected victories over Yale, Miami (OH) and Cornell, along with a tie against No. 1 Quinnipiac.
The Colonials — whom Michigan beat, 5-3, before losing to them, 4-0 — have also played well down the stretch. Robert Morris currently sits in first place in the Atlantic Hockey standings and has wins over Penn State and UMass-Lowell.
All those teams, along with the Big Ten playing a little better than many experts expected, have boosted Michigan rankings.
But even at No. 4 in the PairWise, the Wolverines have been one of the last one or two teams out of the NCAA Tournament the last three years, and senior forward Boo Nieves mentioned that the PairWise Rankings are something the team pays attention to.
“It’s something we keep an eye out for,” Nieves said. “But we don’t let it drive us. It’s nice to be No. 4 right now, and it’s a good feeling to know that if the season were to end today, we would be in the tournament.”
However, it’s still early, and there is still a lot of regular-season hockey to be played.
Heck, Berenson hasn’t looked at the PairWise Rankings yet.
“It’s really early,” Berenson said. “I don’t even look at the PairWise until the end of the year. But if our team does well, we’ll do well in the PairWise. And if we don’t, then we won’t.
“You can’t rely on the system. The system is not clear enough. It’s like saying, ‘If you open that door, you can walk out of it.’ It’s not that easy. (There are) so many strings attached to this PairWise thing.”
But at the end of the day, Michigan will continue to climb the PairWise Rankings if it continues to win, plain and simple. The Wolverines can play hypotheticals about what happens if X team loses or Y team wins against a top-ranked team, but the fact of the matter is that if Michigan keeps winning, they will be in the tournament.
And the Wolverines know that.
“It’s the idea that we want to win all of our games, especially in the Big Ten because we know we can win the Big Ten,” Nieves said.