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A Quantitative NCAA Tournament Preview

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Updated: March 23, 2017

With the ECAC tournament behind us, the college hockey world now turns to the NCAA hockey tournament, which begins this weekend. Cornell is seeded third in the Northeast region, with a first-round match coming against Hockey East champions University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The other two teams in the bracket are fourth-ranked Minnesota, who lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals to eventual champions Penn State, and Notre Dame, who lost to Mass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals.

Two other teams from the ECAC were invited to the NCAA tournament. First, ECAC champion (and third-ranked team in the country) Harvard sits in the East region with Providence, Western Michigan and Air Force. In addition to Harvard, Union resides in a tough Midwest region with top-ranked Denver, Big Ten champions Penn State and their first-round opponent, WCHA champions Michigan Tech. The final region, the West, sees second-ranked Minnesota-Duluth, Big Ten semifinalist Ohio State, Hockey East semifinalist Boston University, and NCHC runner-up North Dakota.

Below is the full tournament bracket with my picks (explanations/analysis to follow):

I’ll start with Cornell, and I’ll be honest – I think they can beat Massachusetts-Lowell. Some of that, in fact most of that, is probably pure bias and “homer-ism.” I’ve seen goaltender Mitch Gillam steal game after game this year. If he can replicate that, I don’t think a win in the first-round would be out of the question.

Unfortunately, however, when you look at the metrics, they pretty much all favor Mass-Lowell. First, we have to look to the all-important 5v5 Corsi, the advanced stat that has been shown to be the best predictor of future success based on past performance. I have written at length about how Cornell’s poor Corsi indicates that they are due for a regression at some point, and I think it may come to haunt them here. Mass-Lowell has a very good Corsi of 51.5%, compared to just 48.6% for Cornell. Then, there is the PDO: Mass-Lowell is at 103.6, which is even higher than Cornell’s 102.3. While both teams seem to be due for a regression, these metrics show that Mass-Lowell has been both a better team and a luckier team than Cornell this year and, as I said the first time I posted advanced stats, a successful team needs to be both good and lucky. The analytics just do not point to a Cornell win here, as much as we would all prefer one.

Here are some other notes about the tournament:

Man, the Midwest is an absolutely killer region. Three of the four best teams in 5v5 Corsi (Denver, Michigan Tech and Penn State) are in this division. Poor Union likely does not stand a chance. I have picked Denver to make it out, even though they have the worst Corsi of those three teams, because I believe they are the most talented team of the pack: they have one of the best defenses in the country and an offense that can drive possession with the best of them. Denver is the top-ranked team in the country despite bowing out early in the NCHC tournament: I think they will justify that ranking and win it all.

The Northeast region, which includes Cornell, is on the other end of the spectrum. None of the four teams are anywhere near as good as the Midwest teams in Corsi (Notre Dame is the highest, followed closely by Minnesota and Mass-Lowell). Therefore, I think Minnesota got a very lucky draw for being the lowest-ranked top-seed, and I think they can beat out the rest of the region and make it to the final four.

Not very lucky with their draw is the Eastern  first-seed, Harvard. They start out with a tough Providence team that has one of the best Corsi numbers in the country (56.0!) as well as one of the few sub-100 PDOs in the tourney field (99.6). Harvard, on the other hand, has a somewhat worse (although still elite) Corsi of 52.4 to go along with an obscene PDO of 104! If those numbers begin to regress, it could be lights-out for Harvard but considering they beat Quinnipiac, who had an identical Corsi, I think Harvard will make it through Providence. Western Michigan is an average team with similar stats to Union, so I think Air Force (who have a higher Corsi than Harvard) will beat them. Between Harvard and Air Force, it’s again tough to make a call, but I think Harvard’s skill will carry them to the Frozen Four (Air Force would definitely be a sleeper pick, though).

The final region is the West, where I have chosen third-seed North Dakota to make it out in the only region where I have not picked the top-seed. Why is this? Well, for one, North Dakota has the third-highest Corsi in the country, not to mention a PDO of 99.1, lowest in the tourney. I believe that value will regress to the mean and North Dakota will beat out a somewhat average Boston team (51.4 Corsi) and upset the very good Minnesota-Duluth team (53.7 Corsi) to make it to the finals, where they will meet Denver in an NCHC semifinal rematch. This time, however, Denver will come out with a win.

The NCAA tournament starts this Friday at 3:00 pm with North Dakota vs. Boston on ESPN2. Cornell’s first-round game is Saturday at noon on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app. Go Big Red!

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