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Strong schedule benefited NMU hockey team in pursuit of NCAA tournament bid

March 19, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

To the untrained eye, it had to be mind boggling to hear the Northern Michigan University hockey team remained in contention for an NCAA tournament berth up until 9:17 p.m. EDT on Saturday when Air Force captured the Atlantic Hockey Association title.

After all, the Wildcats finished sixth in the CCHA, they had a mediocre record of 17-14-6 this year and were upset by last-place Bowling Green State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs at home.

Based on that information, NMU was not an NCAA tournament team in 2011-12, but when you dig deeper and get beyond the surface, it's easy to understand why the Wildcats finished in a three-way tie for 15th in the PairWise rankings with Michigan State and Merrimack at season's end, with the Spartans winning out via a superior ratings percentage index (RPI) ranking for the last spot.

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Much of the Wildcats' power this season in the rankings came from its strength of schedule in and out of conference, which ranked fourth in the nation behind Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

In CCHA play, NMU met Michigan, Michigan State and Miami four times each, compiling a record of 5-5-2. All three made the NCAA tournament with Miami and Michigan finishing in the top five of the PairWise.

In CCHA play, those five victories - three over Miami, one each against MSU and UM - all counted the same as a win over Alaska, however, in the PairWise rankings those victories were much more valuable.

Western Michigan only played two games each against Miami, Michigan and MSU during the regular season. Instead the Broncos drew teams like Alaska, Bowling Green and Notre Dame during the regular season four times each. WMU compiled a 6-3-3 record in those games.

Considering none of those teams reached the NCAA tournament and only Notre Dame was a team under consideration (TUC) for the tourney, it's easy to argue the Broncos and their travel partner Ferris State had an unfair advantage in CCHA play with the unbalanced schedule.

Of course, it's hard to blame a team for playing a weak mandated conference schedule. You can blame a team, however, for its nonconference foes.

Like the Wildcats, the Broncos scheduled a challenging nonconference slate featuring a pair of NCAA tournament teams in Minnesota-Duluth and Union, plus a TUC in St. Cloud State.

Western struggled against those three, however, going 1-3-2 with two losses to UMD and two ties against Union.

Northern scheduled a slightly less challenging non-league slate with St. Cloud, Wisconsin and Michigan Tech. The Wildcats, however, went 5-1-0 against those three with Wisconsin and St. Cloud both finishing as TUCs and Tech finishing just on the other side of the TUC cliff.

Merrimack and Cornell didn't have as challenging schedules this year. Cornell, whose schedule ranked 35th in the nation, only played 14 games against TUCs in comparison to the 28 played by NMU and 30 by Western. The Big Red finished 7-4-3 against TUCs, which gave them a winning percentage that was just good enough to sneak it into the field of 16.

Merrimack, whose schedule ranked played 23rd, played 20 games against TUCs and struggled at 7-8-5. The result was a lot of lost TUC comparisons and a weak RPI that was topped by both NMU and Michigan State in the three-way tie for 15th.

So at first glance, I agree that NMU was not worthy of the so-called hype it received from the purely mathematical PairWise rankings.

However, when you do your homework, you'll realize NMU deserved all the respect it got.

It will also make you a little sick that the team wasn't able to capitalize on the golden opportunity presented in 2011-12.

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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