NCAA Hockey 101: Conferences guarantee oddball NCAA field

NCAA Hockey 101 is a weekly feature on U.S. Division I college hockey. Stick around and you just might learn a thing or two.

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On Sunday, the NCAA selection committee will announce the field for this year's NCAA tournament and really, things are wide open.

Because we know for sure that each conference champion has an auto-bid, and those are typically won by teams that would have made the tournament anyway, you can usually count on a fair number of at-large berths.

But not so much this year.

Yes, a number of teams that don't technically have spots locked up as you read this -- like Denver and Miami and Wisconsin and BC -- are going to make the tournament for sure, we've got a lot of wacky teams that could end up sneaking their way in.

For one thing, Alabama Huntsville, at 12-17-1, won the CHA tournament last week and is one of two teams from a four-team conference to make have a guaranteed spot in the tournament (Bemidji being the other). Not that it makes any damn sense at all.

Hockey East has the most potential to let an iffy team sneak in. The postseason has been boiled down to BC, again a surefire NCAA invitee, and three bubble teams in Vermont, Maine and BU. All three would probably need to advance to the conference final to really have a legit shot at an at-large bid, Maine and BU moreso than Vermont. But Vermont, by virtue of being the eight-seed, have to beat BC, meaning one of Maine and BU have a much better shot of earning an invitation.

But the most interesting tournament, I think, will be the ECAC's. Thanks to 12-19-4 Brown's giant-killing abilities against both RPI and Yale the last two weeks, this whole thing could go in any direction. The Bears have Cornell (another sure-thing NCAA team) in the semis, which is going to be tough considering they gave up 11 goals to the Big Red in two games this year, but they gave up 14 to Yale so who knows? If they get by Cornell, they could easily dispatch the winner of St. Lawrence and Union, neither of which will make the tournament without an autobid.

And now for the less-interesting tournaments: the CCHA, WCHA and Atlantic Hockey.

The CCHA champion will be one of Miami, Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Michigan. Of those teams, Northern Michigan is a bubble team, but a fairly secure one, and Michigan would need to at least beat Miami in the semis, if not win outright, to really warrant consideration.

The WCHA tournament features Wisconsin, Denver, North Dakota and St. Cloud, four teams that would make the tournament even without the autobid. The only thing they're playing for is a trophy and seeding.

In Atlantic Hockey, one of Air Force, Sacred Heart, Canisius and RIT will be allowed to play in the NCAA tournament thanks to their stupid autobid, because there's no way in hell any would get in via selection. Nor should they.

Realistically, you're looking at anywhere from five to six mediocre or even bad teams playing in a 16-team NCAA tournament and a number of far better teams sitting at home.

A lot is going to change this weekend, and a lot of fans will be in the right when they complain about it.

Pop quiz

In which I ask a blogger five questions about the team they follow. This week I got at the smart fellows over at The Western College Hockey Blog for their thoughts on the Hobey Baker winner, the NCAA tournament and stupidity thereof, and some future players.

1. Is there any chance at all the Hobey Baker winner will be from an Eastern school?

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I think there's a good chance it could happen, mostly because I don't think anyone has really separated from the rest of the pack. Out west, I thought the player of the year in the WCHA was Denver goalie Marc Cheverie, and in the CCHA, Cody Reichard, the goalie from Miami, is probably one of the player of the year favorites. Goalies tend to do poorly when it comes to the Hobey Baker voting because it's kind of become an unwritten rule that you can't just be good, you have to be as good as Ryan Miller(notes) the year he won, and that's tough to do.

I think Gustav Nyquist at Maine would have to be one of the favorites, followed by Brendan Smith at Wisconsin. I'll also throw in a mention for Chase Polacek at RPI, who is a Minnesota kid that was really underappreciated in his high school career, and is kind of flying under the radar now even though his stats prove he belongs in that category.

2. Two teams from the four-team, awful CHA making the tournament: complete farce or total joke?

I got in a little trouble from some people last weekend when I said it was too bad somebody from a real conference was going to get bumped for Alabama-Huntsville. I have nothing against Bemidji and UAH personally but I'm not thrilled with the CHA getting two NCAA tournament bids. Bemidji is a good team, but I don't think they're the seventh-best team in the country.

With UAH, it's all moot now since the CHA tournament is over and will never happen again, but their playoff format was awful. The New York Yankees would have way fewer championships if MLB let every team into the playoffs and made every game single-elimination. When the NCAA let the CHA keep their autobid, they should have required their playoff at least be a two-week process like it is with everyone else.

3. Who do you think is the No. 1 incoming freshman for next season?

I really like Jaden Schwartz who is going to Colorado College. He's been a scorer everywhere he's been, and I'll think he'll be able to put up points at the college level. He broke some scoring records held by Vincent Lecavalier(notes) and Brad Richards(notes) at his prep school in Saskatchewan. Most everyone agrees that defenseman Derek Forbort, who is going to North Dakota, is the most talented player, though like Dylan Olsen this year, I think there's a little tougher transitional period for a big, young, NHL-style defenseman in the college game, and he may not look as impressive to the casual observer. It's kind of a down year for big name kids out east, but BU recruit Matt Nieto has potential as scorer.

4. Are you surprised that UNH, the regular-season champion from Hockey East, might not make the NCAAs?

I'm not really surprised because the math system the NCAA uses puts so much emphasis on the few non-conference games that teams play. The same thing is likely to happen to Michigan State, who finished second in the CCHA. I like that the NCAA tries to be objective with a purely mathematical system, but with so few east vs. west match-ups, there's just not enough data to draw logical conclusions sometimes. It's a really flawed system that probably needs to be reexamined.

5. Who's your darkhorse pick for a national title?

There's such a high level of variance when you're talking about a single hockey game, that just about anyone could win the whole thing, and generally, there's a lot less rhyme or reason to it other than a team, or a goalie, getting incredibly hot at a fortunate time.

If I had to pick, North Dakota is a team that always plays well at the end of the year, and is doing so again. Northern Michigan is another team that is always tough to play late in the year, but usually, they're already out of tournament consideration by this point. I usually pick against teams that don't have much tournament experience, but they could surprise somebody. Bemidji goalie Dan Bakala is good enough to carry his team through the tournament too. Then again, maybe it's just influence from St. Patty's Day yesterday that is making me pick all the teams that wear green.

Ryan Lambert writes about college hockey weekly here at Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.