From the Crease: Thoughts on the NCAA Tournament, Day 1

Thoughts and observations from a day of watching three of the four games in their entirety on Friday (I unfortunately missed the Niagara/North Dakota matchup) and observing much of the conversation of the day on Twitter.

yale• While many who follow college hockey might have been shocked at the first result of the day (Yale’s 3-2 overtime victory over Minnesota), it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise to listeners of the INCH Podcast. Mike Eidelbes has long mentioned that the Gophers were a supremely talented team, but one that didn’t appear to give the requisite effort needed on every shift, every night. The game-winning goal was a prime illustration of just how out-worked Minnesota was by a Yale team that has enjoyed a fair amount of success at this stage in the recent past under Keith Allain. That game served as an immediate wake-up call of just how wide-open this year’s tournament is.

uml• I’ve been high on UMass-Lowell for much of the second half of the season, but even I wasn’t expecting the performance the Riverhawks delivered in Friday’s 6-1 thumping of a red-hot Wisconsin team. Seeing Wisconsin’s showing, I’m left wondering just how much the Badgers had in the tank after an impressive run through the WCHA tournament last weekend. Lowell, on the other hand, appears to be doing their best to borrow a page from Boston College’s run last season. The Riverhawks have just four losses since December 1, and have allowed more than three goals just seven times over that span (27 games).

unh• In the other game in Manchester, I was really impressed with how New Hampshire was able to still play their wide-open game on the smaller ice surface at the Verizon Wireless Arena, and I thought the ESPN announcing team of Clay Matvick and Jim Paradise did an outstanding job of illustrating that during the game. On the wider surface of the Whittemore Center in Durham, it’s easier to split the defense with a long outlet pass, but the Wildcats were repeatedly able to exploit that hole in Denver’s defense on Friday. New Hampshire looked like a team that was well-rested and well-prepared; if UNH can carry its play from Friday night into Saturday’s game with Lowell, that should be one immensely entertaining game to watch.

• And now, a rant, based upon much of the grumbling I’ve observed on Twitter.

Much teeth-gnashing has been done over the selection of tournament sites, with plenty of grumbling coming from fans out west for the lack of a true “western” site, given that all four regionals take place in the Eastern time zone.

Picking locations cannot be an easy task; for starters, sites depend on which cities/schools/arenas even bid for the event, and as long as the NCAA wants to continue rotating venues, there’s never going to be a good situation, especially out west where the schools are spaced farther apart.

Still, the selections of Grand Rapids and Toledo in particular have gathered plenty of ridicule from the western fanbases, but upon further examination, they’re among the best options the NCAA has. Using the NCAA’s 400-mile guideline for flights vs. ground transportation (note: I admit I don’t know if this is still in effect; it was as of several years ago), more hockey-playing schools fall within that distance of Toledo than any other western venue the NCAA has used in recent years.

15 (Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Ferris St., Michigan St., Michigan, BG, Ohio St., Miami, Lake Superior, Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, Niagara, Canisius, RIT)
Grand Rapids
12 (Wisconsin, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, Ferris St., Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan St., Michigan, BG, Miami, Ohio St., Mercyhurst)
St. Paul
10 (Neb.-Omaha, North Dakota, Minnesota, Minnesota St., St. Cloud St., Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji, Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan)
Green Bay
10 (Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior, Michigan Tech, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Minnesota St., St. Cloud St.)
3 (Denver, Colorado College, Air Force)
St. Louis
3 (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Miami)

Given the overlap of schools between those two sites, though, if may not have been the wisest decision to use both locations in the same season.

By comparison, this year’s two eastern sites, Providence and Manchester, have 29 and 28 schools that fall within that 400-mile range (though they also have extensive overlap – in all, only 14 of the schools sponsoring the sport are farther than 400 miles from at least one regional location). Rochester, a site used in the past, has 35. If the NCAA is trying to boost attendance at its regional sites, then it makes sense to put those regionals in locations that maximize the number of schools that fall within a reasonable driving distance, increasing the odds of the the number of teams that might get assigned there. Given that regional sites are selected several years in advance, it’s simply impossible to pinpoint which teams are going to be good in a given year (who would have thought this would be the year Michigan’s consecutive tournament streak would end, with two regional sites within 150 miles). It’s a calculated gamble on the NCAA’s part, and one I think makes sense. And while the choice of Cincinnati for next year’s tournament has been widely panned (partly because of memories from 1996), the Queen City actually also has 10 teams within 400 miles.

(Before I get a barrage of angry comments from folks in Minnesota, let’s not forget that it was as recently as two years ago that Minnesota was in a streak of missing out on the tournament three straight times; no team is a guarantee to be in the field in a given year).

Look, I totally understand the grumbling about the way the tournament as it is now. I get the skepticism surrounding the use of the Pairwise to select and seed teams, and the short turnaround time from the selections to the games. I know that for fans accustomed to having their conference tournaments at the Garden, the Xcel Center or Joe Louis Arena, going to Grand Rapids, Green Bay or Toledo doesn’t hold the same allure (there’s an old joke where I live about Toledo, that Ohio got “stuck” with it after neither Ohio nor Michigan wanted it). I agree with the griping about ticket prices and start times, plus the seemingly annual conflict with Easter at some point during the tournament. These are all legitimate factors that keep attendance down.

When it comes to the regionals, fans have tended to support their teams more than the game itself. The Frozen Four draws people who go to celebrate the game; why don’t the regionals, especially when they’re in your own backyard? I don’t mean to single out any one team over another, but how many fans from Western Michigan or Ferris State were in Grand Rapids today? How many Dartmouth or Merrimack supporters were in Manchester today? Just because your team might be one of the 43 that didn’t make the tournament doesn’t mean your support for the game has to end.

I don’t know what the solution is, if there even is one; ticket prices aren’t going to go down anytime soon, and the length and uncertainty of the finish of games makes it impossible to have more than two or three games at one site on the same day. And the expanded TV coverage (even if not every game is televised live) is both a blessing and a curse for the growth of the game. Fans have been complaining about the regional system, sites, ticket prices, etc., for years, yet no changes have been made. What makes anyone think that continuing this pattern is going to lead to any change? All the complaints do is detract from what an outstanding tournament this is shaping up to be.


29 responses

  1. Maybe we’re expecting a little too much for attendance, especially when most teams have an average attendance of 5000 or less during the season. Look at the numbers there aren’t many fans to begin with. Who do you think is going to show up to attend at a neutral site with no local team. The regionals should be hosted at the top seeded teams. At least you would get some attendance at games. It looks silly to see a game on ESPNU with a rink of empty seats.

  2. Last night in the Denver game (the latest game and a far travel for DU/WI fans) I saw no empty seats. That part worked. Now let’s see about Toledo today.

    • That’s because Manchester is a just a stone’s throw away for Umass and down the street for UNH. That regional is basically being played at a campus site (UNH). It basically is exhibit A for why the games should be at the #1 seed’s home arena.

      • There’s problems with that as well, though. Take Grand Rapids, for example; if that was played on campus, after Minnesota lost yesterday, Mariucci would either be a tomb today or it’d be half full of Gopher fans who showed up to root against North Dakota. How is that any better?

        The system is what it is – why can’t we just enjoy the tournament for what it is, instead of complaining about what it is not?

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