NCAA Hockey Tournament: Robert Morris Should Not Have Been Left Out in the Cold


The Robert Morris University men’s hockey team, seen here reacting to the play in last Friday’s Atlantic Hockey semifinal in Rochester, N.Y., will have to watch the NCAA tournament from home this year. (Credit: Steve Copeland/RMU Athletics)

(Editor’s note: The author is the sports information officer for Robert Morris University men’s hockey. He admits bias, but nonetheless attempts to be reasonable.)

It was no surprise Sunday afternoon when the 16-team NCAA men’s hockey tournament field was announced and Robert Morris University wasn’t a part of it.

Unlike the basketball tournament, where the committee leaves itself some “wiggle room,” the hockey powers-that-be strictly adhere to the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) when determining who gets the available at-large berths.

Since RPI is calculated more by opponents’ winning percentage and opponents’ strength of schedule than anything else, the Colonials could only do so much to boost their standing in this critical metric. Derek Schooley’s team knew from the midpoint of the season that they would have to duplicate their feat from last March, when they completed an amazing second-half rebound with an Atlantic Hockey tournament title.

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As we know, RMU couldn’t take its second consecutive AHC postseason crown, falling to Mercyhurst in an overtime heartbreaker in the league semifinals last Friday in Rochester, N.Y. The Colonials, who won the AHC regular-season title going away, fired a program-record 62 shots and had a 3-2 lead with a minute to go before surrendering the final two goals to see their season come to an unsavory end.

And so the Rochester Institute of Technology will represent Atlantic Hockey in the NCAA tournament, earning the automatic bid by downing Mercyhurst on Saturday. The Tigers are a strong club and have a decent shot to upset top-seeded Minnesota State this coming weekend in South Bend, Ind., but it’s difficult to feel like the AHC will send its best team to the national stage.

Again, the Colonials (24-8-4) knew this was the deal coming in, even after posting the best record by an AHC team since RIT made it all the way to the Frozen Four in 2009-10. The AHC has produced precisely one at-large team in 12 years of existence: Niagara in 2012-13, which posted essentially the same overall record (23-10-5) as this year’s RMU squad and also won the regular-season banner by a wide margin.

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  • I understand that strength of schedule is one of the few methods the committee has at its disposal in comparing programs from different conferences, but it’s a rather blunt instrument. The Colonials could only play the teams on their slate, and since Atlantic Hockey play consumes 28 of their 34 allotted games, there’s only so much a program can do to augment.

    Even so, RMU beat then-No. 20 Penn State in the Three Rivers Classic, then tied 13th-ranked Bowling Green outdoors less than a week later. Yes, the Colonials also lost at home to Bowling Green and missed an opportunity in a against nationally-ranked Colgate in the 3RC title tilt at Consol Energy Center, but it’s not like they shied away from tough competition.

    Essentially, Robert Morris never had a shot at the NCAAs because other league teams either didn’t have as difficult of a non-conference schedule or didn’t perform well outside of Atlantic Hockey.

    I think we can agree that the selection system is flawed in some way if matters far from a team’s control have such an impact on perceived tournament worthiness. So what are some potential solutions to get deserving programs into the national spotlight? Let’s explore:

    1. Let more teams in

    This would be the simplest solution follow the lead of the men’s hoops tourney, which added a single “play-in” game in 2001 and expanded further to include four opening-round games, effectively increasing the field of 64 to 68.

    With 351(!) Division I basketball teams out there, that means just a shade under 20 percent make the postseason these days. By contrast, men’s hockey allows a larger portion of its teams into its tournament, with 16 of 59 (27 percent) advancing to the championship bracket.

    Nevertheless, what does men’s hockey – a sport that takes a backseat to basketball at most schools – have to lose by adding two or four more teams to the mix? Not much, beyond slightly “diluting” the field. What does it have to gain? Great national exposure for deserving programs that would otherwise lie dormant in late March.

    Perhaps there is a possibility for mid-week “play-in” game or two, to extend the season for solid teams like RMU, Bowling Green or Colgate – to use relevant examples from this year. I realize there is the problem of missing classes, but this would be one week out of the academic year for eight teams at the most.

    2. Change the automatic bid criteria

    Admittedly this one applies only to RMU this season, as they are the only regular-season champion that didn’t make the final 16, but there are countless examples of similar teams over the years that have had their success during the marathon of the 34-game schedule spoiled by an off game or a bad bounce in the sprint of the league tournament.

    What did the Colonials tangibly gain from finishing first in the Atlantic Hockey standings? A first-round bye and the opportunity to play the lowest remaining seed in the quarterfinals and semis. Those are meaningful benefits, but they don’t mitigate the fact that the regular season essentially amounts to a five-month warm-up in years like this.

    I understand that you have to play it off at some point, but if the goal is to reward a team for its full body of work, there should be room in the NCAAs for a group that proved its supremacy over its conference for the long haul.

    To that end, it would be prudent to tweak the current format, which awards an automatic spot in the tournament for a postseason league title. I’m not suggesting that you do away with it altogether, but perhaps leagues could leave it up to the NCAA selection committee to choose between the regular-season and playoff champions, if there will be no at-large bid given to the league in question.

    3. Play more series in conference tournaments

    The Atlantic Hockey playoffs lasted three weeks, with the first round best-of-three series starting the action, followed by the best-of-three quarterfinals, then the single-elimination “final four.” Maybe, instead of allowing all 11 teams into the playoffs in some form or fashion, the bottom three are sent home, so the top eight can all start at the same time in quarterfinal series.

    After that, there would be two semifinal series on the next weekend, followed by a best-of-three final on the third weekend at a neutral site like Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. This way, at least you are increasing the sample size and thus delaying the one-game scenario until the NCAA tournament.

    If the conference tournament winners are going to get in automatically, going with series in lieu of single-game eliminations is the best way to produce a representative winner.


    The Colonials weren’t complaining about the format last season, when their thrilling spring semester ended in the glory of an Atlantic Hockey postseason crown and the first NCAA appearance in 11 years of Division I hockey. I’m not suggesting that the underdog be totally removed from the equation, because those stories help make sports fun.

    However, I am interested in rewarding teams who deserve it. Everyone’s definition of “deserving” is going to differ, but I think most college hockey fans can agree that a team with the third-most wins in the country and the fifth-best winning percentage should have a chance to play for a national championship, no matter what their opponents’ opponents did in a given year.

    Missing out on the NCAA tournament doesn’t spoil RMU’s excellent season, although it does raise legitimate questions about the selection process.

    UPDATE: Seth Dussault, the voice of the American International College men’s hockey team, tried his hand at setting up a 24-team bracket, which would feature eight subregional games to reduce the field to 16.

    Here’s his methodology:

    Automatic Qualifiers: AQ status shall be given to conference regular season and conference tournament champions. If that is the same team within a conference, the second AQ bid shall go to the playoff runner-up in that conference. These teams are…

    AHC: RIT (Playoff Champion), Robert Morris (RS Champion)
    ECAC: Harvard (Playoff Champion), Quinnipiac (RS Champion)
    HEA: Boston University (RS/Playoff Champion), UMass Lowell (Playoff Runner Up)
    B1G: Minnesota (RS/Playoff Champion), Michigan (Playoff Runner Up)
    NCHC: Miami (Playoff Champion), North Dakota (RS Champion)
    WCHA: Minnesota State (RS/Playoff Champion), Michigan Tech (Playoff Runner Up)

    At-Large Bids: The 12 highest ranked teams in the PairWise that did not earn AQ status shall receive an at-large bid. These teams are…

    At Large: Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Boston College, St. Cloud State, Yale, Providence, Bowling Green, Colgate, Vermont, St. Lawrence, Dartmouth

    Ranks: Once the 24 teams are selected, each team shall be ranked solely on the basis of their PairWise ranking, and then separated into six “bands” (1-4, 5-8, 9-12, 13-16, 17-20, 21-24). These ranks are…

    Regional Selection: Teams shall be placed by bands, with any team that is hosting a regional automatically being placed within that regional. While the goal is to preserve ranking matchups (i.e. 7-10, 1-16, etc.), teams should be moved within their band so as to avoid intra-conference matchups in the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups in each regional if possible, and as well as to increase local interest in each regional. 

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