One of the biggest knocks on the Pairwise Rankings is that, especially late in the season when there are fewer permutations, teams can improve their standing by losing games. That flies in the face of every basic competitive tenet in the sporting world – gain by losing.
For example – much of the latter half of the season, it was expected that St. Cloud State would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they lost that after two losses at the WCHA Final Five because they incurred losses against North Dakota and Wisconsin, both teams under consideration. Speaking strictly in Pairwise terms, the Huskies probably would have been better off losing to Minnesota-Duluth in the previous week’s playoff series – the Bulldogs would not have harmed SCSU’s record against TUCs, and the Huskies wouldn’t have been able to harm it by losing to TUCs in St. Paul.
They weren’t the only WCHA team that could have possibly benefited from a first round loss. North Dakota could have done themselves a favor by taking their series with Minnesota State to a third game, as it would have likely guaranteed that the Mavericks would remain a TUC for the remainder of the season. The Sioux actually dropped in the Pairwise after sweeping MSU.
St. Cloud’s well-known NCAA difficulties aside, would they have done themselves a favor by throwing the series prior and sitting out a week? Ask Maine and Miami. They didn’t seem to have too much of a problem rebounding from having a week without competition. Did they have an advantage, even if they were both bubble teams until the last moment?
Here’s an idea that was specifically mentioned by St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko in his season-ending radio show this week – simply make it a requirement that a team survive the first round of their league playoffs in order to get an at-large NCAA bid. Coming from Motzko, it may seem like sour grapes given the Huskies’ first round exit at the hands of a Black Bear team which was quickly swept out of the Hockey East playoffs and had to take a week off, but given St. Cloud’s own potential benefit from having done the same, it starts to grow into a rationale for winning.
So what would the effect be? Well, for starters, it would have to determine what to make of the ECAC and CCHA first-round byes. Do those count, or do Top 4 teams in those leagues have to reach the neutral-site tournament in order to gain an at-large bid, or are they eligible based on having passed through the first round?
The second problem is that, under current playoff structures, it would artificially limit the WCHA and Hockey East to five and four teams respectively – and Hockey East sent five teams this season. There’s little doubt that if the “win or else” rule came into being, Hockey East would probably start inviting all 10 teams to their tournament.
Assuming this rule was in place for this season, Maine and Miami would both have been disqualified from the national tournament, and they would have been replaced by Wisconsin and Michigan Tech. Were those teams better qualified for the tournament? There’s certainly an argument that can be made for playing well down the stretch, but the NCAA already scrapped the old “Last 16 Games” element of Pairwise in order to make games in October just as important as games in March.
Imagine the havoc that could be wraught – Alaska-Anchorage was close to knocking off the No. 1 overall Pairwise team, Minnesota, in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. That would have put the Gophers out of the NCAA Tournament, and that’d have been quite a shake-up. But would the series have been as close if Minnesota had more incentive to ensure their advancement to the next round?
Most importantly, the “gain by losing” facet of the Pairwise would be seriously compromised. It wouldn’t eliminate elements like the Sioux scenario above, but it would certainly make that first round important for every team, not just the ones who need a league title to play into late March.