Trying to predict the outcome of one and done tournament games will humble even the sharpest of sports minds. Just ask Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps, Hubert Davis, and Jay Bilas what they think of VCU now that the Rams have reached the NCAA Basketball Final Four after these respected basketball wags were waxing indignant that the squad didn’t even deserve to be included in the field of sixty-eight just a few short weeks ago.
While the four teams who will face off in the NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul may not be as big a surprise as VCU, Butler, Kentucky, and U Conn reaching the Final Four in Houston, I doubt if too many had North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota-Duluth, and Notre Dame in their bracket. With a #1 seed, a #2 seed, and two #3 seeds reaching the finals in a sixteen team tourney, those who went with the favorites did not do well. And many of those of us who tried to factor in upsets simply picked the wrong teams. My Frozen Four had two #1s, a #2, and a #3 seed. The only one that I picked correctly was one of the top seeds, North Dakota.
Since I have them winning it all, I still have points on the table that I can pick up. However, with a number of others in the Fraters groups also picking the Sioux the best I can hope for is a middle of the pack finish. The important thing is that no matter what happens I have already beaten former Minnesota Hockey Commissioner and current talk radio shock jock Hugh “Ralphie” Hewitt. Which really isn’t much solace since Hugh’s track record on sports predictions is about as good as championship records of the Cleveland teams he supports. You knew that as soon as he picked Miami of Ohio (a #1 seed in the Northeast Regional) to win the title, it was the kiss of death for the Red Hawks. The only surprise was how early and easy Miami went out as they lost their first round game to fourth seeded UNH.
With defeat comes remorse and bitterness. I’m experiencing a bit of both at the moment. My remorse comes from not following the tried and true formula of picking conferences over teams. In the past, I’ve usually gone with WCHA teams whenever they faced teams from other conferences in the tournament. Well, expect for SCSU for obvious reasons. This has usually worked our rather well for me, especially in the early to mid 2000s when the WCHA was the dominant conference in college hockey (five straight national champions 2002-2006 and the all- WCHA Frozen Four in 2005). But the WCHA has been down for the last few years and my natural bias to favor teams from the conference has waned.
It turned out be a bad year to short sell the WCHA. The five WCHA teams in the tourney (one #1, one #2, two #3s, and #1 four) went 6-3 overall and that includes North Dakota beating Denver in the Midwest Final and UNO getting jobbed against Michigan. Two WCHA teams will be playing in the Frozen Four and Colorado College had a nice run before falling short against Michigan. Why I thought that an ECAC team like Yale would be able to reach the national championship game is beyond me. I bought too much into their national ranking without factoring their conference in enough. I also didn’t count on the strength of the CCHA which also fields two teams in the Frozen Four: Michigan and Notre Dame. Which brings us to the bitterness.
As I mentioned earlier, I had a hunch that at least one lower seeded team would reach the Frozen Four. And I figured that team would likely be from the WCHA. But instead of picking UMD, I went with UNO. The Mavericks always seemed to play up to their competition and with an experienced coach like Dean Blais behind the bench, I thought they had a good shot to pull off a couple of upsets. And indeed they might have had they not been beaten in overtime by Michigan on a phantom goal. I call it phantom, because I have yet to see a replay that conclusively shows the puck across the goal line. Based on where the shot came from and where the goalie was positioned, you can assume that at some point the puck did indeed cross said line and was probably a goal. But “probably” is not the standard that should be employed in a overtime situation in a playoff game that ends the loser’s season. You need to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it was a goal before you make that call, especially since it was not originally called as such on the ice. I’m not sure what the officials saw or thought they saw, but the bottom is that UNO was hosed. And therefore so was my bracket.
The other open wound of bitterness concerns the other CCHA team to advance, Notre Dame. In case you haven’t been paying attention, The Nihilist in Golf Pants is an alum of Notre Dame and follows their athletic endeavors rather passionately (he’s rather hung today after overindulging and burning dumpsters into the wee hours last night to celebrate Notre Dame’s NCAA fencing title). Since I don’t get a chance to see much Fighting Irish puck during the regular season, I rely on NIGP’s opinions of the Notre Dame hockey squad. Just a few weeks ago, he informed me that the team wasn’t much better than the Gophers and definitely wasn’t going anywhere. So when I filled out my Northeast Regional bracket I took this into account. Unlike Hugh, I knew that #1 seed Miami would not be making the trip to St. Paul. Even though #4 seed UNH was essentially playing at home, I figured they weren’t much of a threat. And since the NIGP had assured me that #3 seed Notre Dame was going nowhere, I went with #2 seed Merrimack as my NE bracket winner.
As we now know, Notre Dame defeated Merrimack in OT on Saturday and then beat UNH on Sunday to advance to the Frozen Four. And the NIGP picked them to do just that. So after talking down the team to me, he turns around and takes them in his bracket. Sounds like a classic dezinformatsiya campaign that would have done the KGB proud.
My only hope now is that the Bulldogs of UMD smite the Fighting Irish (and the second worst looking helmets in college hockey) when they meet in the opening Frozen Four semifinal. That, combined with a North Dakota victory over hated Michigan in the other semi, would give us an all-WCHA final which would be fitting with the St. Paul setting. If only I’d have predicted it that way.