In a normal year, there is no mystery how the NCAA men's hockey tournament field is selected.
The committee uses the Pairwise Rankings to fill out the 16-team field's at-large bids. Everyone knows the formula going into the season and everyone can track it instantly after each game. Coaches, players and fans knows with 100 percent certainty which teams will be in the field before the NCAA tournament selection show airs.
But the Pairwise Rankings will not work this year.
The RPI, a key component of the Pairwise, needs cross-conference games to accurately assess teams in different leagues. Because of coronavirus pandemic-altered schedules, there's almost no cross-conference competition happening this season.
Time is ticking away on the 2020-21 campaign -- it's already Christmastime and teams are about to begin the second-half portion of their schedules -- yet the committee still has not articulated how it will remedy this problem and what process it will use to choose the national tournament field.
"As of right now, the committee hasn't made any decisions," National Collegiate Hockey Conference commissioner Josh Fenton said. "I know they've discussed it. I don't know how far along they are in those discussions about how they'll select the tournament. I think everybody's aware that the RPI -- and the extension of that, the Pairwise -- is not going to be able to be used this year like it is in a normal year because we just don't have the cross-conference competition.
"The conference commissioners have been heavily involved in discussion related to tournament selection, particularly the at-large considerations."
It is believed there will be some form of subjectivity used to pick the field as it is in other NCAA sports. But those sports usually have cross-conference competition to compare the strength of each league.
The NCHC's idea to solve this problem is that the committee use historical data to allot a number of at-large bids to each conference.
"We've sent an opinion to the committee that we think it's very difficult for the committee to just put the eye test on all the programs across college hockey and determine if Program A is better than Program B, especially knowing we don't have cross-conference competition," Fenton said. "I fully realize and certainly respect that's the way in which the tournament field was selected many years ago, but we have to remember that there was also cross-conference competition that was happening when they were selecting the field at those times. We're going to have very, very little of that.
"I think it's a really challenging position for the committee to be in to make at-large selections based upon just the eye test. We think there's some quantitative historical data that can and should be used to help the committee maybe determine the number of at-large selections based upon conferences, and then conferences certainly have metrics within their own conference -- whether it be standings or placement in a conference tournament -- that they then can use to help the committee make those selections for the teams into the tournament, but we'll see."
What could that look like?
The current conference alignment has been in place since 2013-14, when the NCHC and Big Ten formed.
Excluding 2019-20, when the pandemic shut down the college hockey season before the NCAA tournament field was picked, the average number of NCAA-tournament teams per league since realignment is: Atlantic Hockey 1, Eastern College Athletic Conference 3.16, Big Ten 2.16, Hockey East 4, NCHC 3.83 and Western Collegiate Hockey Association 1.67.
If you include 2019-20, using the Pairwise at the time of the shutdown, it would be: Atlantic Hockey 1, ECAC 3, Big Ten 2.28, Hockey East 4, NCHC 3.71 and WCHA 1.71.
Rounding those numbers, it would equate to one bid for Atlantic Hockey, three for the ECAC, two for the Big Ten, four for Hockey East, four for the NCHC and two for the WCHA. That adds up to 16.
However, only four ECAC teams are participating this season instead of the usual 12. Going by percentages, three out of 12 league teams equals 25 percent. That would be one of four this year, which would leave two more spots that the committee would presumably be able to use in a more subjective way. Those two spots also would open the door to add an independent like Arizona State.
"We've got historical data going back seven years now, if you want to go back to when the NCHC and Big Ten first started, where we have an understanding, on average, how many institutions from each conference have been in the NCAA tournament," Fenton said. "That's data that could be used. I fully understand and respect that this year is not the same as last year, a team this year is not the same as a team last year.
"But when you're presented with a circumstance of potentially just using an eye test of a committee that I think is watching hockey, but I don't know is watching hockey across the country to the level to be able to say this team is better than that team, I think data should be used."
Even if that method is used, there will be challenges.
The NCHC, for example, is not playing a balanced schedule. So, the strength of schedule between teams will be vastly different than in a normal year.
Will the NCAAs be played on schedule?
Because of the delayed start to the season, coaches and administrators have discussed the possibility of pushing back the NCAA tournament to give more time for the regular season.
Fenton says, as of now, he does not expect that to happen.
The NCHC is going forward with the expectation that regionals will be played March 26-28 and the Frozen Four will be played April 8-10.
"We believe the NCAA tournament is going to happen as scheduled," Fenton said. "We don't have any indication otherwise. So, we're planning for the regionals on the fourth weekend in March and the Frozen Four to take place in Pittsburgh a couple weeks later."
It is possible the location of the regionals -- currently scheduled for Fargo, Loveland, Colo., Manchester, N.H., and Bridgeport, Conn. -- could change. The NCAA basketball tournament has discussed playing the entire event in Indianapolis, home of the Final Four.