Mailbag: Equilibrium States, Hockey Formatting, The Distant Future

Submitted by Brian on March 28th, 2011 at 4:35 PM


right via flickr user bre pettis


You've often mentioned how a single elimination hockey tournament is a poor indicator of who the best team is, due to the randomness that exists in hockey. There is one sport where the randomness of the winner is considerably higher - baseball. And college baseball deals with this by making the tournament, and the college world series, double elimination tournament up until the championship.

Do you think a double elimination tournament could work for NCAA hockey, or if not for the frozen four, at least for the regionals? Each regional would still fit nicely into a weekend, rather than needing to spread out over two weeks if it were a 3 game series at each round. As hockey is poised for a potentially cataclysmic change tomorrow, the time for changing the tournament would be now as well.


Double elimination doesn't work for hockey because it's just too many games. A first-round loser could hypothetically play five games if they reach the final and win the first game, and how are you going to fit that into three days? Even if you decide the final is one and done (presumably playing this exhausted team is advantage enough) you've still got a situation where someone's playing twice in a day. That's not feasible.

The thing that makes the most sense is to go back to the old best two-of-three series. Have two rounds of those and have a Frozen Four. Downsides: it takes a week longer and some schools don't control their rinks, making reservations awkward. Upside: massively more revenue and it looks like people care about college hockey.

Something like this may be coming. As mentioned this morning, the NCAA has not announced regional sites past next year. Last May this was apparently the hot idea:

Under the most popular proposal, the tournament would stay as a 16-team field, but the first round would be a best-of-three series played at the venue of the higher seed.

The eight teams advancing to the quarterfinals would play at one of two super regional sites. The quarterfinals would be one-game shots with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line. The Frozen Four would not change.

That manages to be only slightly better than the current system since you know you're going to this random "super regional" site to watch your team play once. There seems to be no reason not to play another campus series other than a desire to pretend you're a bigger deal than your are.

If hockey is truly insistent on having regionals, let's format them like the first round of the World Cup or Olympic hockey: everyone plays each other and the top two teams move on. That would force teams to play three straight days but without overtime everyone's on a level playing field. That should help attendance since you know you'll get to see your team play three times.

The biggest issue with that format is scheduling the last day. In the World Cup the last group games are simultaneous because there are situations in which teams can assure themselves advancement by walking around for 90 minutes and tying. You couldn't do that at a regional. I think if you're flexible with the final day's schedule you could avoid that by making the teams who are in that advantageous position play first, though.

More money, more reason to travel, and less randomness—it's better than the current setup. The tournament could start out with groups, have a campus weekend, and then have a Frozen Four.

If NCAA determines that OSU must vacate last year football wins, does that mean RichRod went 1-2 vs. OSU?

No. A vacated game never happened—unless you lost, I guess—so officially he'd be 0-2.

Hi Brian,

After reading your thoughtful post about Webber, I couldn't help but think about why, despite everything, I always loved the guy. Just to try to explain what it was like: The Fab 5 era has many of the elements of the last few years of Michigan football, except they were magnified. First, there was the culture clash. Fisher's coaching style, the new players, all of it received a very similar reception, but unlike RR he had the '89 national championship for protection. And of course the culture clash was magnified because it was not only a matter of a culture clash within the university but on a national level. Think of it as the culture clash times five.

Then there was the electrifying style of play. Every moment of every game at Crisler, you were just sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for something amazing to happen. Not just dunks, although people often forget just how incredible not only Webber but Jimmy's ups were. But an unreal block, an impossible pass, a quick as lightening steal. The only thing I can really compare it to in my life of watching sports was watching Denard last year. You were just sitting there with visceral sense of anticipation, knowing you just might witness something amazing. But now imagine if Denard and Rich Rod had taken us to a national championship game -- or two in a row -- and I think that will give you some sense of how it felt to be a student at Michigan in that era and why we simply can't not love those guys. We all knew those players personalities, their faces, their styles of play. It was something close to watching five Denards.


There was obviously a culture clash with Rodriguez's program as a whole but Denard isn't a part of that because Denard is the nicest kid in the history of the universe. I've been going to basketball and hockey games for years and when other athletes show up, they do so in a big group, come late, and leave early. This extends even to nonentities like the tennis team. They signed some autographs at Yost earlier this season and then watched a portion of the second period in seats directly behind mine, then took off.

Denard went to the DEATH TO BACKBOARDS Wisconsin game. He wasn't there with teammates (unless Drew Dileo was there—everyone around him was an average-sized white guy), stayed for the whole thing, and when handed a random maize T-shirt he put it over his futuristic Annie Lennox jacket. You can throw that on the pile of evidence that contains every press conference he's ever attended and every touchdown he's ever kneeled after.

But the larger point is good. Michigan swung away from its baseline attitude in the aftermath of the '89 championship because it won a lot for a brief period of time, and then when it won less and got the program in trouble they reacted by hiring Tommy Amaker and John Beilein. Even more telling was only after Amaker left for Harvard that people started complaining about his recruiting practices.

A lot of people have pointed at that reaction as the Fab Five's doing, but it's really just Michigan returning to its equilibrium state after being knocked out of it briefly. The same thing happened with Rodriguez except it didn't take nearly as long because there weren't any of those win things. At some point in the future Michigan will have a coach with a different idea of what football looks like*, and he'll be tolerated as long as he wins, and then eventually he won't win and Michigan will return to its equilibrium state.

*[Possibly a  distant, Humans Are Dead future, granted.]



March 28th, 2011 at 4:47 PM ^

The other reason there's a double elimination in baseball and that it wouldn't work as well for hockey is that the double elimination is designed to prevent a mediocre team with one hotshot-ass pitcher from mowing down a better team in a 1-0 pitchers' duel and advancing.  Think Stephen Strasburg and San Diego State, that kind of model (yes, I know they didn't advance.)  That's beyond the randomness of baseball, it's a way to specifically exploit a system.  Double-elimination forces you to have an actual pitching staff and there's no hockey equivalent.


March 28th, 2011 at 6:53 PM ^

But at the same time - I do feel like there is a lot of randomness in a single baseball game. Which is why it's a minor injustice that a team in the majors can have an absolutely dominant stretch of 162 games, and then lose to a sub-90 win WC team on a hot streak in the first round. But the $s far outweigh that injustice.


March 28th, 2011 at 4:47 PM ^

But the excitement of the style of play makes Denard a good comparison for the Fab Five, for those who weren't around to remember it. Kinda like how even though we haven't won anything, the excitement of Denard overroad that for a lot of people, similar to how the Fab 5 often overshadow the Championship team. They were just that athletically amazing as a group.


March 28th, 2011 at 4:55 PM ^

I love that since the ESPN documentary, there has been a huge increase in the amount of Fab 5 talk on this blog.  While there has been controversy because of Weber, the excitement surrounding the Fab 5 in the early 1990s, and the way that they changed the landscape of college BB was unlike anything before or since.

I personally hope that once the ten year contact ban with Weber is over, Weber issues some sort of bland apology that is enough to allow the school to bring them home and reconnect with this amazing perion in our program's BB history.


March 28th, 2011 at 6:43 PM ^

We had swagger...and I don't mean to single out the Fab 5 as the source.  They were certainly a large part of the equation, but it was plain exciting to be a fan of Michigan sports (state of, not just UM) because of all of our (my) teams.  I fondly recall that time.  Remember the Pistons were coming off 2 NBA championships (they went 2 for 3) and were the Bad Boys, the UM basketball team had their championship and then the Fab 5 came, the Red Wings were leading the NHL in scoring and you just knew they were going to start to win championships (and they did), Cecil Fielder was busy winning HR and RBI crowns, UM football had back to back Rose Bowl games...hell even the Lions had Barry Sanders and a 12 and 4 Season in '91.  We had the best RB in the NFL, the best hitter in baseball, the most hated NBA team, the most exciting NHL team, and a 5 year run of Big 10 football championships.  Topping it off for me personally, the spartans were 3-8!   Man I miss those days!

Bando Calrissian

March 28th, 2011 at 5:41 PM ^

If the NCAA were to fundamentally change the format/locations of the tournament, how could they get around the general whinefest/accompanied banhammer of regionals held at a certain collegiate rink in Ann Arbor?  

Because, you know, our fans swearing and buying lots of tickets and stuff all override the fact that we did exactly what the NCAA asked us to do to renovate our rink to host regional weekends (4 lockerrooms, etc.)...

Yinka Double Dare

March 28th, 2011 at 6:01 PM ^

I think part of the complaint from those days is that Michigan wasn't seeded that high but got to play home games against 1 or 2 seeds as a 4 or 5 seed because our fans bought all the tickets in our home rink.  In that new format with the better seed getting the home series, there can be no complaint -- if you don't want to play on the road, play better during the season. 

Yale Van Dyne Fan

March 28th, 2011 at 5:59 PM ^

Go best-of-three on campus sites each of the first two weekends, until you're down to four. And for the Frozen Four, adopt a Memorial Cup-style weeklong round-robin that ends with a tie-breaker game, a semifinal and a championship. You play three round-robin games. Team with best record automatically advances to final. #2 and #3 play in the semifinals unless a tie-breaker game is needed between the #3 and #4 seeds. If no tie-breaker is needed, the #4 is simply eliminated, and you have an off-day prior to the semifinal. And you alternate between Boston and Minneapolis. You have a hybrid Memorial Cup / College World Series-style event that is an epic weeklong celebration of college hockey. And you do it in two great college hockey cities. I'd chop my left leg off for this.

Before I finish my rant, I think it's absolutely preposterous that in this era of dollars driving everything, that you'd take a sport with a niche (but passionate) following and play games hundreds upon hundreds of miles from anyone's campus in St. Louis on a weekday. It's absolutely mind-blowing. St. Louis ain't a college hockey town. Stick to campus sites early on to reward regular season accomplishments and then head off to Excel or TD Garden for your weeklong Frozen Four. Make it an East vs. West thing. Who's with me?


March 28th, 2011 at 6:08 PM ^

unless it's because some NCAA staffer was bored during a meeting and pointed out "well what if they would have won without the ineligible players anyway" and the NCAA went with it because, well, the same reason why they do half of what they do.

I liked forfeits better. The thing in 1994 with Sparty was nice because among their forfeits was a win over Purdue, which turned a 4-5-2 record into a 5-4-2 record, and because this was during the Colletto years*, .500 meant woo! (Even if it was after the fact and prevented the Boilers from going to the 1994 equivalent of the Motor City Bowl, which I believe was called "no bowl at all".)

Seems like schools like that one in Columbus might possibly consider something other than turning several blind eyes toward everything that happens if it meant that their precious, ill-gotten victories would turn into ugly** Ls instead of into dust (and thus not affecting their W-L record).

*as if those were any different than any other era in Purdue history, save perhaps the glory days under Tiller, such as they were

**ugly to Ohio State, "beautifully karmic and appropriate" to the rest of us


March 28th, 2011 at 6:11 PM ^

Sorry Brian, but anyone who thinks that the Fab Five represented a whole new revolution and direction of Michigan baskeball in terms of excitement or stye of play wasn't watching the Frieder/Fisher teams from 85 to 90.  They had mad athletic talent, ran the break, and could beat you at multiple positions.  Gary Grant took a backseat to no member of the Fab Five. Tarpley either. They actually won the Big Ten and a National Title too (post Grant).  I'd rather have that, than pass Jalen's "you don't remember them" test from the documentary.

No sense even commenting on how Rodriguez was like the Fab 5 in the "revolutionary" direction he was trying to  take the program. A. The Fab 5 was revolutionary in vapid style  stuff only and the fact that they were 5 freshmen (no small thing) and B. you freely admitted that he didn't win.  He's right where he belongs and where he earned: rich from a big fat severence check, onto a place that better fits how he does things (and can hack prolonged inconsistent football to get there)

Michigan's equilibrium is winning, doing it honestly and producing leaders. Heck I am not even an alum and I feel like I know that.  I love your writing and you are the best on the internet, but lately the seeming contempt (in a nice sports fan sense) your holding for a great deal of your audience isn't very well hidden.  Just sayin....



March 28th, 2011 at 7:13 PM ^

I find your (UMich) world view darkly fascinating.  You seem to have constructed not just a straw man, but an entire straw athletic department.


* I think you're right that the Fab Five didn't represent a huge departure from the late '80s.  Both sets of teams were very athletic, not very well coached, and somewhat random at important moments.  (Look at the results of the '85 and '86 tourneys.)

* Rodriguez, for all his failings, was running an offense that was (in sum) new to Michigan, even if elements of it had been seen before.  I think that's indisputable.

* "Michigan's equilibrium is winning, doing it honestly and producing leaders."  Are you a Frank Beckmann fan?  Are you aware that Ed Martin had relationships with lots of the players of the late '80s?

* I find your rosy view of Michigan Men (specifically, those other than Rodriguez and the Fab Five) amusing.  Does life really look that simple to you?


March 28th, 2011 at 8:44 PM ^

Michigan's equilibrium isn't producing "leaders" beyond the fact it graduates (generally) smart people - anything more divine is just an ego-stroke concocted by alumni and/or media personalities to take shots at rivals like MSU and OSU when they beat UM in sports.  And this is coming from an incredibly proud alum.  UM hadn't missed a bowl game since before (I'm guessing) most of the posters of here were alive/aware of football.  That 3-9 season hit like a ton of bricks, and it wouldn't have mattered how RR did the next year unless we returned to 9-10 wins.  Fans weren't ready for a rebuilding project, and so that is why people were so resistent to a team that WAS making strides toward being the type of team RR had at WVU (save for the inconsistent defense).  I'm done arguing whether or not he deserved a longer leash, but RR was definitely a break from the norm at UM, just like the Fab 5. 

I do agree that the Fab 5 were probably more sizzle and steak in terms of transcending sport and changing the paradigm except it was the first big-name program to rely so heavily on underclassmen, and thus is a model for every one-and-done super team you see in the SEC or B12. 


March 29th, 2011 at 10:10 AM ^

I disagree with most of what is said, but it is sincere, thoughtful and reasoned.  We're supposed to be sharing information and thoughtful opinions.  If we all agreed, there wouldn't be much point to the comment section.  Let's save the negs for the loud, the racists, the puerile and the idiots.


March 28th, 2011 at 6:19 PM ^

I could be wrong, but I think games are only vacated on the violating program's end.  We still have to count them as losses on our end.  The head-to-head series will have the overall record, followed by the "official" record in parentheses: 57-44-6* (57-43-6).

The Swiss Wolverine

March 28th, 2011 at 6:19 PM ^

I don't want to take anything away from the fact Denard is the nicest kid on Earth, I certainly agree, from what I can see on campus, him dealing with so many people that want a piece of him and still flash that smile. It's pretty irrelevant and Brian only uses it as an anecdote, but at the Wisconsin game, I ran into Denard walking into Crisler with 4-5 FB players, and I was 10 minutes late myself. No idea why they weren't sitting together, though...

Michigan Arrogance

March 28th, 2011 at 6:38 PM ^

16 teams get in. One seeds get to host the 1st round pool of 4. everyone plays 3 in pool play.

winners of the pools advance to the 2nd round where teams play best 2/3 series at higher seeded teams' rink.


winners advance to FF at neutral site.


done & done.


March 28th, 2011 at 6:55 PM ^

I think a double-elimination could fit in a (four day) weekend tournament, with the last game being single elimination. But I like your other idea for the "super regionals" better, (and I love Yale Van Dyne Fan's Frozen Four idea). The one change I'd make to your round-robin format is to start in the round of 16 with on campus three game series, then have two 4-team super regionals with the top two advancing to YVDF's Frozen Four. Although I'd add Detroit to his rotation as well.


March 28th, 2011 at 9:12 PM ^

It's not like adding another weekend to the NCAA tournament would extend the season further. Just take out the silly two week break between the regionals and the Frozen Four and you get a tournament that lasts just as many weeks as the current version.


March 29th, 2011 at 11:49 AM ^

While one may be able to find similarties between RichRod and the Fab Five, I believe those similarities are superficial and the important facts are totally different.

The Fab Five had a style that clashed with Michigans culture. They were self agrandizing, brash, conspicuous, bad boys.  The fundamentals of how they played the game was fine. It wasn't like they ran a vintage Loyola Marymount run and gun offense or something. RichRod's style of play clashed with Michigan's history. His personal style--honest, self effacing, disciplinarian--did not clash with Michigan's style.

In the most important measures, RichRod and the Fab Five were totally different. The Fab Five won and RichRod didn't. RichRod was for the most part honest and followed the rules. Chris Webber did not.


March 29th, 2011 at 3:35 PM ^

I think the comparison between Steve Fisher and RichRod is totally fair.  I don’t know that I buy the totality of Brian’s Equilibrium State Theory though.  I would submit that while the Michigan Ecosystem (Former Players, Alumni, Boosters, Fans, Hanger-ons, etc.) certainly applies an almost irresistible force helping to hold a team in place, the Equilibrium that force is trying to achieve has limited memory. I think the Equilibrium State that force is trying to achieve is last great success for a given team.  That force was acting on Steve Fischer trying to force him back to the Bill Frieder era.  I believe that same force is now acting on John Bielen (and was acting on Tommy Amaker) to return back to the Steve Fischer era.  Yes, I too believe in the ghost of Fielding Yost.  But I don’t actually believe that the Equilibrium Force is actually trying to push us back to into a Flying Wing-based offense.  Our last great football success was with a pro-style set and that’s what the Equilibrium Force is trying to push us back into.


March 30th, 2011 at 10:12 AM ^


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