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UConn men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh supports NCAA Tournament expansion

The Huskies have been one of the first teams left out of the 16-team field in each of the last two seasons.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s hockey’s 2021-22 season was historic in more than a few ways. The Huskies had their first winning season since 2013-14 at 20-16-0, recorded their most wins in Hockey East ever with 14, earned their highest ranking in the national polls at No. 19 and won their first Hockey East Playoff game en route to a heartbreaking overtime loss to UMass in the final.

However, UConn came up short of accomplishing one more program first: An NCAA Tournament bid. The Huskies are one of six (out of 59 Division I programs) to never reach the national tournament alongside Army, Bentley, Sacred Heart, LIU and St. Thomas, the latter two of whom only joined the DI ranks in the past two seasons.

Much of that can be attributed to the lack of institutional support for the program prior to the Hockey East Era in 2014. When UConn moved up to Division I in 1998, the school replaced the the outdoor ice rink with Freitas Ice Forum, a barebones facility that was little more than an enclosed ice sheet attached to a few locker rooms and offices.

But it also doesn’t help that the NCAA Tournament field features just 16 teams — a number UConn head coach Mike Cavanaugh would like to be increased.

“100 percent,” he said when asked if the field should be expanded at the UConn Coaches Road Show last Tuesday. “I’d love to see it go to 20. I think that’d be fair enough. A third of the teams would get into the national tournament which I think is a reasonable number.”

There is logic behind number of bids, though. The NCAA likes to maintain a relatively similar ratio of teams in the field to total number of teams. 16 of the 59 Division I programs make the NCAA Tournament in men’s hockey, or 27 percent — one of the highest ratios of any sport. 27 percent also make it in women’s hockey while 23 percent do in men’s soccer, 21 percent in baseball, 19 percent in basketball and 19 percent in women’s soccer.

Cavanaugh understands the argument for keeping the tournament at 16, he just isn’t a fan of it.

“In the NHL and the NBA, there’s 32 teams and 16 make the playoffs,” he said. “For some reason in college, they want a ratio or a percentage. In our sport, it’s really hard to make it as an at large bid.”

It’s not like a larger field would’ve helped UConn anyways to this point. Unlike basketball, the men’s hockey tournament doesn’t have a selection committee that picks the teams. Once the six automatic bids are secured, the 10 at-large bids are determined by an RPI-esque metric known as the Pairwise.

This past season, UConn finished tied with AIC at 20th in Pairwise. But since the Yellow Jackets won the Atlantic Hockey Tournament and received an automatic bid, they would’ve been the last team in while the Huskies would’ve been the first team out in a hypothetical 20-team tournament.

The 2021 tournament actually had a committee since the lack of non-conference play due to the COVID-19 pandemic rendered Pairwise useless, though UConn was still left out. A 20-team field might’ve helped the Huskies, though it’s impossible to know without Pairwise.

But with UConn expected to be in the mix for NCAA Tournament contention for the foreseeable future — especially with Cavanaugh sticking around — a larger field could help the Huskies make program history and get in eventually.