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ASU hockey's NCAA Tournament odds are less than favorable despite season success

The Sun Devils have signature wins and trophies to show for an around 20 win season, but being an independent team could cost them a spot in the tournament


ASU junior defenseman Ty Murchison (5), skating to the puck at Mullet Arena on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024 in Tempe. ASU lost 4-5.

In most cases, when a collegiate hockey team wins 20 or more games, they are considered one of the best teams in the country. Seven out of the eight teams that currently hold 20 or more wins are ranked in the top 10, according to a recent poll

The same seven teams with 20 or more wins have been given a greater than 99% chance to make the coveted NCAA Tournament. Arizona State is currently the eighth team that holds 20 wins, however, they hold a 20-6-6 record and rank 18th in the USCHO poll. The percentage chance the team makes the tournament rests at a shallow 2%. 

"It’s kind of been do or die all season, being an independent team," graduate student Tyler Gratton said. "That’s the challenge that we face, every weekend, every game is just as important, it doesn't matter the team that we’re playing."

There is an explainable reason why the Sun Devils are ranked so poorly despite their success.

Next season, ASU will join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) in the conference's first expansion since 2013. ASU will become the ninth team in the conference alongside powerhouse teams like Denver and North Dakota. For now, they remain an independent team. 

The biggest difference in terms of what it takes to qualify for the NCAA Tournament between independent teams and teams in conferences such as the NCHC or Big 10 is the conference tournament played at the end of each regular season. It allows for teams not in the top 16, where teams need to rank to make the NCAA tournament, to prove themselves in high-pressure games. 

ASU is the only team currently ranked in the top 25 that will not play in one of these tournaments because they are an independent team and therefore, have far less opportunity to bump their PairWise rankings. 

The PairWise standard does not decide which teams make the postseason but is a tool used to predict what teams the NCAA selection committee will deem good enough to be in the top 16.

The selection committee does not use the PairWise rankings exclusively to make their decision, but it has been known to be an accurate depiction of who’s in and who’s out, so much so that for some players, it's all they can think about. 

"You wake up every morning, and you look at (the PairWise ranks); you live and breathe by it," freshman forward Kyle Smolen said. "You watch every game … We are looking at those rankings every single day, and it’s hard not to when you’re a competitive group like these guys. If we get in, we are going to make noise."

With ASU currently tied at No. 18 in the PairWise ranks, it seems like a good place to be, but without a conference tournament, it’s likely that even if they win their next six games, it won’t be enough. Some, like Smolen, live by the PairWise rankings, while others prefer to take it one game at a time. 

"I try to just take things one day at a time and not really look at (the PairWise ranks), and just hopefully the results take care of themselves," senior forward Ty Jackson said. "At this point in the season, I’ve definitely taken a couple looks, and we all kind of know where we are at this point and what we need to do."

The Sun Devils' potential disappointment as the season comes to a close should not be mistaken for a bad season by any means. ASU has multiple signature wins over strong opponents over the course of the season. 

Home wins over Denver and Providence while also taking home trophies in the Desert Hockey Classic and Adirondack Winter Invitational could help their tournament resume. Yet, without a postseason berth, some of it can feel useless.

"The goal here is we want to make the tournament," Jackson said. "With that being said, we have won two tournaments throughout the year … those are important things that not many teams win; we definitely have some important wins, and especially from last year, we took a really big step this year … any time you get above 20 wins in D1 is a really good season, but we still want more."

ASU also suffered some crushing losses, such as a sweep against Cornell and a loss to Augustana in January that severely dampened their postseason hopes.

Now ASU heads to Alaska-Fairbanks’ home ice this weekend, seeking two critical wins against a team they swept at home if they want to save their tournament hopes. 

"I think the way that we have been resilient all season, fought back in games even when we went down early in them, it shows a lot of heart," Gratton said. "The guys just don’t have any quit, and that’s a big thing we’ve been able to rally behind."

Edited by Alfred Smith III, Alysa Horton and Shane Brennan

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