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Can Western Michigan win the National Championship?

Just a year after finishing a dismal 8-25-3, Andy Murray and his Broncos are in the thick of the race for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament next month. Could his team claim the title in Chicago?

(GS Photo/WMU Media File)

It’s been a while since we talked puck on here.

I know, I know.

But hey, we’re just 4 weeks from the NCAA Tournament starting, and Miami is hosting a regional this year in Cincinnati! That’s exciting! What’s more exciting? The Frozen Four is in Chicago this year! THAT’S RIGHT IN OUR BACKYARD!

Well, it would be if either of our Ohio programs were worth a damn this year.

The RedHawks currently are 9-16-6, and while they’re still in the hunt to host a NCHC playoff series, they’re likely headed to face either Minnesota-Duluth or Denver, the consensus top two teams in the country.

Head up north on I-75, and you find the Bowling Green Falcons. Their regular season ends this weekend against the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, who are fighting for their WCHA lives. BG is in the playoffs right now, but are facing a must-win situation, as they tussle with former CCHA foe Ferris State for the last home host seed in the WCHA Tournament.

Either way, at 15-17-2, the Falcons’ only hope into the tournament is much like the RedHawks. TAKE IT AWAY, JAKE TAYLOR:

(WARNING: a bad word is ahead)

While that seems unlikely (again, the RedHawks would have to win 4 games against the gauntlet that is the NCHC, and the Falcons would have to knock off a Bemidji State team that owned the WCHA this season), there is one team that is comfortably looking at a NCAA Tournament bid.

Not only that, they are on the cusp of getting a 1-seed in the tournament.

That team? The Western Michigan Broncos.

Yes, that WMU team. The one that looked awful last year en route to an 8-25-3 record. This season, however? The Broncos are 18-8-4, a comfortable seven points ahead of St. Cloud State for the 3-seed in the NCHC tournament, and 5th in the Pairwise - the metric that determines seeding and at-large bids for the NCAA’s.

It’s true that the Broncos aren’t winning with style, but the important part is that they are winning. This seems to the team’s MO under Murray. Win gritty games, don’t worry about the haters. They are 7-0-3 in non-conference play this season, including the 2nd Great Lakes Invitational title under the former NHL coach’s tenure.

So with that said, we ask: Can the Broncos win the NCAA Tournament?

Well, let’s start with some bad facts. WMU is just 7-6-1 this season away from Lawson Arena, and holds a dismal 0-6 record all-time in five NCAA Tournament appearances. Additionally, they have a below average penalty kill (37th out of 60 teams), and are a team that draws a lot of penalties, placing 16th in the country in that statistic.

That’s no bueno.

Oh, and they still have to get past Minnesota-Duluth and Denver at some point most likely, with the Bulldogs holding an insane 11-1-3 record away from home.

On the flip-side, the Broncos have a one of the nation’s top offenses (10th in goals per game, 11th in power play efficiency,) and we have to remember that they haven’t been ranked this high this late in the season......ever! (Possible exception in 1986, when they were a 3-seed on a two regional, eight-team tournament). They have the size to contend with some of the best teams, and all you need is a hot streak in March to get to Chicago. Then, anything goes.

So let’s dive into this thing.

I’m going to look at three tournaments for comparison: The 2009 NCAA tourney, the 2015 edition, and last year’s go around. Why these three? The latter two are the most recent, and the 2009 tournament saw Miami - MAC, CCHA, and now NCHC brother of WMU - advance to the National Title game before famously collapsing.

The 2009 tournament saw a plethora of upsets. Only one of the top seeds won its opening game, and they ended up being champs (Boston U). Additionally, the two-seeds at each regional went 1-4 (with Minnesota-Duluth the lone winner) and two four-seeds (Bemidji State and Miami) advanced to the Frozen Four. It was that wild.

In more recent seasons, the tournament has seen fewer upsets. However, it’s still solid for a good few in the regionals, with 1-seeds going 4-4 the past two seasons in the first round. Recent patterns indicate 1-seeds that win early have advanced to the Championship game, with three of the four winners ending up there, and the exception (2015 North Dakota) losing to a member of that group.

If we look at 2-seeds, where the Broncos are likely to end up at should they hold ground, we see an impressive 7-1 record in the first round. However, that excitement starts to dwindle a bit, as 2-seeds are just 3-4 in the Regional Finals, and 0-3 in the Frozen Four.

In fact, the last 2-seed from a regional to advance to the Championship Game was in 2012, when a Ferris State team that WMU absolutely dominated that season (11 pts won out of 12) lost to Boston College in Tampa. For the last two-seed champion, you have to go back to 2008, when Boston College - the two-seed in the Northeast Regional that year - won the title.

So there’s all that, but what about geography? If a team is closer to home, that should play into a team’s hand, right?

Well, yes and no.

In 2009, teams somewhat close to the host city went 2-4 in the Regionals, with hosts going 1-2 (New Hampshire lost its Regional Final to Boston U). In 2015, that figure was 5-1 (Boston U vs Yale thrown out as both were “close”). Regional Hosts that made the tournament both won their regionals (North Dakota and Providence). Last year, those figures were more like 3-3, with Quinnipiac being the only “host” to advance to the Frozen Four.

Why do I bring that up? Well, because the latest USCHO Bracketology has WMU in the Cincinnati Regional. And while they are not the host, the drive for WMU fans would be similar to Penn State’s, and would easily beat out either of the one-seeds the site has listed (Denver or Minny-Duluth).

On top of that, of the 16 teams projected to make the tournament, the Bronco faithful have the shortest drive to the Frozen Four by far at two hours away.

Now, in terms of if the Broncos can advance to the Frozen Four, we have little reliable data to suggest a strong correlation between distance and winning. Last year’s edition was held in Tampa Bay, Florida. In 2015, it was in Boston, and the two East schools beat the two West schools in the two semi-final games. Here are some other results:

  • 2014 (Philadelphia) - Union (NY) beat Boston College, Minnesota beat North Dakota, Union won the title
  • 2013 (Pittsburgh) - No strong correlation exists. Quinnipiac (CT) played Yale (CT) for the title
  • 2012 (Tampa Bay) - Again, long distance for all
  • 2011 (St. Paul, MN) - Colorado College beat Boston College, Michigan beat Nebraska-Omaha. No strength here either
  • 2010 (Detroit) - Boston College beat Miami, Wisconsin beat RIT (New York), BC won. Negative correlation, if anything
  • 2009 (Washington DC) - Boston U beat Vermont, Miami beat Bemidji, no strength here as well

So, yeah. 2015 is the best parallel that can be drawn for WMU hockey fans in terms of competing for a national title.

In 2010, we had a negative effect, so we can’t draw a line. But, if we look at the teams and the destinations, no team had as short of a drive that WMU fans would have should the Broncos advance out of their regional.

So can it be done? We’ll see.

History says no, but anything can (and has) happened come tournament time. While the East has won 7 of the last 9 NCAA Tournaments, the West currently holds the title (North Dakota). The shift in power appears to be heading back towards this side of the Appalachians, and that only bodes well for the team in Kalamazoo.