Name that team.
It's currently in second place in its conference.
It's on the NCAA tournament bubble, with work still to do the next two weeks. In fact, it might have to win its league tourney to get in.
It has a national player of the year candidate in its locker room.
Give up? OK, here's a hint: It plays in the CenturyLink Center.
The boys in blue? hardly. Meet the UNO hockey team, the other season on the brink in this town.
Indeed, the similarities between UNO hockey and Creighton basketball are striking. And yet, they couldn't be more different.
College hoops is a mainstream thing, and fans, media and talk show hosts all play Bracketology and “guess Creighton's seed” after every game.
Only UNO hockey fans know where to find the only college hockey bracketology (USCHO.com) and understand what a PairWise ranking is. (For the record, USCHO.com doesn't have UNO in right now).
Doug McDermott is one of the most recognizable faces in Omaha. Joe Big-O wouldn't know Ryan Walters if he stood in the middle of 72nd and Dodge and shot pucks at moving cars.
The Jays are 22-6 and everyone's tight. They have been wilting under the pressure of heavy expectations, to the point that coach Greg McDermott intimated his team was too soft after Tuesday night's win over Southern Illinois.
The Mavs are 18-12-2 and everything's groovy. On Wednesday, the Mavs' daily traveling show arrived at the Ralston Arena for practice with smiles, ahead of schedule. The players don't carry a Sweet 16 gorilla around; the Mavs were picked eighth in their league.
But suddenly UNO is on the verge of perhaps its biggest season in history, with a chance to win the WCHA with two weeks left in the season, and the third NCAA tourney bid in its history.
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Either feat would be a cause for celebration.
Welcome to the world of college hockey. The “B” side to the winter soundtrack. The saner side. In many ways, the harder side.
Like Creighton coach McDermott, UNO coach Dean Blais is playing the “what do we need to do” game these days. But for Blais, it's a bit more black and white.
Only 16 teams make the NCAA Division I hockey tournament. Five of those are automatic bids from five leagues, including UNO's WCHA. So, if you don't win your league tourney, you're trying to get one of 11 at-large bids.
And Jays fans thought they had a small margin for error. In hoops, there are 37 at-large bids.
In basketball, there's the calculated guesswork of “Bracketologists” Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm. In hockey, there's the PairWise rankings.
The PairWise ratings are supposed to simulate the “nitty gritty” data used by the NCAA hockey selection committee. Like the data in basketball, the PairWise rewards strong scheduling, but also winning some of those games.
In hockey, these ratings are taken quite literally by coaches, players and fans.
For instance, all believe that the top 16 in the final PairWise ratings — including the five league tourney winners — get a tourney bid.
As of Wednesday, UNO ranked 21st in the PairWise, with an RPI ranking of 16. That ranking, plus being in second place in the WCHA, had Blais feeling reasonably good. But there are two league series left, against sixth-place Wisconsin and eighth-place Duluth.
Blais is confident that if the Mavs can finish in the top 16 and top four in their league, they're in. But that probably requires winning three of the final four games. And then not stumbling badly in the league tourney.
“Nobody in the world knows how it (PairWise) works,” Blais said. “We lost two to North Dakota and moved up. We swept Alaska and dropped. We're getting more points losing than winning. It makes no sense.
“The bottom line is, it takes care of itself. If we finish second, third or fourth in the WCHA, we're going to get a bid. If we're 20th at the end of the year, you're not going to get in. But say we beat Wisconsin twice, we'll move up to 15th. And say we split with Duluth, we'll be 14.”
It makes for good late-season drama, and that includes this weekend, as the Mavs sit idle in the WCHA and watch to see who might jump over them in the pecking order.
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But the situation also shows the challenge of college hockey, and using the sport as your athletic department rainmaker.
Eleven at-large bids. No matter how much you put into the sport, no matter if you hire a big name coach, build an arena, go recruit the next wave of NHL fresh faces, that number stares you in the face. Eleven.
Because of that number, it's a smart move for UNO to leave a big arena and play to sold-out crowds of 7,500.
Those numbers — 11 at-large, 16 total — make college hockey perhaps the hardest postseason to make. And probably the hardest sport to market.
Imagine the buzz for UNO hockey if the Mavs made regular appearances in the NCAAs. That's not to say the Mavs can't get there. But 11 at-large bids makes the task pretty steep. It makes it harder to build a bandwagon.
If you were in charge of college hockey, wouldn't you expand the tourney for the sake of growing more interest and excitement? Yes. Here's the problem: 59 schools play Division I hockey.
Expansion to 20 wouldn't be a bad thing. But more than that, and you're rubbing up against nearly half the population in the postseason. Even Bud Selig thinks that's bogus.
“No, I would not expand it,” Blais said. “We don't want to water it down. Heck, it used to be eight (teams).
“It's the way it's always been. Can't really complain about the system. Everybody knows what the system is. They've messed with a lot of rules in college hockey, and every year it seems there's a new change. But the playoffs have been pretty consistent. And that's OK. When you get there, you've done something. You've earned it.”
Then he and the Mavs went out to practice, in an empty arena, behind drawn curtains.
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