Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bit of a Dry Spell

How bad have things gotten for the University of Minnesota basketball and football programs? So bad that even august national media institutions such as the Wall Street Journal have taken notice of their ineptitude. Minnesota's Women's Hockey Title: The Golden Gophers Won Something!:

When the Minnesota women's hockey team beat Wisconsin for the national title Sunday, it added to the Gophers' pile of titles in that sport and others. Minnesota has won 24 NCAA titles in eight sports, including eight in hockey (three by the women, five by the men). But there haven't been any titles lately in the two biggest sports of all: football and men's basketball.

Minnesota was once a giant in football, but the last of its six national titles came in 1960. In basketball, Minnesota earned the second of its two national titles in 1919—which was 20 years before the initial NCAA tournament.

Conference titles have been impossible to come by too. Minnesota's last official Big Ten title in either of the two major sports was in 1982. Save for Nebraska, which is in its first season in the conference, every Big Ten school has won at least three football and/or men's basketball titles since then.

Even the Gophers' basketball peaks have come with bad news. Their 1972 conference title was marred by a brawl with Ohio State. Their first-ever Final Four appearance and conference title in 1997 were wiped out by an academic scandal. Their lone visit to the Big Ten tournament final (2010) brought a 90-61 loss to Ohio State.

The good news this year? The Gophers are still in the running for a title. They face Middle Tennessee on Wednesday in the Elite Eight. (Of the National Invitation Tournament.)

Geez. Talk about kicking you when you're down. Thank God for Gopher hockey.

The Elder Adds Some Further Perspective:

To exemplify that last statement, consider the following. Since 1982, the last time the Gopher basketball or football team won a Big Ten title, the Gopher hockey squad has won eight regular season WCHA titles (this year's being the most recent), six WCHA playoff championships, and two NCAA national titles.

Now, the argument you always hear is that it's easier in college hockey because there are so many fewer teams. And at the national level that's true. With fifty-nine teams currently playing division one college hockey and sixteen making the NCAA tournament, 27.11% of the teams qualify. In basketball, there are three-hundred-and-forty-five D1 schools. Sixty-eight teams now participate in the NCAA tournament or 19.71%. So it is statistically more likely that a school has a better chance of having meaningful post-season games in hockey as compared to basketball, although the gap is not as huge as some portray it as.

However, that doesn't excuse the pitiful performance of the Gopher football and basketball teams in conference play. Over the years in question, the Big Ten and WCHA have usually had close to same number of teams (anywhere between ten and twelve). So without taking any other factors into consideration, the hockey, football, and basketball teams should have equal chances of winning the conference championship. Clearly there are significant recruiting advantages that the Gopher hockey team enjoys that the basketball and football teams don’t. There is far more in-state talent in hockey and the program has a much better national reputation. You could even argue that by only winning eight WCHA titles in thirty years, the Gopher hockey squad has underperformed to expectations. But to have two major sports programs BOTH go thirty years with neither winning a SINGLE conference championship is almost behind belief.

The basketball and football boosters might not want to admit it and will whine about how unfair the comparisons are, but the truth is the only big times sports program that has been golden for the University of Minnesota in the last thirty years is hockey.

(Yes, I know the Gopher baseball and wrestling programs have had their moments as well, but they don’t rate as high as hockey when it comes to fan interest and media attention.)