The Duke Blue Devils won their fifth National Championship in men's basketball this past April in an intriguing final match up against our hated rivals, the Wisconsin Badgers. Poor Duke hadn't won a national title since 2010. It must have been a really hard five years waiting on the that 5th title, eh Blue Devil fans? Sure, they have no football history to speak of but thanks to the brilliance that has been the Mike Krzyzewski era at Duke, they have been flush with success in one of the two major collegiate sports. Other BCS programs, on the other hand, aren't quite so lucky to have reached the mountain top in either of the two major sports in the last 55 years. Heck, some haven't even been to the apex of their own conference in either sports since 1997. Or if you want to get even more depressed, some schools haven't even been conference champions in either sport legally since 1982.
Obviously, I'm specifically referring to the Gophers. The University of Minnesota hasn't been all too successful in either of the two major programs in the modern era of collegiate athletics. Thankfully, the men's and women's hockey teams have combined for 10 championships. In a state that is heavily dedicated to hockey, this is a welcome statistic and something to praise. But if we are all being honest with ourselves, the two main draws on campus, even in the heart of "The State of Hockey" are still football and men's basketball. And neither of those programs has even sniffed a conference title in the last 15 years.
I state these things not to be a Debbie Downer, but to explain the tempered expectations of the Minnesota fan base. We are intelligent, realistic people. We do not expect our coaches to win national championships or consistently make Final Fours or BCS Bowls. We know that success at Minnesota, at least in its place in the current NCAA landscape, is definitely different than it is at Duke in basketball or Alabama in football. Success is measured much differently in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. We were thrilled, and rightfully so, about consecutive 8-win seasons delivered by the Killster. We were tickled pink when Richard Pitino led us to a NIT championship in his first year at the helm in 2014. The standards here are different. And since the standards are different, the success of a given coach is often measured, not by titles, but by appearances in bowl games in football or just getting to the Big Dance in basketball.
But one of these tasks is actually more difficult than the other. They shouldn't be considered equivalents because one of them is rarer and harder to obtain. One requires less success against weaker competition. One requires more wins and an actual "resume" of quality play. One is something Minnesota has only done 33% of the time during it's modern incarnation. Man... do you feel that? It's getting a little hot in herre. *Sniffs air* Ehhhh....What's that odious scent? Hey, I'm getting a little nervous now... Could it be? Is it?.. Don't tell me...OH MY GOSH!!!! THAT'S TIMMY BREW'S SMELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Reasonable #HotTake: Making the NCAA Tournament is More Difficult Than Making a Low Tier Bowl
When you break it all down, this isn't even a #HotTake. Personally, I see it as a foregone conclusion. Hopefully, after taking you through several steps, you'll understand why it is much more challenging for a school like Minnesota to reach the NCAA Basketball Tournament than it is to reach the coveted Micron.com PC Bowl or the illustrious Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
*IMPORTANT NOTE: This #HotTake is not an indictment or plea of support for any current or former Minnesota head coach in any sport. Well, except for the fact that it should be a given that any article is an indictment on Timmy Brew.
Proportion of Qualifiers
There are 125 football teams currently classified as Division I FBS (three are currently in the transitioning period). This past year, there were 38 bowl games. That means 76 teams made bowl games. A quick little calculation shows us that 60.8% of all FBS teams make bowl games. And you thought the NHL and NBA playoffs were too inclusive? Yowza.
On the other hand, there are 351 Division I men's basketball teams. 68 of these teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament, with 32 teams receiving automatic bids (we'll get to this more a little later). That means 19.3% of all Division I teams make the NCAA Tournament. It would appear that the NCAA Tournament is a little more selective.
Ah, but you say that most of those 351 teams do not have a realistic shot to actually make the tournament because they are comprised of schools like New Jersey Institute of Technology or Long Island University Brooklyn. That's fine. Let's eliminate the "fluff" of both samples and focus on the best.
In FBS football there are 64 teams in the five major conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and ACC). Let's throw in Notre Dame and BYU because those two schools are both major players in the landscape of the sport. That gives us 66 teams. Since 26 of the 76 teams from the 2014 Bowl Season came from conferences like the Mountain West and the American Athletic, it means that 50 of the 66 "major" schools made bowls. This boils down to 75.8%. If you are a major collegiate football program and you don't make a bowl game, you are probably pretty dang terrible.
In Division I basketball, there aren't five major conferences. There are six (not to mention a seventh, the American, which contains UConn and Cincinnati, two programs generally considered of high quality). Thanks to the Big East, comprised of schools with no football programs, there are more quality squads in college basketball. There are 75 programs in NCAA basketball's six best conferences. 75 teams are fighting for 36 at-large spots. While some of the best teams will get automatic bids through being champions of their conference tournament, let's say these are cancelled out by the likes of perennially strong programs who play outside the top six conferences like Gonzaga, UConn, Temple, San Diego State, etc. This means only 48% of major programs will make the NCAA Tournament. In the case of basketball, if you are a major collegiate basketball program and you don't make it to the Dance, you are actually in a majority. It's more likely you don't make the NCAA Tournament, especially considering we didn't count any of the consistently competitive programs from the likes of the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, or the Missouri Valley Conferences.
Mathematically speaking, it is harder for a team in one of the major athletic collegiate conferences to qualify for the NCAA Tournament than it is to sneak into the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Another interesting aspect to consider is how many "quality wins" does a football (or basketball) team really need to qualify for the postseason. A FBS football squad becomes bowl eligible with six wins. Considering that Minnesota has always been extended a bowl invitation with six wins and no Big Ten team has been snubbed for a bowl with six wins since Iowa (LOLZ) in 2007, it is safe to assume in today's bowl climate six wins will get you a bid. That means you only need to go .500 to secure that elusive spot in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl. In the case of football, generally speaking, a BCS team will play one quality non-conference opponent and three cupcakes. This is also generally true when it comes to Minnesota. Right off the bat, three games within the schedule are built-in wins unless your program is in the midst of a major rebuild. Even if every conference opponent is of somewhat decent quality, which isn't a given when you have the likes of Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana in your conference, a given BCS school only has to go 3-6 in their games against "quality" competition to qualify for a lower tier bowl. That's a .333 winning percentage and most of the time the remaining nine games aren't all actually against quality competition.
Looking at basketball, Big Ten teams usually play 12 non-conference games to complement the 18-game conference schedule. Let's say 10 of these games are cupcakes. This is true for Minnesota in the last eight years or so, but this number could be too high if a program schedules tough for the good ole RPI SOS inflation or just wants to challenge themselves before the rigors of conference play (see: Michigan State). Let's be fair and say that at least two of the games in the conference schedule will be absolute gimmes for any given year (Rutgers at home, for example). That means there will be 18 "quality" games on the basketball schedule. Though it's not always the case, 20 wins does tend to be a decent threshold when considering making the NCAA Tournament for a Big Six conference team. So, even if a team wins all of their "cupcake games," they would still be required to win eight of the remaining 18 games to have even a chance to get into the Big Dance. That works out to a .444 winning percentage. That's an absolute bare minimum. It's probably more realistic to say you should win 50% of your "quality" games. Once again, a higher percentage than compared to the FBS and bowl games.
Recent Big Ten Quality
This is where #HotTakes may take over slightly, but I think we've had enough statistical evidence to support a foray into speculation. Since, as shown above, a team only needs to win three Big Ten football games to qualify for a bowl, it has been especially advantageous that several Big Ten programs have been absolute tire fires over the last ten years. A team can easily capitalize on a fortuitous schedule that includes Illinois and Purdue (hello 2012 Gophers! We love you!) and stumble into a bowl game. I haven't even mentioned Indiana or Northwestern or the fact that the conference now contains something called Rutgers. Some football conference wins are easy pickings, making those six wins even easier to obtain.
Basketball, on the other had, becomes a little more arduous. The conference, while going winless in the championship game, has been a bear for the past decade. Though winless, the conference has sent four different teams to the title game in the last ten years and programs like Purdue and Illinois are actually challenges as oppose to powder puffs. Sure, Rutgers, Penn State, and Nebraska have literally had three tournament appearances in the last 10 years combined, but the conference, for the most part, has been deeper in basketball the last 10+ years than in football.
When you are as far removed from national success as our two major programs are, you begin to consider small victories great accomplishments. In this case, making the NCAA Tournament should be considered a greater accomplishment because it is just plain harder to do. The Golden Gophers have only gone dancing 10 times in 30 opportunities during the modern tournament format (the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985). Meanwhile, the Gopher football squad has gone to 14 bowl games in the same time frame while the pool of possible games has continued to grow and grow and FBS football has continued to become diluted with talent through the transition of more programs. We should celebrate the successes of all of our teams: women's hockey, men's baseball, women's swimming and diving, and heck, thrown in the dynasty that is the Minnesota dance team. But when it comes down to it with the two big programs, an NCAA Tournament appearance is a harder thing to accomplish than making a bowl game.
And while I believe they aren't equal, I'll be happy to celebrate any success from Gopher athletics!