Expectations Three Years Ago
I expected the Gophers to contend for the B1G championship every year and finish no worse than second. So far so good. The Gophers have won all three regular season championships and one conference tournament. The original six were comprised of 2 top 4 all-time programs and two more in the top 8. These 4 schools accounted for 23 of 64 possible titles prior to the formation of the conference. Based on that, one would expect about 1 national title every three years. Minnesota was the runner-up in the inaugural year but the Conference has fallen pretty far since then. Ohio State was a warm body and Penn State was a huge question mark.
The B1G has placed 4 teams in the NCAA tournament over the last 3 years. Those teams have gone 4-4. Minnesota is 3-2, Michigan is 1-1, and Wisconsin is 0-1. One would expect at least 2 B1G teams to make the 16-team tourney every year. No one foresaw Michigan State struggling as much as it had and Wisconsin cratering. Ohio State has been competitive, but not on a national level. Michigan had been largely disappointing until this past season. Minnesota has disappointed its fans, but has had a fairly typical three year run. Penn State has been a pleasant surprise, becoming a top-20 team in three years.
The Gophers have been abysmal against the other Minnesota teams for the better part of the last two years. The conference, as a whole, has been terrible in non-con but fairly competitive in conference play. Minnesota and Michigan have been the top two teams and the other four are jumbled up with MSU, Wisconsin, and Penn State all being strong challengers in at least 1 season. Ohio State has avoided any terrible conference years but has been consistently meh.
Wisconsin pushed the reset button button with some good hires and should be back to contending shortly. MSU will need to do the same, sooner rather than later. Ohio State is poised for a good season next year. Penn State will continue to improve. Michigan and Minnesota should both challenge for the conference title next year. The B1G will need to vastly improve non-con play to be considered a top conference. The Conference is bringing in Notre Dame starting in the 2017-18 season to increase membership to 7 teams. The current conference slate is stale, the only series Gopher fans care about is Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent Michigan. It will be nice to have another strong program (and just another team in general) to see.
A Look to the Past
One issue with the small conference is that the teams beat up on each other. A perfectly balanced schedule means that it will be difficult for a six team conference to send more than two teams to the NCAAs because everyone will pick up losses. Adding a 7th team helps spread out the losses and improve overall win percentages. Adding another quality program, like Notre Dame, can help build the B1G into a strong conference like the NCHC.
Looking at the old WCHA, four of the B1G teams (five if you count Notre Dame) are former members. Minnesota, Michigan, and Michigan State were members from 1951-1981, Wisconsin joined in 1969, and Notre Dame joined in 1971. Minnesota and Wisconsin remained in the WCHA until the formation of the B1G Conference while the other three joined Ohio State in the CCHA.
I decided to look at the 22 years before the formation of the CCHA to see how often the 4 top dogs of B1G hockey made the tournament. It is important to note that only 4 teams qualified until 1977. Either 5 or 6 teams qualified until 81, then 8 teams starting in 81.
At least one team made the tournament in 17 of the years, 2 of which saw two teams qualify. Only once did a team qualify and not advance to the Frozen Four (Minnesota in 79). The B1G won 8 titles and had 4 runners-up over this stretch. For reference, the WCHA won 17 titles and had 13 runners-up in the same time span. The western teams dominated college hockey in the 60's and 70's.
What stood out most to me is that no more than two of these 4 teams would be considered top flight in any given year. Often it was just one of the four. In fact, until the field expanded to 5, only 1 of the 4 ever qualified.
While the NCAA field has expanded to 16, the number of teams has doubled while parity is also at an all time high. Having 6 teams means that the B1G can't afford for more than one of the top four to be down at a time and can't afford for one (or more!) of them to be historically down. The big reasons for the B1G's current failure on a national level are the unthinkable cratering by Wisconsin and the apparent apathy at MSU. Minnesota has done its part and Michigan is now pulling its weight. Penn State is taking advantage of the situation and looks to be well on their way to the NCAA tournament. Ohio State is poised for a return to the tournament next year as well.
With the addition of Notre Dame, I would expect 8 teams to qualify over a 4 year stretch with one title game and three Frozen Four appearances. If, and it's a big if, the conference can get all 7 teams running on all cylinders, there is no reason why it can't challenge the NCHC for the mantle of best conference. In a best case year, 4 or 5 teams would qualify with two making the Frozen Four and one winning the whole thing.
In the short term, I expect two or three teams to be in the race for tourney spots and one or two to qualify. If Wisconsin can turn itself around quickly and Penn State's progress is real, we might have a strong conference yet. In the meantime, pencil Minnesota in for another conference crown and pick one of Minnesota, Michigan, or Penn State to make the NCAAs in 2017.