The Curious Case of Wisconsin and National Championships

I’ve made this point quite a bit: how do we know Brad Frost of Minnesota and Mark Johnson of Wisconsin are good coaches? Maybe that’s a silly question to ask since they combine for eight National Championships between them, both with four. To counter that, they routinely have the most talented teams so…shouldn’t they win a lot of titles? What is the right number of titles for them to win?

It’s hard to debate Frost since he’s won four of the last six national titles. Mark Johnson, however, hasn’t won a championship since 2011 and seems to avoid the questions that UMD’s Shannon Miller got right away. Granted Duluth fell off for a few years and Wisconsin has remained among the elites during most of Johnson’s drought. But this is two years in a row now Wisconsin has brought the best team into the NCAA Tournament (2016 arguable) and come away empty-handed. What gives?

Do we laud Johnson for perennially keeping Wisconsin in the conversation, or do we criticize him for not having won for six years?

Wisconsin has played in seven national title games during Johnson’s tenure, amassing a 4-3 record. In their four wins Wisconsin averaged a 35-2-3 record and a +129 goal differential heading into the title game. Their opponent in that time averaged 28-8-2 and +74. In their three losses Wisconsin averaged 32-5-3 and a +112 while their opponents were 32-4-3 and +104.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Wisconsin wins when they’re good, and loses when they’re less good, and they lose when their opponents are good and win when their opponents are less good.

It’s actually a bit more binary than that.

Put a different way, Wisconsin has never beaten a top-two opponent in a national championship, even when they themselves are a top-two team. Wisconsin is 0-2 against top two opponents even though they were the highest ranked team in the country both times (2012, 2017). The teams they’ve defeated in title games? Fifth (BU, 2011), third (Mercyhurst, 2009), seventh (UMD, 2007), and fourth (Minnesota, 2006). And don’t suggest that they defeated the top teams in semifinal games to get there. They didn’t.

As a top seed, Wisconsin is 2-2 in national title games. Their wins came over the fifth and seventh seeds that year and their losses both came to the second seed.

It’s probably unfair to suggest that Mark Johnson is a bad coach. I don’t see many others making seven national title games in eleven years. But I think the question of whether or not he is an elite coach (at least in terms of in-game strategy) is pretty fair. It could be that single-elimination games in hockey are just a grand crapshoot, but there seems to be a pretty clear pattern here, especially watching Wisconsin’s games against Boston College and Clarkson this season.

I felt that Wisconsin failed to adjust tactically in both contests, continuing to try to force the puck into a sea of bodies down low. Boston College in particular ceded a lot of space to the points and Wisconsin didn’t take advantage of it until late. I saw more of the same against Clarkson, although I think the Knights spread their coverage out a bit better. The Badger shooters seemed to try and shoot harder and harder as the game wore on. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t good enough shots to beat Tiley, but that a lot of these weren’t on net. Whether Johnson tried to manage this on the bench, I do not know.

Ultimately Wisconsin’s title drought is as the title suggests…curious.

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About Alex

I am awesome.
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