College basketball is in the thick of conference tourney season, and every team wants the momentum of a league championship as it heads into March Madness. As valuable as that confidence boost can be, though, it’s easy to put too much importance on the outcome of the conference tournament by the time the Big Dance comes around.
The incentive to overrate a team’s mid-March showing has rarely been higher than this year. After all, one of 2012’s most memorable NCAA tournament performances came from the Louisville Cardinals, a middle-of-the-pack Big East team that rode a tournament title from Madison Square Garden all the way to the Final Four.
Those Cards, however, are the exception rather than the rule for a number of reasons. One of the biggest is the same criticism often leveled against March Madness itself: Single-elimination tournaments don’t necessarily end with the best team winning the title.
For a prime example of that phenomenon, just look at last March’s SEC tournament. Top-ranked Kentucky suffered just its second loss of the season, falling to senior-heavy Vanderbilt in the title game.
There’s no doubt that Vanderbilt put together a terrific game to beat an amazing Wildcats team, but did that mean the Commodores were ready to win an NCAA championship? Of course not.
Vandy fell to Wisconsin in the Round of 32, and its SEC crown will go down as an anomaly. Kentucky was barely tested in powering its way to the national championship, and in 10 years, nobody is going to remember that the Wildcats didn’t win the SEC tournament title.
An even more crucial issue with relying on conference tournament results is that in league tournament play, every opponent is a familiar opponent.
Most of the time, a conference tournament game is the third meeting of the season between the two teams on the floor. They’ve prepared for each other twice already, have seen how the other side tries to attack them head-to-head and are generally experts on each other’s game by tipoff time.
That’s exactly the opposite of the situation produced by the NCAA tournament, where a higher seed facing a Cinderella team might not even have seen the opposing players in highlights until the day before the game. The challenge of preparing for an utterly unfamiliar opponent is a completely different problem for coaches and players than the prospect of, say, Round 3 of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry for the year.
One of the most noteworthy examples of this effect comes from 2003, when Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team beat four different Big 12 opponents en route to the national title. The then-Orangemen were worthy champions, to be sure, but they absolutely got a boost from sending out their famed 2-3 zone defense against four teams from a conference where zones were rarely used that season.
More recently, Virginia Commonwealth has scored huge early-round wins in each of the last two NCAA tournaments, but the Rams’ regular-season performances have yet to earn them better than a No. 11 seed under Shaka Smart.
Why does VCU get better in March Madness? Partly because the frenetic havoc defense that has made the team famous is so difficult to prepare for, giving conference foes—who face the Rams multiple times every year—an advantage over postseason opponents.
It’s worth remembering that in 2011, when VCU made its brilliant run to the Final Four, the Rams had failed to win the CAA championship. They lost in the finals of that tournament to Old Dominion, a team that parlayed its momentum into exactly zero victories' worth of Big Dance success before losing to Butler.