While many people feel like March Madness doesn't begin until the first Thursday of the NCAA tournament, real college basketball fans know calamity hits its stride during conference-tournament season, in which Championship "Week" is actually 13 days long and more than 300 teams try to play their way into the Big Dance.
But how much do the conference tournaments actually matter when it comes to filling out your men's NCAA tournament bracket?
If a team gets (or stays) hot and wins its major-conference tournament, is it more likely to make a deep run? Conversely, if a team immediately gets eliminated from its conference tournament, does it translate to a higher probability for an early exit from the NCAA tourney?
To answer those questions, I went back through the past decade of NCAA tournament and conference tournament data for the six major conferences: the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10/Pac-12 and SEC. That's a combined total of 60 conference tournament champions and 285 teams that earned at-large bids.
Here are some observations from that research. Keep them in mind when making your Final Four selections in a couple of weeks.
As a Whole, Conference Tournament Champions Are Substantially More Successful
There's no sense in burying the lede here. This is the biggest takeaway.
Of the aforementioned 60 conference tournament champs, 15 (25.0 percent) made it to the Final Four, 40 (66.7 percent) reached the Sweet 16 and only eight (13.3 percent) were eliminated in the first round. The average expected win total for teams in this group is 2.38.
Maybe those numbers don't sound impressive, but just wait until you see them in contrast to the others.
In the past 10 years, 89 teams have received at-large bids despite not winning a single game in their conference tournament. Only four (4.5 percent) of those teams reached the Final Four. Twenty-four (27.0 percent) made it to the Sweet 16, and 34 (38.2 percent) were eliminated in the first round. Their average expected win total is a mere 1.07. None of them won a national championship.
Teams that win at least one conference tournament game before falling short of the title haven't fared much better. A whopping 196 fit that description, resulting in 14 (7.1 percent) Final Fours, 69 (35.2 percent) Sweet 16s and 80 (40.8 percent) immediate eliminations. The expected win total there is a mildly more respectable 1.26, but that's still more than a full win behind the conference tournament champions.
Of course, significant outliers exist.
Texas Tech darn near won it all last year after losing its Big 12 opener. Among the conference champs who lost right away, you've got 2018 Virginia (UMBC), 2016 Michigan State (Middle Tennessee) and 2012 Missouri (Norfolk State). But as a general rule of thumb, conference champions are more successful.
There are a few intriguing caveats, though.
NCAA No. 1 Seeds Are Slightly Better Off Not Winning Conference Tournaments
Excluding the four mid-major No. 1 seeds—Gonzaga in 2013, 2017 and 2019; Wichita State in 2014—36 major-conference squads have sat on the top line in the past decade. Most of them (22) won their conference tournaments, but that still leaves 14 that earned a No. 1 seed despite faltering at some point in the final few days before Selection Sunday.
And that latter group has been a little more successful.
The 22 conference champs have produced eight Final Four teams and three national champions. The expected win total is a strong 3.10. The only ones to bow out before the Sweet 16 were Virginia in the UMBC fiasco, Villanova in both 2015 and 2017 and Kansas when it got Ali Farokhmanesh'd by Northern Iowa in 2010.
But there have been four national champions among the 14 No. 1 seeds that didn't win their conference tournaments, and only two of the 14—2011 Pittsburgh and 2018 Xavier—failed to reach the second weekend. That group has an expected win total of 3.36, and it's hard to say why that's the case.
It's a small enough difference that it might just be a wrinkle we can attribute to sample size. Or maybe there is some sort of motivational advantage that comes from losing in your conference tournament and realizing you aren't invincible. Either way, it's an interesting set of data points.
As far as this season is concerned, that could be pertinent information in the Big 12, as both Baylor and Kansas are firmly entrenched on the top line and can't possibly both win the conference tournament. I'm not suggesting the loser of the possible rubber match in the Big 12 title game is destined to make a deeper run than the winner, but I am suggesting there's no good reason to assume the loser is going to get bounced in the second round.
Among Top 4 Seeds, No Back-to-Back One-and-Dones
To reiterate a previous note, of the 89 major-conference teams in the past decade to earn an at-large bid in spite of an immediate exit from their conference tournament, 34 also lost in the first round (or the First Four) of the NCAA tournament.
However, that evidently does not apply to teams that earn a No. 4 seed or better because there have been 25 such teams, and not a single one lost in the first round. Meanwhile, of the 119 teams to win at least one conference tournament game prior to earning a top-four seed, 17—one out of every seven if you're a fan of reduced fractions—lost in the first round.
Granted, 25 teams (2.5 per year) is only a slightly bigger sample size than our above look at No. 1 seeds. But when you're trying to forecast those elusive, colossal first-round upsets, you'll probably want to avoid the teams that went 0-1 in their conference tournaments even though you would think those are the obvious candidates to lay eggs.
Two other thoughts on this particular subset of the data:
- While none of the 25 lost in the first round, 2019 Texas Tech was the only one to reach the Final Four. If we end up with any top-four seeds who lose their only conference tournament game, play the odds and take those teams exactly to the Sweet 16.
- This means that of the teams to earn a No. 5 seed or worse after an immediate exit from their conference tournament, more than half (34 of 64) proceed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. While there have been a few incredible runs from that group—2016 Syracuse and 2017 South Carolina, in particular—the expected win total there is 0.72. Look elsewhere for your sleeper picks.
Feel Free to Fade This Year's Big Ten Tournament Champion
While most conference tournament champions enjoy a fair amount of success in the Big Dance, the team that survives the toughest gauntlet rarely has enough left in the tank for a deep run.
Per KenPom.com, the Big 12 was rated as the best conference in 2010, as well as each year from 2014-19. The Big Ten held down the top spot from 2011-13, and it is clearly locked in at No. 1 this season.
Of the teams that won those 10 conference tournaments, four failed to reach the Sweet 16 (Kansas in 2010; Iowa State in 2015, 2017 and 2019), and only one went to the Final Four (Kansas in 2018). Those Jayhawks had to survive a minor miracle in the Elite Eight, too, only beating Duke in overtime when Grayson Allen's would-be game-winner at the end of regulation rolled around the rim twice before falling out.
In the past decade, the tournament winner of the toughest conference has an expected win total of just 1.8.
But you can already assume with near-100 percent certainty that everyone in the national media is going to fall head-over-heels in love with whoever wins the Big Ten tournament because that team is going to win at least three tough games in consecutive days on a neutral court. As long as it isn't Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota or Purdue, it is also likely going to end up with a top-four seed and will rank among the 10 betting favorites to win the title.
Just try to remember there's a fine line between battle-tested and downright exhausted. The Big Ten has already produced a brutal conference season with virtually no freebies, and this tournament is liable to sap what little energy these teams have left in their reserves.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.