Debunking The Conference Tournament Myth

Over the past several years, there's been an increasingly audible contingent of fans claiming that a team is less likely to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament if it plays the maximum possible number of games in its conference tournament the previous week. You'd think Connecticut winning five games in five days on its way to the 2011 national championship would have quelled such talk, but to my surprise it's been every bit as abundant in recent days as it has been in years past.

The two main points used in this assertion are: 1) Sometimes a good team needs a loss before the big dance in order to restore focus; and 2) Playing three (or four ... or five) games in as many days leaves a team exhausted and vulnerable the week after.

This is a sentiment that I believe demands a rebuking.

While it's certainly possible that there are teams out there that would benefit from a swift kick in the ass, far more often than not, those squads aren't going to be winning championships anyway. The groups that need more than three days of rest to be 100 percent for a game and the ones that aren't mature enough to approach each and every contest with the right mindset probably aren't worthy of much faith in your office pool. If a team doesn't have the focus to win in early March or the legs to win three games in three days, then it likely doesn't have the focus to win in late March, or the legs to win six games in three weeks.

The point I'm trying to make isn't necessarily that there's a direct correlation between conference tournament success and NCAA Tournament success -- the best teams in the country win games, that's not one-handed brain surgery -- I'm just trying to say that there is not a benefit to bowing out early in a conference tournament. "Good losses" are for Little League teams and politicians.

The contrarian crowd always seems to bring up the same example: the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, one of the greatest teams in history in college basketball and one which did not win its conference tournament. My initial response to this point is that UK lost to Mississippi State in the championship game, which eliminates any potential "well-rested" argument. My secondary response is that the '96 Wildcats were such a superior team that they can't be judged with an ordinary barometer.

People nowadays are always bringing "facts" into arguments, and since I'm a sucker for fads (let's compare pogs), I'll go ahead and share a few for you all to wrap your heads around (literally).

  • Three of the four national semifinalists from 2007, 2010 and 2011 were conference tournament champions, and all four teams in the 2008 Final Four won their league tourney. The anomaly is 2009 when national semifinalists Michigan State (Big Ten...dammit), Villanova (Big East), Connecticut (Big East), and North Carolina (ACC) had all bowed out early in their respective conference tournament.
  • The combined NCAA Tournament record of the six major conference tournament champions last year was 18-5, with Kentucky and Connecticut advancing to the Final Four. Of those five losses, two (Kentucky to UConn and Ohio State to Kentucky) came at the hands of a fellow big six tournament champion.
  • In 2010, the combined NCAA Tournament record of the six major conference tournament champions was also 18-5. Of those six teams, only one (Ohio State) lost to a non-conference tournament champion (Tennessee). Three (Kentucky, Washington, West Virginia), were knocked off by one of the other five BCS champs (West Virginia beat Kentucky and Washington before falling to Duke).
  • There were 10 conferences that sent multiple teams to the tournament last year. Of those 10, only two (VCU from the CAA and Arizona from the Pac-10) had a team that didn't win its conference tournament advance further in the big dance than the team that did.
  • There were also 10 conferences that sent multiple teams to the tournament in 2010, and again, only two (Big Ten, Big 12) had a team that didn't win its conference tournament advance further in the big dance than the team that did.
  • There were 12 conferences that sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2007. Of those 12, only three (WAC, A-10, Pac-10) had a team that didn't advance to its conference tournament championship game advance further in the NCAA Tournament than a team that did. Of those three teams, only UCLA won more than one game.
  • Over the past five seasons, the six major conference tournament champions are 88-26 in the NCAA Tournament and have claimed four of those five national titles.
  • All six BCS conference tournament champions advanced to the Elite Eight in 2007. The other two quarterfinalists were Memphis -- which won the Conference USA Tournament -- and UCLA.
  • The combined NCAA Tournament record of the six BCS conference tournament champions in 2007 was 24-5. Of those five losses, only one (Kansas' Elite Eight loss to UCLA) came against a non-fellow BCS conference tournament champion.
  • In 2010, no tournament champion advanced to the Final Four. The record of the big six tourney champs that year was 11-6. Of those six teams, only Georgia (seeded 13th) and USC (seeded 10th) didn't make it past the first weekend. Louisville and Missouri were both defeated in the Elite Eight.
  • Ten of the last 14 national champions have won their conference tournament. North Carolina in '09 and '05, Syracuse in '03, and Maryland in '02 are the exceptions.
  • Twenty of the last 32 Final Four teams have been conference tournament champions, and three of those qualifying teams that didn't win their league title played in the same conference as the fellow semifinalist which did.

The statistics speak pretty clearly: winning three or four (or five) games in as many days puts you at no disadvantage as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned. There are approximately 126 stoppages of play in every nationally televised college basketball game, and every major conference tournament champion this weekend is going to have between 4-6 days of rest before tipping off in the big dance. The kids are going to be all right.

While hoisting a league tournament trophy may not provide any sort of magic edge for the succeeding weeks, there's no question that it does improve seeding and breeds confidence. There's no reason for any of us to be quietly hoping Louisville bows out at any point this week.

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