Do Conference Tournament Winners Have a Lead in the Race to the Final Four?

This time of year, when the conference tournaments are on and we are all waiting to see the brackets, is when I drive myself crazy. Or at least one of the many times throughout the year that I do so. Before I have an actual bracket to handicap I spend much more time than is healthy going blind over every kind of stat I can think of. Partly I am looking for angles and insights that will give me an edge when the tournament starts, and partly I am just keeping myself busy so that the time will pass quicker.

As I was looking back at last year’s tournament to find anything interesting something popped out at me. The winners of all six major conference tournaments made the Elite Eight. Florida won it from the SEC, the Big Ten’s Ohio State was the runner-up, Georgetown won the Big East before losing in the final four, and the Pac-10’s Oregon, the ACC’s North Carolina, and Kansas from the Big 12 all lost in the Elite Eight. On top of that, Memphis won the CUSA tournament before losing in the Eight. Only UCLA, which was upset in the first round of their tournament, made the Eight without a conference title. That’s pretty compelling. Handicapping can’t be that easy, can it? Of course not.

Here’s the breakdown of the four tournaments before last year and the fate of the six conference champions:

2006 – This was a very mixed bag for the conference champs. The last two teams standing were both conference champs, but the other four of them had a disappointing tournament, and three of them were embarrassed early.

  • ACC – Duke lost in Sweet Sixteen.
  • Big East – Syracuse upset in first round as a five.
  • Big Ten – Iowa upset in first round as a three.
  • Big 12 – Kansas upset in first round as a four.
  • Pac-10 – UCLA lost in the final.
  • SEC – Florida won it all.

2005 – This wasn’t as strong as other years for conference champs. The winner of the tournament, North Carolina, lost in the ACC semi-finals. Only one conference champ departed in the first round instead of three, though, and four of six made it to the Sweet Sixteen as opposed to three in 2006.

  • ACC – Duke lost in Sweet Sixteen.
  • Big East – Syracuse upset in first round (again) as a four.
  • Big Ten – Illinois lost in the final.
  • Big 12 – Oklahoma State lost in the Sweet Sixteen.
  • Pac-10 – Washington lost in the Sweet Sixteen.
  • SEC – Florida lost in the second round.

2004 – This was the best overall year since 2007. The winner and a semi-finalist were conference winners, and all six teams made it out of the first round. Tournament runner-up Georgia Tech llost in the ACC semi-finals.

  • ACC – Maryland lost in second round.
  • Big East – UConn won it all.
  • Big Ten – Wisconsin lost in Sweet Sixteen.
  • Big 12 – Oklahoma State lost in Final Four.
  • Pac-10 – Stanford lost in the second round.
  • SEC – Kentucky lost in second round.

2003 – This was not a good year for conference winners. None made it as far as the Final Four. Tournament winner Syracuse lost in the Big East semi-final, while runner-up Kansas also fell in their conference semi-final.

  • ACC – Duke lost in the Sweet Sixteen.
  • Big East – Pitt lost in the Sweet Sixteen.
  • Big Ten – Illinois lost in the second round.
  • Big 12 – Oklahoma lost in the Elite Eight.
  • Pac-10 – Oregon lost in the first round, but only as an eight.
  • SEC – Kentucky lost in the Elite Eight.

So what do we have from the last five years? The first thing to note is that 13 of the last 30 major conference champs made it at least as far as the Elite Eight. Though there have obviously been upsets, that shows that the teams largely live up to expectations (as much as any team can in something as difficult as the tournament). Three of the five tournament winners also won their conference tournament. Three runner-ups did too. That means that 60 percent of the finalists over the last five years came from among a distinct group of six teams. That’s not overwhelmingly useful, but it is definitely interesting. It tells us that, all things being equal, you are better off going for the conference champ over the non-champ if you like the two teams equally.

Did this hold over the five previous years?

2002 – Winner Maryland lost in ACC tournament semis. Runner-up Indiana lost in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.

2001 – Winner Duke won the ACC tournament. The runner-up Arizona, but the Pac-10 had no tournament.

2000 – Winner Michigan state won the Big Ten. Runner-up Florida lost in second round of the SEC tournament.

1999 – Winner UConn won the Big East. Runner-up Duke won the ACC.

1998 – Winner Kentucky won the SEC. Utah was the only finalist in the last decade to come from outside a major conference. They lost to UNLV in the WAC tournament.

So from that group, four tournament winners also won their conference tournament. Only one runner-up did the same, but only three had a chance to in a major conference. That’s five out of eight, or 62.5 percent. Again, you were better off choosing your finalists from the six conference champions than from outside of them.

Overall, that’s seven of ten winners, and four of ten of the runner-ups. That means that success in the conference tournament isn’t a guarantee of success, but it does give us a pretty decent indicator of how teams are going to do. If seven of the last ten winners of the tournament won their conference tournament than I will need to have a pretty good reason to pick a non-winner this year. That’s not to say that I won’t, but it just demands extra consideration. That, in my mind, is helpful.

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