How Important Are Conference Championships? Comparing Regular Season and Conference Tournament Success

After Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten regular season championship, Testudo Times, the SBNation Maryland blog, had this to say on Twitter:

This stuck me as a particularly odd take. If conference titles aren’t important, what have we been doing for the last several months? Just prepping for March? Is the implication that conference tournament championships are a big deal, compared to regular season titles?

That doesn’t land right for me. Conference regular season championships are hard fought over the course of a season. A team can get hot and win the conference tournament.

In the end, how do we measure the success of a season anyway? If a conference splits the regular season and conference titles between two teams, how do we decide which team was actually better?

To answer this question, I dug into the last ten seasons of champions in the six biggest conferences. The goal was simple, determine whether there is a discernible success rate between regular season and conference tournament champions.

Our criteria is a bit open-ended. NCAA Tournament wins always help, but can’t be considered the alpha and omega. We’ll also turn to our old friend Ken Pomeroy and his rankings for a more balanced look at the team’s of the past. We’ll still use his post tourney rankings, but that still weights the regular season more than simply praising Cinderellas or scolding teams that were upset.

I compiled all of this information into a giant spreadsheet, which is fun for college basketball nerds to peruse, though not concise enough to make much sense. Let’s break down some of the fine points of the data and make some takeaways.

As expected, the final KenPom rankings favor the regular season champs.

Ken Pomeroy’s metric doesn’t weigh the postseason more heavily than the regular season, but the opportunity to play as many as six games against top competition will still bolster your numbers. Even so, the regular season champs have had a clear advantage over the last ten seasons.

national kenpom ranksThough not what fanbases want to hear, in general, after a regular season conference title, even if you were sent home from March Madness early, you can look back on your season favorably.

(Side note: What gives Pac-12? Step your game up. East Coast Bias!)

The NCAA Tournament results might tell another story.

national tourney successAdvancing in the NCAA Tournament is, for most teams, a crapshoot. Match-ups, injuries, and pure luck can wildly change your fate. Over the last ten years, conference tournament teams have reached the Final Four or National Championship a bit more often, but not a statistically significant amount.

The most significant gaps are the regular season champs being better at reaching the Elite Eight and conference tournament darlings being upset in their opening game.

Wait, wait, wait… a regular season power conference champion missed the NCAA Tournament?

Yeah! You read that last chart correctly. In 2012 Washington won the Pac-12, but had a sloppy non-conference and missed the Big Dance. Weird things happen in college basketball.

The Big East Tournament has been more indicative of NCAA Tournament success than nearly any other championship.

by conf percentages

In every other conference, the regular season champ had better or similar success to the tournament champs. Not the Big East. Those games at MSG seem bigger to us, but looking deeper at the data, maybe they really are. In the last ten years, five times has the Big East Tournament champion made a run to the Final Four, and it was four different schools who pulled off this feat. The SEC regular season and tournament champions are both 5/10 as well, but only one of those Final Fours was a school other than Kentucky or Florida.

The Big East though is not what it once was. Since the exile of the conference’s football powers, a regular season or conference champion has yet to reach the second weekend of tournament play.

OK, what’s the big takeaway here? What will help me win my bracket pool?

Yes, all of the above is a bit of a shrug and an admittance that the tournament is wild. Good teams lose early and decent teams can get hot late. But what about great teams?

In the last 10 years, 21 different teams have swept the regular season and conference championships.

double ups

This is where you see teams able to separate themselves. We’ve removed teams who grabbed a share of a title late in the season or won a few conference tournament games they shouldn’t have. These 21 teams have never been upset in the first round and have reached the Final Four at a very high rate. Only twice have they failed to move on to the second weekend (Villanova last year and Kansas in 2o10).

If North Carolina, Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M, or Oregon win their conference tournaments this week (Indiana already lost), based on recent history, you can essentially erase the chance they’ll be upset early. And when you’re debating Final Four teams, any regular season and conference tournament double-champion has about a coin flip’s shot of making it.

**

Header Image via Orlin Wagner/AP

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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