By Ross Benes
With people filling out their brackets later tonight, it's a good time to ask whether winning a conference tournament or being a regular-season conference champion is more indicative of March Madness success.
Teams that win their conference tournament are perceived to be on a hot streak. Regular-season champions, however, have consistency in their favor. And obviously many solid squads win both in-season and conference tournament titles. To see which one of this groups has been most successful in the NCAA tournament, we examined how many games every in-season and conference tournament champion won in the NCAA tournament since 1985, when it expanded to 64 teams, through last year.
For consistency, we stuck with the main six conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC -- that have produced the most Final Four contenders and are still in existence. We also excluded years in which conferences had no tournament. The Big Ten didn't start its tournament until 1998, for example. And we excluded any champion ineligible for post-season play like 1991 Missouri. For "bragging rights" purposes, we broke things out by conference.
In the table below, "RegAll" represents all regular-season conference champions, while "RegSolo" is regular-season champs independent of those who also won their conference title. Same goes for the "Tour" variables with respect to tournament champions. "Both" includes teams that won their tournament and regular-season titles.
No matter how you cut it, ACC champions really have had more success than the other conferences. And in several areas, the SEC outperforms Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, and SEC. Though much of that is likely do to one program -- Kentucky.
As expected, regardless of conference, teams that won both in-season and tournament titles did the best. Winning 3.11 games places these teams just beyond making the Elite Eight on average.
Regular-season champions went further than tournament champions. The most pertinent comparison is between the "solo" groups since it excludes overlap. While the difference between 1.93 and 2.26 games doesn't sound like much, it's a 17 percent point swing. And a t-test between the two variables hovers near statistical significance (p=0.69).
Another way to look at this is by Final Four participants, since that's a popular benchmark used to define March Madness success. Here we tracked all (not just those in the main six conferences) Final Four participants from 1985 to 2014 by whether they won their conference season title, tournament, both or neither. When looking at percentages involving conference tournament champions, we excluded teams that had no conference tournament to play in.
As seen in this table, regular-season champions are more likely to make the Final Four than conference tournament champions. Which goes with the earlier finding we had of regular-season champs winning more NCAA tournament games on average. Season champions are likely just better teams overall than tournament champions, who might have gotten lucky in a few games, since tournaments are determined by small sample sizes.
However, this doesn't take seeding into account. Regular-season champions are more likely to have a better record than conference-tournament champs, and thus obtain a better seed. This says nothing of how these teams perform against their expectations in March. But it does show regular-season champions go further in the NCAA tournament. And that you're better off putting a conference champion that won steadily during the regular season in your Final Four bracket than a team that won a few games in their conference tournament and is perceived to be "hot" right now.
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Ross Benes is a Sports on Earth contributor who has written for Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Slate. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RossBenes.