College basketball's ultimate champion is almost always a conference champion first

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

College hoops has a dirty little secret that it'd just as soon you not know about.

The only things more prevalent than mock brackets and bubble watches this time of the year are clichés and hyperbole.

With a postseason setup that gives nearly every team in the sport the opportunity to play until they lose, it's no wonder that hope abounds for so many teams and fan bases in mid-to-late February. Just having a chance is an enticing notion, and the reason why a Google search for the oft-utilized phrase "anything can happen in March" produces more than 55,000 results.

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"February is the time to continue to get better and March is the time to win," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after his team's 80-54 win over South Florida Tuesday night.

The coach at Pitino's in-state rival was willing to take things a step further.

"I've never been big on conference championships," Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Wildcats' 84-70 win at Ole Miss. "Every game we play is to prepare us for March."

It's a sentiment — and to be fair, Pitino has always harped on the importance of conference tournaments while Calipari has not — echoed by more coaches than just those inside the Bluegrass State.

Over the last 25 years, there has been exactly one national champion that failed to capture either its league's regular season title or its conference tournament title.

On Tuesday night alone we heard losing coaches Ed Cooley of Providence and Jeff Bzdelik of Wake Forest talk about still having "four weeks to realize our dream" and the need to "pick yourself up by the bootstraps and battle back." These things are a lot more difficult to say when your team is eliminated from bowl contention or out of the playoff race.

Unpredictability is supposed to define college basketball. Hell, the word "madness" is in the sport's primary alias.

Despite this, college basketball has a deep, dark, dirty secret: the best teams in the game usually win the sport's biggest prize.

Upsets happen, Cinderellas emerge, underachieving teams salvage their seasons with two good weeks, but when it comes to which team is going to be the last one smiling, you can almost always narrow it down to a small group that has already tasted what it feels like to win a championship.

Over the last 25 years, there has been exactly one national champion that failed to capture either its league's regular season title or its conference tournament title. That team is the 1997 Arizona Wildcats, which played in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) at a time when the conference didn't hold a postseason tournament.

If you want to find the last team to be in a conference with a tournament and fail to win either league championship before going on to win the national title, you have to go all the way back to 1988. That year, Larry Brown's champions from Kansas finished third in the Big 8 standings and lost to Kansas State in the league tournament semifinals.

All told, 34 national champions have played in a conference that crowned both a regular season and tournament champion, and only two of those teams failed to claim either — Kansas in 1988 and the famous Villanova team from 1985.

If you look at just the past decade, you have seven conference tournament champions, seven regular season champions, and five teams that pulled double duty. It should also be noted that the last two national champs also have  happened to be the No. 1 overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Here's a full chart of how champions have fared in their conference that dates back to 1980, when conference tournaments became prevalent.

Year National Champion Regular Season Champion? Conference Tournament Champion?
2013 Louisville Big East Big East
2012 Kentucky SEC No
2011 Connecticut No Big East
2010 Duke ACC ACC
2009 North Carolina ACC No
2008 Kansas Big 12 Big 12
2007 Florida SEC SEC
2006 Florida No SEC
2005 North Carolina ACC No
2004 Connecticut No Big East
2003 Syracuse Big East No
2002 Maryland ACC No
2001 Duke ACC ACC
2000 Michigan State Big Ten Big Ten
1999 Connecticut Big East Big East
1998 Kentucky SEC SEC
1997 Arizona No No Tournament
1996 Kentucky SEC No
1995 UCLA Pac-10 No Tournament
1994 Arkansas SEC No
1993 North Carolina ACC No
1992 Duke ACC ACC
1991 Duke ACC No
1990 UNLV Big West Big West
1989 Michigan No No Tournament
1988 Kansas No No
1987 Indiana Big Ten No Tournament
1986 Louisville Metro Metro
1985 Villanova No No
1984 Georgetown Big East Big East
1983 North Carolina State No ACC
1982 North Carolina ACC ACC
1981 Indiana Big Ten No Tournament
1980 Louisville Metro Metro

March can be a month of redemption, there's no question. More times than not, however, it's a month of confirmation.

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