Debunking the conference tournament myth

Duane Burleson

If you're worried that playing three or four games the week before the NCAA Tournament might decrease your favorite team's chances of making a run to the Final Four, you shouldn't be. SB Nation's GIF Tournament V

Over the past decade or so, 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 two examples: the 1996 and 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, two of the greatest teams in history in college basketball and two which did not win their conference tournament. My initial response to this point is that both of those UK teams lost in the SEC championship game, which eliminates any potential "well-rested" argument. My secondary response is that both of those teams were such a superior breed 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).

  • Every Final Four but one (2009) since 2004 has included at least one conference tournament champion.
  • 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), Villanova (Big East), Connecticut (Big East), and North Carolina (ACC) had all bowed out early in their respective conference tournament.
  • Over the past seven seasons, the six major conference tournament champions are 122-37 in the NCAA Tournament and have claimed five of those seven 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.
  • Twelve of the last 16 national champions have won their conference tournament. North Carolina in '09 and '05, Syracuse in '03, Maryland in '02 and Kentucky in 2012 are the exceptions.

The statistics are petty clear: 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. If you're a fan of a team playing for a conference title this week, there's no part of you that should quietly be rooting for an early exit.

Championships are always good.

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