People making their brackets and the teams themselves get very enamored by conference championships and believe that is one of the key factors in terms of moving your seed up and winning a championship. Of course, step 1 is very likely, especially if you are in a stronger conference. However, step 2 is where I challenge, and I am going to explain why throughout this article. This isn’t to say a conference champion can’t make the Final Four, because I believe that can still happen (I have Cincinnati in my Final Four and almost picked Michigan too), but I do not believe it essential for going all the way, and also I believe it can lead to upset candidates as well. There are two parts to this theory, one of which stems from championship winners coming from runner-ups or semifinalists. And the other stems from breakthrough conference championship winners often getting upset.
I am going to start with Part 1 of this theory, where you don’t need to win your conference tournament to do so. I believe this for two reasons. One of which comes from a mental state. I believe that a lot of teams that win conference tournaments often come in overconfident, which may lead to believing that they can win with a similar gameplan to what they used in their conference tournament. That doesn’t always work, especially if you are a lower seed in your respective conference tournament. The second factor to this is that the runner up or semifinalist in the conference, even though they may fall a seed, are in a mental state where they need to refocus and try different things and possibly come out with a different identity. They also have more time, being that the conference tournament will extend longer, to prepare for these teams and situations come time the NCAA tournament.
The second part is the stamina and fatigue aspect. In sports like football and baseball, I don’t take this into as much account, and in some instances actually believe the opposite, where bye weeks and waiting out for other teams’ series can actually hurt momentum despite getting your rest. I don’t believe that for basketball, because it is a high-stamina sport that plays 3 or 4 times a week. I believe that extra rest over a team, come time the NCAA tournament, is better long term when you’re going to have to play every other day. Those who have to play further into the conference tournament will have more mileage on their legs, especially if they came in as a lower seed where they have to play 2nd round and quarterfinal games, dependent on how the conference tournaments work out. That extra stamina is often times one of those things that can lead to Round of 64 upsets or Round of 32 defeats.
Now, to prove this statistically, I will mention the fact that 5 of the last 6 champions did not win their conference championship. The two most recent champions, North Carolina and Villanova, got upset in the last round of the conference tournament. And as I mentioned, were able to regroup and gain some momentum and extra preparation that way. Even the super dominant Anthony Davis-led Kentucky Wildcats in 2012 didn’t win their conference championship, and they were able to still dominate the tournament. The other factor to this is several Cinderella teams (below a 5 seed) that have had runs to the Final Four since 2010 also did not win conference tournaments. With the exception of the 8-seeded Butler that lost to UConn in 2011, all the other teams we know as Cinderella teams did not win their conference tournaments. Included on this list is 2013 Wichita State (9 seed), 2011 VCU (11 seed), last year’s South Carolina (7 seed), 2015 Michigan State (7 seed), 2016 Syracuse (10 seed), and the two finalists in 2014 (#7 UConn and #8 Kentucky). That is why, for this year’s bracket, as much as I like a team like Davidson statistically, I don’t think they will be able to carry momentum from the conference tournament all the way into the NCAA tournament. If there were any teams I would consider prime Cinderella candidates, it would be Missouri (8 seed), Creighton (8 seed), or Florida (6 seed). Being that most of the 11 and 12 seeds this year were conference champions, I just don’t see them going past the Sweet 16 (I have Loyola-Chicago in there and I considered Davidson), because I think the momentum for conference champions runs out.
Then there is part 2 of this theory, where overconfidence of conference champions can lead to direct letdown, whether that comes losing in the first weekend of the tournament, or losing to a team that they should have no business losing to. I am going to provide this evaluation with four examples from last year. I’ll start with my champion pick from last year, Arizona. They won the Pac-12 tournament over Oregon last year, but Oregon found themselves in the Final Four, where Arizona stumbled through the tournament before losing to an 11-seeded Xavier team in the Sweet 16 that didn’t even have one of their best players in Miles Davis. But even before that, they didn’t play great against a weak Saint Mary’s team, only scoring 69 points and shooting very inefficiently. And against Xavier, they blew a 71-62 lead with under 4 minutes to go, going cold in the final minutes offensively, and letting Xavier end the game on an 11-0 run. Moving on to Big 12 champion Iowa State, they raised their stock to a 5 seed but didn’t play Nevada great for much of the game until the second half and then got dominated by Purdue despite an impressive comeback effort. Their offense, which was Top 10 in the nation, was very rusty at times throughout those two games. This was a team, in their recent rise, that has been in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8 every year with the exception of one upset loss to UAB in 2015, when they were a 3 seed. And what happened that year? Oh yeah, they also won the Big 12 tournament. And finally, there was everybody’s bandwagon pick last year in Duke. Duke rose to a 2 seed after being a projected 4 seed for most of the year due to their glorious run. Everybody hopped on their bandwagon and became the most popular pick to win the championship last year. Meanwhile, this Duke team didn’t have the consistency of a 2 seed, being upset prone much of the year. I knew that wouldn’t translate into a Final Four appearance no less a championship that a lot of other people believed, because I believe in a team coming in too hot is bad. Now granted, I didn’t pick the right team to beat them when I made my bracket (I had Marquette beating South Carolina), but when I saw the way South Carolina played in their first round matchup, I believed in the upset over Duke because I knew that momentum isn’t everything. They may have lost by 8, but they got outplayed like they should’ve lost by 15. And lastly, there was another popular pick in defending champion Villanova, who ended up losing to 8 seeded Wisconsin last year in the Round of 32. From a personal standpoint, I am still annoyed I didn’t pick that, but I knew Florida would beat either of those two teams, which they did against Wisconsin in what was the best game of the tournament last year. Regardless, them winning the conference tournament caused them to crash in a close game early. Now a lot of that has to do with Wisconsin being underseeded last year and better than an 8 seed. However, it still proves my theory that top conference champions can be vulnerable earlier in the tournament. So to the popular masses who made this mistake last year, like I did for Arizona, winning the conference isn’t all that.
There are other examples of this from previous years as well. In 2016, we saw both Michigan State and Kentucky fall in the first 2 rounds. In 2015, it was Villanova and Iowa State getting upset in those similar circumstances. In 2014, it was Wichita State and Virginia falling in the Round of 32. And the list goes on and on. Now, this is not to say conference champions can’t go far. North Carolina and Wisconsin made the Finals in 2016 and 2015, and a team like Florida still made the Final Four in 2014. So this isn’t to say that there won’t be one conference champion this year in the Final Four. I believe Cincinnati will be in, however, that also has a lot to do with that region being particularly weak in my opinion. However, I would be weary of picking one of those teams to win it all, because a lot of those teams particularly fall off later on. And as somebody who’s made that mistake before with teams like Michigan State (2016) and Arizona (2017), I am avoiding conference champions in my tournament this year in terms of being in the championship game after further research on these trends. I’m not saying a team that won one can’t make it far like a Loyola or a Davidson or a New Mexico State, but I’d be weary about the top seeds that did win their conference tournaments going far. So for those of you picking Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, or Kentucky to win it all, I would reconsider that pick due to these trends right here.