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Bracketology: How much does winning your conference tournament help?

In most major college basketball conferences, a team has to win three games to be crowned postseason tournament champion. From there, it takes (at least) another four wins to advance to the Final Four. Two more wins and you're the National Champion. Does winning the first three help or hurt the chances of winning the last six? Good question.

J. Meric

Florida Gulf Coast is in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Valparaiso will participate in March Madness. Liberty, with its 20 losses this season, gets to go dancing.

These three teams will join 28 others who will stamp their tickets to the tournament by automatically qualifying as a result of winning their conference tournaments. For a lot of teams that fill out the bracket, this is the only way that they will get to participate in the tournament because they don't play in high- or even mid-major basketball conferences, and wouldn't otherwise have a shot at making the field of 64 65 68 for the chance to win the NCAA Division I National Championship. We see this every single year, usually early on the week before Selection Sunday, as schools you've never heard of (at least from a basketball vantage) celebrate winning tournaments for conferences you probably haven't heard of, either.

The rest of the field will be shaped by at-large teams, as usual, mostly from the Power-6 conferences and a few assorted others. Those teams did not win their conference tournaments, but had the resume (or pedigree) to make it in the field nonetheless.

The teams that win their conference tournaments have to run a three- (or more) day gauntlet undefeated, which can sometimes take a lot out of a squad mentally and physically. But does such a run take too much out basketball team? Can it be detrimental to a team to win their conference and go into the Big Dance tired, but with momentum?

With the Buckeyes gearing up for the start of their 2013 Big Ten Tournament, let's take a look at the last few years' Final Four teams and see if Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and company should go for the win in Chicago, or be okay with losing and resting up for the Big Dance.

Here are the last six years of Final Four teams, with national champion in bold, runner up in italics:


  • Kentucky (Lost in SEC Tournament Final)
  • Kansas (Lost in Big XII Tournament Semifinal)
  • Ohio State (Lost in Big Ten Tournament Final)
  • Louisville (Won Big East Tournament)

In 2012, winning the conference wasn't a big help in getting to the Final Four, but advancing to the conference final was, as three of the teams got there and then made the Final Four.


  • Connecticut (Won Big East Tournament)
  • Butler (Won Horizon League Tournament)
  • VCU (Lost in CAA Basketball Tournament Final)
  • Kentucky (Won SEC Tournament)

2011 was a weird year, to be sure. For starters, Butler was an 8-seed and made the finals. VCU was much maligned in the selection process and had to win a play-in game to begin their run. Kentucky won their conference and made it to the Final Four a year early, most thought (and they were right). But Connecticut was the weirdest of all. UConn was mediocre all year, but ran through five games in the Big East Tournament before running through all six games of the NCAA tourney to become champs.


  • Duke (Won ACC Tournament)
  • Butler (Won Horizon League)
  • West Virginia (Won Big East Tournament)
  • Michigan State (Lost in Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals)

Other than Sparty, this was a good year for tournament champions, as three of the four were winners, and both national finalists were, too.


  • North Carolina (Lost in ACC Tournament Semifinal)
  • Michigan State (Lost in Big Ten Tournament Semifinal)
  • Villanova (Lost in Big East Tournament Semifinal)
  • Connecticut (Lost in Big East Tournament Quarterfinal)

Didn't win your conference tournament? No problem! All four squads in 2009 were losers before Selection Sunday, and none even advanced to their respective conference finals.


  • Kansas (Won Big XII Tournament)
  • Memphis (Won Conference USA Tournament)*
  • North Carolina (Won ACC Tournament)
  • UCLA (Won Pac-10 Tournament)

Another year, another Final Four stuffed with conference tournament winners. Kansas would beat Memphis on Mario Chalmers' memorable, game extending three, and Memphis would lose because they couldn't hit free throws.

*Technically, Kansas didn't beat anyone, as Memphis would be forced to vacate their season because of John Calipari things.


  • Florida (Won SEC Tournament)
  • Ohio State (Won Big Ten Tournament)
  • UCLA (Lost in Pac-10 Tournament Quarterfinals)
  • Georgetown (Won Big East Tournament)

Three tournament winners, three final four participants, two of which would finish 1-2 after Florida memorably (or nightmarish in these parts) won their second consecutive national championship, this time over Ohio State.

So let's look at the final break down and see if we can find anything conclusive.

Final Four participants: 13/24.

National Championship Game Participants: 8/12.

National Champions: 4/6.

So what do we know? Obviously there is nothing causal here; there are way too many factors that come into play (seeding, game location, Thursday/Friday start date, etc). But there is clearly a positive correspondence between winning your conference tournament and making the Final Four (54%), making the Championship Game (75%) and winning it all (66%).

Sure, there are years like 2009 where no conference tournament champions made the last weekend. And there are also teams, 2009 UConn and 2010 Michigan State, that proved losing early – or maybe tanking – helped their chances in the Big Dance.

But over the last few seasons, winning the conference tournament has helped more than it has hurt, and can be an important factor in making a deep run in March. And if you are Ohio State's Thad Matta, that is all that really matters.