Do college basketball conference titles predict success in the NCAA tournament?

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

With teams that know each other and for fan bases that hate each other, the atmosphere around conference play in college basketball is unmatched. But does it matter? Or is it really just jockeying for seeding in the conference tournament in an effort to peak as Selection Sunday approaches?

Let's start macro and state the obvious: You want dominant teams.

Over the past five seasons in what we'll the "power six" conferences, teams that have won both the regular-season and postseason conference crowns have won, on average, 13.5% more NCAA games than teams that won just the regular season and 38.5% more NCAA games than teams that won just the conference tournament. Those dominant teams won 2.8 games per NCAA tournament (for what it's worth, it would have been 3.0 without UMBC over Virginia), so we are talking about almost a free pass in your bracket to the Elite Eight if you win both the league and conference tourney.

Don't get too ahead of yourself, though -- the 2010 Duke Blue Devils were the last team to hit the trifecta and add an NCAA trophy to the ones they earned in conference play.

Of course, winning the first two of those titles is hard enough. Over the past decade, 58.3% of conferences have not had the same team win both the regular season and the postseason. What about them?

Average March Madness wins by regular-season champion / by conference tournament champion:

ACC: 3.4 wins / 2.5 wins (0.9 more wins by the regular-season champ)
Big 12: 2.3 wins / 1.6 wins (0.7 more wins by the regular-season champ)
SEC: 3.1 wins / 2.7 wins (0.4 more wins by the regular-season champ)
Pac-12: 1.8 wins / 1.8 wins (no difference)
Big Ten: 2.5 wins / 2.8 wins (0.3 more wins by the tournament champ)
Big East: 1.7 wins / 2.9 wins (1.2 more wins by the tournament champ)

From the numbers over the past decade, you can see that, on average, the winner of the Big East tournament won 1.2 more games during March Madness than the conference's regular-season champion, the greatest spike. By contrast, the winner of the ACC tournament won nearly one game fewer during March Madness than the regular-season champion, the greatest decline.

But why?

I'd argue that the depth of conference, at least at the high end, shines through with numbers like these. The teams that are battle-tested during the regular season and were able to claim the crown have proven themselves as the superior team over the course of time, whereas anyone can get hot and take home the conference title. To cherry-pick an example: The ACC has finished each of the past five seasons with five teams ranked nationally among the top 22 teams while, over that stretch, the Big East averages fewer than two such teams.

Could that happen in March Madness? Of course, but I'm in the business of playing the odds and I suggest you join me. That is why my picking formula is blind to records and blind to seedings. I want good basketball teams and it seems that regular-season titles are, in large, the better indicator of that.

Heck, even look at the Big East, a conference that, in theory, skirts this thought. Or at least that's what the numbers listed would lead you to believe. As always, it's important to judge the entire process, not just the final result. In a league where it would appear you're better off peaking late, the conference tournament winner has failed to advance to the second week five times in the past six seasons. Villanova was the outlier in 2018 and, of course, it won the whole thing, but are you really comfortable assuming the winner of the Big East tournament will have NCAA success because one team in recent memory did?

If you're in need of some more regular-season/conference champion notes, I'm here for you:

  • The winners of both the SEC and Big East tournaments have won multiple games in three straight tournaments, the longest active streak among the "power six"

  • The winner of the Pac-12 tournament has won multiple March Madness games in six of the past seven seasons

  • The past three ACC regular-season champions that have survived their first March Madness game have advanced to the final game of the season

  • From 2010-2015, the regular-season SEC champion averaged 3.8 March Madness wins per season, but in the past four tournaments, that number has dropped to 2.0.