With March Madness officially underway, I thought now would be a good time to test out an old theory that sportscasters occasionally toss out when covering a conference tournament game from one of the big 6 conferences. That theory asserts that winning the conference tournament may not necessarily be a good thing. They site fatigue and complacency as two factors that could contribute to an early exit from the NCAA tournament. Is this in fact true? Are conference tournament champions more likely than other teams to be upset once the NCAA tournament starts? Let's take a look.
For this study I looked at all conference tournament champs from 1999-2005. First we'll examine first round upsets. During those 7 years, conference champions of the big 6 conferences received a seed between 3-7 14 times. This study will focuse only on 1st and 2nd round upsets becuase that is where the majority of upsets (in the sense of a large difference in seeding) occur. Let's start with the first round. Only twice big 6 tournament champs they lose in the first round. Oklahoma in 2001 (to 13 seed Indiana St.) and Syracuse in 2006 (to 13 seed Vermont). That's roughly 14.3% of the time. During that same time span, 126 non-champs received a seed between 3-7. Those teams lost 37 times. That's roughly 29.4% of the time. Of course, conference tournament champs have also been given their fair share of 1 and 2 seeds, but I decided not to inlcude those in the study since 1 seeds have never lost in the first round and 2 seeds have lost only 4 times. Incidentally, a 2 seed was beaten during the time of this study (Iowa St. by Hampton in 2001), but they were not a non-champ.
Switching our focuse to second round upsets:
A conference tournament champ has been given a 1 seed 13 times since 1999. They have lost in the second round to an 8/9 seed twice. This comes out to 15.4%. During this same time frame, non-champs have been upset 3 times in the 15 instances when they were awarded 1 seeds. That's 20%.
The big 6 tourney champs have received 2 seeds 9 times. Only once have they been beaten by a 7/10 seed in the second round. That's 11.1%. Non-champs that were seeded 2 have lost 13 times in 18 instances. That's a staggering 72.2%.
Champs have been awarded a 3 seed and advanced to the second round 5 times. They have lost in the second round to a 6/11 seed twice. This comes out to 40%. Non-champs have been a 3 seed 21 times. They have lost to a 6/11 seed 9 times. That's 42.9%.
Finally, champs have been given a 4 seed and faced a 12 seed in the second round 4 times. They have lost in the second round to a 12 seed once. That's 25%. I declined to include losses to 5 seeds because a 5 seed defeating a 4 is not really an upset. In the same time span, non-champs have been seeded 4 and faced a 12 seed 4 times. They have lost 3 times to those 12 seeds. That's 75%.
While the sample size of data is indeed small, the data seems to indicate the exact opposite of what the announcers are implying. In every instance, conference tourney champions performed as well or better than their similarly seeded non-champ counterparts. Don't let the logic of fatigue and complacency disuade you from picking conference tournament champions from advancing deep into the NCAA tournament.