Since the men's basketball NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 16 of the 37 national champions have had a conference player of the year on their roster, including four of the last six title-winners.
Whether it's winning a championship, or simply advancing further than teams with the same seed line typically do, do teams with a conference player of the year have an advantage in March? We dug into the data to find out.
First, here are some of the notable takeaways from our findings:
- Since 1985, roughly 47 percent of the No. 1 seeds from the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC with a conference player of the year have made the Final Four and 28 percent have made the national title game. Thirteen, or roughly 20 percent of the No. 1 seeds examined with a conference POY, ended up cutting down the nets.
- Additionally, 24 percent of the No. 2 seeds examined (12 of 49 teams) and 22 percent of the No. 4 seeds (4 of 18 teams) made the Final Four with a conference player of the year in one of those seven conferences.
- The first-round 5/12 matchups can be tricky but identifying No. 5 seeds with a major conference POY can help you out. Since '85, No. 5 seeds with a conference player of the year from one of the seven aforementioned conferences are 13-4 (.765) in the first round. Three of the six No. 12 seeds examined won in the first round.
- Almost 38 percent of the No. 7 seeds examined (six out of eight teams) from those seven conferences with a conference player of the year advanced to the Sweet 16 or further. Two of them made the Final Four.
Here's the complete data from how teams that have made the NCAA tournament from the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have fared with a conference player of the year on their roster.
Here's the same data from above but shown on a percentage basis, based on how many teams advanced to each round.
Since 1985, there have been 15 conference players of the year from the AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC whose teams have failed to make the NCAA tournament, or roughly 6.7 percent of the time among the 223 teams examined. Can you name the schools or conference players of the year who failed to play in the tournament?
The answers are at the bottom of this story.
Here are the seasons, since the tournament expanded in 1985, in which the national champion had a conference player of the year on its roster:
- 1989 – Michigan: Glen Rice
- 1990 – UNLV: Larry Johnson
- 1992 – Duke: Christian Laettner
- 1994 – Arkansas: Corliss Williamson
- 1995 – UCLA: Ed O'Bannon
- 1996 – Kentucky: Tony Delk
- 1999 – UConn: Richard Hamilton
- 2000 – Michigan State: Morris Peterson
- 2001 – Duke: Shane Battier
- 2002 – Maryland: Juan Dixon
- 2004 – UConn: Emeka Okafor
- 2009 – North Carolina: Ty Lawson
- 2012 – Kentucky: Anthony Davis
- 2014 – UConn: Shabazz Napier
- 2015 – Duke: Jahlil Okafor
- 2017 – North Carolina: Justin Jackson
- 2018 – Villanova: Jalen Brunson
Now, here's the data for all 32 men's basketball conferences, based on how long current conferences have been active and have named a conference player of the year. We examined 1,090 teams in total, including multiple teams from the same conference in the same season when two or three players shared conference player-of-the-year honors.
Overall, 57 percent of the teams with a conference player of the year (622 teams) made the NCAA tournament.
Here's the same data but organized showing the percent of teams of each seed line that advanced to (or past) a certain round. For example, if a team made the Elite Eight, it would could as advancing to the round of 32, the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight.
The best way to use this data is to compare it to the overall winning percentages and probabilities for each seed line in general. By locating the seed lines and percentages with the biggest disparities, we can identify on which teams conference players of the year potentially make the greatest impact.
Here are seed lines where it's a notable advantage to have a conference player of the year on your team:
- +14.2% for a No. 7 seed to make the Round of 32. Overall, No. 7 seeds have won 61.8 percent of their first-round matchups. But 19 of the 25 No. 7 seeds examined, or 76 percent, with a conference player of the year won their opening round game against a No. 10 seed. That's a pretty significant boost.
- +8.1% for a No. 7 seed to make the Sweet 16. Similarly, No. 7 seeds have also had better-than-average success against their second-round opponents as seven of the 25 teams examined, or 28 percent, made the Sweet 16, while No. 7 seeds typically make the Sweet 16 just 19.9 percent of the time.
- +6.5% for a No. 9 seed to make the Round of 32. The first-round games between a No. 8 and No. 9 seed are absolute toss-ups. You could try to pick two No. 8 seeds and two No. 9 seeds to advance in your bracket and ultimately get just one, maybe two, right. But our data shows that No. 9 seeds with a conference player of the year have won their first-round game 56.5 percent of the time, while No. 9 seeds typically make the second round just 50 percent of the time.
- No. 1 seeds to do, well, anything. Our data shows that No. 1 seeds with a conference player of the year have between a three and five-percentage advantage, compared to No. 1 seeds historically, of advancing to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four, national championship game or to win a title. The two biggest gaps are for a team to make the Elite Eight and Final Four — at roughly five percent each — so if you're looking for which No. 1 seeds to trust to make a deep run, lean toward whichever one(s) has a conference player of the year.
- There are similar small, but not insignificant advantages, for No. 5 seeds with a conference player of the year. No. 5 seeds have between a three and five-percentage point advantage over No. 5 seeds in general in advancing to any round between the second round and the national title game. It makes sense, if you think about it. No. 5 seeds win almost two-thirds of their opening-round matchups against No. 12 seeds, so if a No. 5 seeds has a conference player of the year — likely from a pretty good conference — then that can make a big difference in what are often competitive 5/12 games. If the No. 4 seed in a No. 5 seed's region also wins its first-round game, the No. 5 seed might have the best player on the floor. Since 1985, there have been two No. 5 seeds that have finished as the national runner-up thanks in large part to having a conference player of the year on their roster – Indiana in 2002 (Jared Jeffries) and Butler in 2010 (Gordon Hayward).
Here are some other interesting observations from the data we compiled:
- The A-10 has experienced a high level of variance in regard to the NCAA tournament seeds and success the teams of the conference's players of the year have had. The conference has had teams produce the conference POY and earn a No. 1 seed in the same season (1988 Temple, 2004 Saint Joseph's) but then in the six years after Jameer Nelson's senior year in '04, the conference's best player didn't compete in the NCAA tournament for the next six seasons. There have been multiple Elite Eight runs but also No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds that have lost in the second round.
- The Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since VCU's Eric Maynor in 2009 and he's the only CAA POY whose team has made the tournament since the start of the 2005-06 season. From 1995 to 2005, the conference's player of the year played in the tournament in every season but one, but from 1988 to 1994 the conference's best player didn't compete in March Madness. For some reason, the conference is prone to long streaks in which its best players do or don't make the NCAA tournament.
- How good was Navy's David Robinson? He won Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year honors three years in a row, leading his team to the tournament each time, including a No. 7 seed and an Elite Eight appearance in 1986, and a No. 8 seed in 1987. The team with the conference POY hasn't earned better than a No. 11 seed since then and Navy had more NCAA tournament wins in those three seasons (four wins) than the rest of the CAA's players of the year since then combined (three).
- Current Illinois coach Brad Underwood spent just three years at Stephen F. Austin but his team produced the Southland Player of the Year in each season, including Thomas Walkup twice, and his Lumberjack teams are responsible for the only NCAA tournament wins since 1985 by a Southland team that also had the conference POY.
- Since the Big South first named a conference player of the year in the 1986 season, just six times in the last 34 years has a conference player of the year played in the NCAA tournament – the lowest of any conference. Coastal Carolina's Tony Dunkin, a four-time POY, is responsible for two of those six appearances.
Trivia answers: 1987 Oregon State (Jose Ortiz), 1987 Tennessee (Tony White), 1991 Oregon (Terrell Brandon), 1997 Notre Dame (Pat Garrity), 1999 Nebraska (Venson Hamilton), 2000 Arizona State (Eddie House), 2000 Notre Dame (Troy Murphy), 2000 Vanderbilt (Dan Langhi), 2003 Boston College (Troy Bell), 2003 Tennessee (Ron Slay), 2005 Arizona State (Ike Diogu), 2013 Georgia (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), 2013 Virginia Tech (Erick Green), 2016 SMU (Nic Moore), 2018 Georgia (Yante Maten)