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Ryan Cooper | | March 2, 2018

Do conference tournaments predict national championships?

  Villanova won the 2016 national championship despite an AAC tournament loss to Seton Hall.

For many schools, conference tournaments are everything. Those few games in March make all the difference between having a chance to live out your NCAA tournament dreams and watching it on TV like the rest of us.

For other powerhouse teams, conference tournaments mean little besides staying fresh for the Big Dance, improving tournament seeding, and maybe taking some pride points by hoisting the conference trophy.

Or do they?

Is a team's performance in the single-elimination conference tournament a good predictor of how it will do on the biggest stage? And when you fill out your bracket, should you be putting a little more faith in teams that performed well the week or two prior?

Let's take a look at each national champion in the last 25 years and see how they did in conference tournament play.

Year School Conference result
2017 North Carolina Lost, ACC semifinals
2016 Villanova Lost, Big East finals
2015 Duke Lost, ACC semifinals
2014 UConn Lost, AAC finals
2013 Louisville Won Big East
2012 Kentucky Lost, SEC finals
2011 UConn Won Big East
2010 Duke Won ACC
2009 North Carolina Lost, ACC semifinals
2008 Kansas Won Big 12
2007 Florida Won SEC
2006 Florida Won SEC
2005 North Carolina Lost, ACC semifinals
2004 UConn Won Big East
2003 Syracuse Lost, Big East semifinals
2002 Maryland Lost, ACC semifinals
2001 Duke Won ACC
2000 Michigan State Won Big Ten
1999 UConn Won Big East
1998 Kentucky Won SEC
1997 Arizona No tournament
1996 Kentucky Lost, SEC finals
1995 UCLA No tournament
1994 Arkansas Lost, SEC semifinals
1993 North Carolina Lost, ACC finals

There you have it. Now let's dig into the numbers and see what it all means:

  • From 1998-2011, it was very smart to put your faith in teams that performed in the conference tournament. Of the 14 national champions in that time, all but four went the distance in their conference tournaments.
  • Since then, things have really turned around. The last four champions all fell in their conference tournaments.
  • Overall in this 25-year span, 11 of the 23 participating national champions were also conference-tournament champions.
  • What about just reaching the finals in your conference? Only seven of the 23 national champions since 1993 that participated in a conference tournament were bounced prior to the championship game.
  • But no team since 1993 has fallen short of the semifinals, so be wary of a team that is upset early on.
  • North Carolina doesn't sweat ACC tournament losses at all: In the Tar Heels' four championship seasons since 1993, they have zero conference-tournament titles and only reached the finals once.
  • Duke, on the other hand, has won the ACC tourney in three of its last four national championship years, with only the most recent featuring an ACC loss.


So when you fill out your brackets, certainly take note of conference-tournament performance, but don't feel pressured to pick your champion based off of who looked strongest against conference foes. At the same time, be careful riding teams that don't at least make a deep run. If a team loses in the semifinals, it's playing against long odds. If it falls in the quarters or sooner, it would have to make history.