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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | March 13, 2022

Do conference tournaments predict national championships?

The deepest game-winning buzzer beaters in March Madness history

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

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 26 years and see how they did in conference tournament play.

Year School Conference result
2021 Baylor  Lost, Big 12 semifinals
2019 Virginia Lost, ACC semifinals
2018 Villanova Won Big East
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

*Louisville's participation in the 2013 NCAA tournament was vacated

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 well 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. Seven of the last nine champions all fell in their conference tournaments.
  • Overall in this 27-year span, 12 of the 25 participating national champions were also conference tournament champions.
  • What about just reaching the finals in your conference? Only eight of the 24 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 national championship seasons since 1993, they have zero conference tournament titles and only reached the ACC tournament final once.
  • Duke, on the other hand, has won the ACC tournament in three of its last four national championship years, with only its most recent national championship featuring a loss in the ACC tournament.

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.

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