Conference (noun) ~ A meeting to consult, discuss or settle disagreements with others.
In the golden age of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the field only consisted of the schools that won their conference tournament, or in the absence of a tournament, their conference regular season title. An entire season of matchups took place in which some of the nation’s best would settle disagreements knowing only one school would advance in hopes of winning the national championship.
Today, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament fields 68 teams. Conference tournament winners still punch their ticket; however, the remaining slots are filled-in by those programs fortunate enough to win at-large bids on Selection Sunday. Times have changed so much that 11 teams from the Big East once qualified in 2011, an NCAA tournament record.
The makeup and distribution of the major conferences looked much different back in 1985 when the NCAA expanded their men’s tournament to a symmetric 64 teams. Remember when Nebraska and Missouri were in the Big 8? In fact, remember when the Big 12 was called the Big 8? Now, the Big 12 has ten schools. And the Big 10 has 12. The ACC now has 15 teams, the SEC has 14, the MEAC has 13 and, almost surprisingly, the Pac-12 has 12. All in all, Division I conferences have undergone some “big” changes.
At the top of the list is the Big East – which is still referred to as the Big East, but is no longer the actual Big East. Confused? I don’t blame you. Prior to this season, schools from the Big East, Conference USA and elsewhere formed the American Athletic Conference. Also, a number of Big East teams, like Syracuse, joined the ACC. This movement started a chain reaction in which the Big East and Conference USA rushed to fill their membership with some top programs from the mid-majors.
This article isn’t about which conferences send the most teams to the madness; this is about how conferences perform once a school has been invited to the big dance. I have analyzed the performance of conferences in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament since 1985 and, where appropriate, I have also reviewed the last ten tournaments to identify any established trends. With the massive shift of schools within Div I conferences, I have performed my entire analysis based on the conference the school is currently representing. For example, when Carmelo Anthony and the Big East’s Syracuse Orange knocked off Kansas for the 2003 title, I have recognized their victory in my analysis as one for the ACC since this is currently Syracuse’s home.
I have also tried to separate results into major and mid-major conferences. I have defined major conferences to be the ACC, American, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. The mid-majors are essentially made up of everyone else.
THE FIRST ROUND
Like I always say, “The First Round” will always consist of the games on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament no matter how many play-in games are added. So, for the purpose of this analysis, please harken back to the old terminology which is, of course, what any hoops fan knows it as – The First Round. The first graph below shows the winning percentage of conferences in The First Round. As expected, there is heavy weighting towards the major conferences since The First Round consists of matchups between low seed powerhouses from those majors and their inexperienced high-seed counterparts from some unrenowned mid-major.
The biggest takeaway from reviewing winning percentage is how major conferences win consistently 60-75% of their First Round games. The ACC, Big 10, Big East and SEC have been fairly consistent when comparing the past ten tournaments with historical results dating back to 1985; however, the same cannot be said for the other majors. The Big 12 and Pac-12 have improved over the past decade and the American has struggled. Temple, alone, has dropped their opening game in four of the last six years. Also, it’s worth reminding that the mid-major results are deflated from what actually occurred since the more successful mid-major programs have jumped into major conferences recently.
You’re not going to win your office pool unless you look past the major conferences and select some dark horses from the mid-majors to advance into the next round. But who? The following chart takes a look at the winning percentage in The First Round for mid-major conferences who have played at least ten games over the past ten tournaments. I thought it would make sense to narrow this analysis to the last ten years with all the sweeping conference changes in recent history.
This chart is a good snapshot of the hopefuls from the new breed of mid-majors. In the past, schools such as Xavier, Memphis and Butler helped boost the results for the Atlantic 10, Conference USA and the Horizon, respectively. Starting this season, these programs have all dispersed to either, the “new” Big East or the American. Gonzaga is still in the West Coast and Saint Louis and VCU are representing the A-10. Who knows? With Butler off to the Big East, could the new upstart from the Horizon be the Milwaukee Panthers? And you can’t forget about last year’s Final Four qualifiers from the Missouri Valley – this year’s undefeated Wichita State Shockers.
By now, everyone knows about how the Cinderella watch is on for the 5-12 matchup. Identifying the current year’s successful 12-seed can be a fool’s errand, but, if correct, can provide you opportunity for pumping your chest when going for a St. Paddy’s Day beer with the boys. My first tip is to be weary of 5-seeds from mid-major conferences. Over the past ten years, mid-major favorites (based on their conference at that time) have beaten 12-seeds only four times in ten tries. On the flip side, there have been 11 teams from major conferences playing as 12-seeds and eight came out on top.
Finally, I studied the upsets over the past ten years in the 6/11, 7/10 and 8/9 games. Once again, underdog schools from major conferences (based on their conference at that time) had more success than those from the mid-majors. Specifically, 43% of major underdogs were successful compared to 36% of mid-major underdogs. However, I noticed the results were opposite when looking at 6, 7 and 8-seed favorites over the past ten tournaments – which makes the 5/12 phenomenon even more mystifying. 67% of mid-major favorites were successful compared to 57% of major favorites.
THE SECOND ROUND
Your brackets gain momentum if you were fortunate enough to nail a couple of mid-major Cinderellas. But what are the chances that your underdog will continue to be successful in The Second Round? At least during recent history, mid-majors win a higher percentage of games once they get through the First Round unscathed. However, this has a lot to do with the early elimination of the bottom of the barrel cakewalks.
The performance of the majors reverts back to the mean in The Second Round – most conferences win between 50-60% of their games. During The Second Round, there is very little disparity between historical results dating back to 1985 and those from the past ten years. The Big East, SEC and ACC are the exceptions. Oddly, the ACC and the SEC were both 50/50 over the past ten tournaments. Upon closer review, nearly 80% of the SEC’s Second Round defeats over the last ten years were between 2004-2009 and they only suffered four defeats over the past four years.
The list of mid-majors reaching The Second Round is a whole bunch shorter after I allocated past performances to each school’s current conference. Irrespective of the rejigged Big East and chartered American conference, I felt it was worth one more look-see at the performance of select mid-majors. In this case, I have analyzed the winning percentage in The Second Round for mid-major conferences who have played at least 6 Second Round games during the past ten tournaments.
As you can see, very few conferences made the minimum games requirement. Two differences jump out at me when comparing the First and Second Rounds for those conferences that did make the cut: Gonzaga’s 2-6 Second Round record since 2004 hurts the WCC’s overall performance and the Missouri Valley Conference jumps to the lead thanks to Sweet Sixteen runs from Wichita State (2006 and 2013), Bradley, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa. The odd team out for the MVC is this year’s Big East breakout team, Creighton, who have lost their last two Second Round matchups.
I have one last consideration for selecting that Sweet Sixteen Cinderella – over the past ten seasons, 10 through 12-seeds from mid-majors (based on their conference at that time) have a 43% winning percentage in The Second Round compared to 35% for majors. In fact, mid-major 10, 11 and 12-seeds are 7-3 in The Second Round over the past six tournaments.
THE SWEET SIXTEEN
As we move into the round-of-16, nailing the remainder of your picks is of the utmost importance. You are unlikely to win your pool without six or seven correct at The Elite Eight level. I again charted the winning percentage of each conference. In this round, the variability in the results of the major conferences begins to show. Will you be able to trust the trends in making your picks?
The most apparent result is the American and SEC’s performances over the past 10 years in The Sweet Sixteen. Teams from the American are 12-2 in Sweet Sixteen games over the past 10 years and, if you take away two losses apiece by Vandy and Tennessee, the SEC have been 12-0 including five wins from Florida and another four from Kentucky. The other conference that has seen a decent improvement over the past 10 years is the Big 12 which is much more than Kansas – six other schools have advanced to The Elite Eight since 2004. Some other noteworthy points include the decline in performance of the mid-majors, the below median result, especially in recent years, out of Big 10 and Pac-12, and finally how the ACC is consistent historically and over the last ten years.
Starting with The Sweet Sixteen, I have analyzed the distribution of conferences represented in the following round. This will help you allocate your brackets to the conferences with the most historical success. I have narrowed my scope to the past ten tournaments to capture recent trends only and I have limited the distribution to top six seeds since 89% of The Elite Eight has consisted of top six seeds over that period.
Despite the American and SEC having the highest winning percentages since 2004, the ACC and Big 12 are represented the most often. This could have something to do with the number of tournament entries awarded each year. For example, the ACC has averaged eight tournament qualifiers over the past decade based on current conference participants. You know, if you send enough schools, some are bound to head a long way. That being said, the allocation of Elite Eight participants between the ACC, American, Big 12 and SEC is not materially different.
What about programs who have been strong and steady all year? What success have major conference regular season winners had? Based on their conference at that time, since 1985, 65% of the major conference regular season champions that advance to The Sweet Sixteen win their next game. This would be something to remember while filling out your brackets even though major conference regular season champions have only reached The Elite Eight in 43% of their opportunities since 1985. When selecting teams to go all the way to The Elite Eight, it may pay off to add one major conference regular season title holder.
THE ELITE EIGHT
At this stage you are often trying to distinguish between elite programs with relatively few differences. A common decision is to go with the hot hand you’ve been hearing about. An easy choice is to select the schools that won their conference tournaments. Is that prudent? Or, have you now just selected teams that peaked too early? Since 1985, 24% of major conference tournament winners (based on their conference at that time) advance to The Final Four. Also, 60% of the major conference tournament winners to advance to The Elite Eight win their next game. Sounds like you should consider penciling in one major conference tournament winner among the four programs that go all the way to The Final Four.
60 teams have been eliminated before The Elite Eight tips-off; therefore, at this point it is equally important to review who has made it this far, as it is to consider their performance once they’re there. My analysis of winning percentage continues below, but as the number of teams whittles down, it is important to note that the number of teams representing each conference is not equally weighted. For example, over the past ten seasons, the Pac-12 is represented approximately half as often as the ACC or the American.
Punching a ticket to The Final Four has been much more successful for the Big 10 in recent memory – the Big 10 is 7-2 since 2004. Contrast that with the Big 12 and their consistent failure, since 1985 and over the past ten tournaments, to move on to The Final Four. And this hurts, especially, after their success at The Sweet Sixteen level. Over the past ten years, if you remove Kansas and their 2-3 record in Regional Finals, the remaining conference is 2-7.
I have again analyzed the distribution of conferences represented in the following round, i.e., The Final Four. This time around, I limited my analysis to the top five seeds since 90% of The Final Four have consisted of top five seeds over the past ten tournaments.
It was a tight race between four conferences when I analyzed the allocation of Elite Eight participants. One round later, we see the SEC and Big 12 begin to slide and the Big 10 emerge. The ACC and American continue to consistently send schools to the big dance. The American’s success is in large part to the likes of Memphis, UConn and Louisville – the backbone of the newly formed conference. And where did the mid-majors go? Not one current mid-major school has made it to The Final Four from a 5-seed or lower over the past ten years. The last to do it was John Calipari’s UMass squad in 1996.
Another way to look at the success of current conferences reaching The Final Four is by reviewing the number of trips each conference took to the National Semi-Finals. The following graph breaks down the Final Four berths into two periods: From 1985-2003 and from the past ten years.
At an initial glance, there appears to be a hierarchy of conference success. The ACC has dominated historically and each other conference falls a little more and a little more behind them. However, the last ten years is a story of parity with several conferences representing The Final Four field with the ACC, Big 10 and SEC leading the way by a small margin.
THE FINAL FOUR
Over the past ten years, major conferences have represented 98% of the participants in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game based on teams from their current conference. So, out of the majors, which conferences are the creams of the crop? Are you expecting that the following analysis of winning percentage starts to paint a picture of the recent college basketball trend towards powerhouse conferences?
Instead, you find parity with perhaps the Pac-12 being excluded. Parity has predominately existed since 1985 with the National Semi-Final winning percentages of major conferences ranging approximately between 45-55%. However, the ACC, American, Big 10 and SEC have pulled away somewhat over the past ten years. For example, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida have all made The Final twice over the past decade. Then again, so has Butler. It’s important to recognize that the sample sizes at this stage of the analysis begin to get smaller and smaller.
In the chart below, I look at the distribution of schools reaching The Final over the past ten tournaments. This time 85% of participants in the championship game come from a 3-seed or better so I narrowed my analysis to this upper echelon. This distribution of conferences in The Final is not much different than the distribution for The Final Four. The same three conferences lead the way.
In my review of the conference allocation in The Final, I was surprised to note that, over the past ten seasons, no school has made it to The Final more than twice. Five teams have made it twice and ten teams have made it the once. In fact, the distribution among the ACC, American, Big 10 and (I’ll even throw in) the SEC is fairly even. Does that mean, with the exception of perennial favorites, Kansas, that you should avoid picking Pac-12, Big 12 and “new” Big East teams to be tipping-off at AT&T Stadium on April 7th?
By the time you’ve reached The Final, there is very little analysis left with respect to conference representation. Is there any trend as to which conferences are likely to win it all? The following graph details the number of national championships by conference. Again, I have separated the results into two periods: From 1985-2003 and from the past ten years.
It should be no surprise that the ACC has historically been strong with Duke and UNC leading the way. However, the ACC, Big East American and SEC have won three titles apiece over the past ten years. I cross out the Big East in jest since all three American titles over the past ten years were captured while members of the Big East.
The movement of Syracuse to the ACC can’t be overlooked as the Orange add one more dominant program to an already stacked conference. You can also see just how few championships have been won by major conferences such as the Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12 over the past 29 years. Just think, the UCLA Bruins won as many titles consecutively between 1967-73 than these three conferences have won since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
LOOKING FOR MORE
For the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, I have also analyzed the impact of a school’s conference and the experience of their head basketball coach in the following articles:
You can find a list of the entire 2014 NCAA tournament field in my NCAA Cheat Sheet which also summarizes my findings from this analysis and in the two other articles listed directly above.
Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.