Conference Tournament Zeros to NCAA Tournament Heroes

NCAA tournament bracket glory is your goal, right? You want to destroy your friends, family, and/or coworkers? Do you want the best bracket out there and the cash or bragging rights that come with it? (Whichever is more important to you). Well, that all starts with picking the right National Champion and Final Four if you can get so lucky.

Conventional wisdom says to pick chalk, especially red-hot teams heading into the NCAA tournament. I previously wrote about rest vs. momentum in conference tournaments for NCAA tournament success. The data holds up that momentum in conference tournaments is more important (or at least a better indicator of success) than the extra rest that comes along with losing early.

However, you may note that there are four teams in each Final Four. And since 2002 (the first year all P6 conferences held tournaments) 39% of these did not make the final game of their conference tournament. So, that means that every year it is more than likely that at least one Final Four team will fall into this category. So, how do we pick that fourth Final Four team? And should we ever pencil them in as the National Champ?

NCAA Tournament Data

Off the bat, only two non-P6 teams (2003 Marquette & 2006 George Mason) have made a Final Four without making their conference final since 2002. Marquette was the number eight team in the country in 2003, still earned an NCAA three seed, and is now in the Big East.

Conference realignment has pilfered mid-major leagues in general. Of the 11 teams who’ve made the Final Four from mid-major conferences since 2002 only Mason, VCU, Memphis, Loyola-Chicago, and Gonzaga remain outside of the P6. So, it seems less likely that mid-major conferences will be sending multiple teams capable of deep runs in a given year… though not impossible.

Let’s make it simple. I definitely won’t choose any non-P6 school to make the Final Four this year if they don’t make their conference championship game except if Gonzaga, Houston, or maaaybe Loyola-Chicago take any early tumble. Those three teams are ranked high enough that they can afford an early loss and still earn a decent NCAA tourney seed (depending on how bad the hypothetical Loyola loss is).

In any case, look at this chart representing the average of 28 Final Four teams that didn’t make their conference title game since 2002. 14 of the 28 lost in the Final Four, 7 were national runner-ups, and 7 won the championship.


NCAA SeedConf RS FinishNatl Rank
Final Four4.32.816.2
Natl Runner Up32.610
Natl Champ1.313.3
Averages for Each Category Pre-NCAA Tournament

Title Turnarounds

What really stands out to me in this chart is the strength of the national champions. All seven finished as conference regular-season champions. All were also one seed in the NCAA tournament except for 2003 Syracuse which was a three seed. (Though Cuse was luckily in the East region in 2003 despite not being a top seed). All were also, of course, highly nationally ranked prior to March Madness.

The other thing is that, again aside from 2003 Cuse in the Big East, all were ACC teams at the time. It’s no surprise that the two best men’s basketball conferences over the last twenty years (The Old Big East & the ACC) are responsible for the entirety of the national champions on this list. These two conferences had more chances by earning more bids and also great other teams to which a top team losing in the conference tourney would be expected over enough games.

The Big 12 and B1G have overtaken them, at least for this year, as the best conferences in college basketball. So, if one of Baylor or Michigan loses in the semifinal of the 2021 Big 12 or B1G conference tourneys don’t push the panic button. It will be a better sign of success if they win their conference tournaments but there is precedent for a loss and still cutting down the nets at the end of the year.

Ohio State Collection at HOMAGE

Final Four Squads

Three Final Four teams really skewed the data quite a bit: 2017 South Carolina (7 seed), 2016 Cuse (10), and the aforementioned 2006 George Mason (11). Aside from these three, the remaining 25 teams were all five seeds or better. Even the non-champions (again aside from the three) had an average NCAA seed of 2.6 and an average AP national ranking of 8.8 before the NCAA tournament.

However, we can’t quite discount the three Cinderalla runs since 2002. But what made these teams differently? 2017 South Carolina was not hot, losing 6 of 9 (including their first SEC tournament game) heading into the NCAA tournament. Same story for 2016 Cuse, losing five of their final six (including their first ACC tournament game). And Mason as well, losing to Hofstra (who finished 64 in Kenpom that year) twice in their last four games. South Carolina did get to play the rounds of 64 & 32 games in their own backyard but neither Cuse nor Mason had that benefit.

There are two common threads as far as I can tell. First, all three finished top 17 in KenPom defensive efficiency. They also all had multiple scoring threats rather than one or two stars. Mason had five players average double figures, Cuse had four with the fifth averaging 8.8 pts/game, South Carolina also had four. Obviously, it helps to have stars (like Sindarius Thornwell) but the distribution of the scoring threat is necessary for when that one guy gets shut down.

The sample size here is small but these are interesting tidbits. If you’re crazy enough to pick a cold team coming off of multiple losses to your Final Four make sure they play defense and have multiple guys who can score!


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