Rest vs Momentum for NCAA Tournament Success: a Semi-Statistical Analysis

Soon enough it’ll be that magical time of year – March Madness. But first conference tournaments will pit familiar foes against each other. Teams will be weighed, measured and the fortunate will be seeded for the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday.

Talking heads and guys on shows with segments called Bracketology and Bubble Watch will pontificate about which teams will make deep NCAA tournament runs. Everyone and their brother will have a theory on the best criteria for NCAA tournament success.

A lot of people focus on who are the hottest teams in the NCAA tournament. Namely by how said teams performed in their conference tournaments. Not a bad proposition, as this guy couldn’t have been more right in 2019:

Nostradamus – Auburn made the 2019 Final Four as a five seed.

Other guys will bring up these sorts of examples and… also be completely right:

Also valid. 2014 Badgers went to the Final Four after an early-ish B1G tourney exit.

So, it seems like both winning and losing early in your conference tourney could be the key to success in the NCAA tournament. With contradictory paths for deep tournament runs, the American populace can’t help but be confused! This is the bane of all of us who yearn for that perfect bracket… or at least winning our company March Madness pool.

What is more important for a deep tourney run? Being a hot team and winning your conference tournament? Or being an overall solid team that maybe gets helped out by getting some extra rest? Let’s take a look at the data.

Past Conference & NCAA Tournament Results

All Power 6 conferences (football Power 5 + the Big East) have each held an annual conference tournament in men’s basketball since at least 2002 when the Pac 12 (Pac 10 at the time) tournament started in earnest. (They did have a tourney from 1987-1990 but we’re not going to count that).

So, we will use the 2002-2019 NCAA and conference tournaments as our dataset. And since college basketball is measured in national championships and Final Fours, we will use those as our measuring sticks.

In that 02-19 timespan, there have been 72 Final Four participants, 18 national runner-ups, and 18 national champions. See the below chart for a breakdown of their conference tournament results.

Conf Tourney ResultFinal FourNatl Runner UpNatl Champ
Champ33108
Runner Up1113
Semi1857
Quarter920
Second Rd100
 721818
2002-2019 NCAA Final Four & Championship Game Appearances

So, Rest or Momentum for a Deep March Run?

If you take nothing else away from this article understand this: momentum is more important. Statistically speaking that is.

Of the 72 Final Four teams from 02-19, 33 won their conference tourney, 11 made second place, 18 reached the semi, nine the quarter, and one less than that. (Only 2016 Cuse made the Final Four after not making at least their conference quarter-final). So, it is generally clear that winning in your conference tourney is better than the alternative for March Madness success.

44 of 72 (61%) of national Final Four teams played on the last day of their conference tournament, as opposed to 25% who had an extra day’s rest, and 12.5% with two extra days of rest. It is interesting that 18 teams reached the national Final Four after being bounced in their conference semi (as opposed to 11 who earned second place in their conference tournament). But remember that there are twice as many semi teams as conference finals teams. So, the disparity isn’t actually so glaring in that case.

Other NCAA Tournament Observations

No team has won the national title if they haven’t at least made the semifinals of their conference tourney. And only one team has made the national championship game after not making their conference semifinal (2019 TTU).

Of the 18 national champions from 02-19, eight won their conference tourney, three got second, and seven reached the semifinal. The national runner-up is a bit wonky-er with ten conference champs, one-second place, five semis, and two quarterfinalists.

I don’t know what all of this means exactly, but I’ll be sure to pay attention to my bracket. In the absence of traditional blue bloods to lean on in your bracket this year knowing which teams to rely on in terms of momentum vs. rest could be more important than ever.

Non-P6 Conference Teams in the NCAA Tournament

But how does this hold up when talking about Cinderellas? You know… the thing that makes March Madness awesome? I talking about teams from non-major conferences making deep runs in the tourney. Surely, there must be some difference.

I know not all of the teams I’m about to mention were Cinderellas, but there can be no doubt that there is generally a difference in the difficulty of their conference tournaments. Look at this triple-bye monstrosity format of the WCC (Gonzaga’s conference) tournament for example:

This is really the WCC tournament from 2019.

I also hesitate to use the term “mid-major” because some of those early 2000s CUSA lineups were super legit and the 2014 AAC had national champion UConn as well as Louisville coming off of a national title of their own in 2013. (Cincy was highly ranked as well). I’ll go with the term “non-P6 conferences” to avoid any pejorative connotation that goes along with the term mid-major these days.

There were 11 teams from non-P6 conferences to make the Final Four from 2002-2019 (AAC, Colonial x2, CUSA x3, Horizon x2, MVC x2, & WCC). Six (55%) won their conference tourney, two (18%) were second place, two (18%) semi, and one (10%) quarterfinalist. This was slightly more top-heavy than the field but less differential than I expected. I know it is a small sample size but it shows that non-P6 conferences can largely be strong, deep, and volatile just like the P6. At least for those that make the Final Four.

At the end of the day, when you’re filling out your bracket remember that the smart money is on teams who won their conference tournament no matter the conference. So, pay attention to the hot teams as we’re coming down the stretch of the 20-21 season – especially those who win their conference tournaments!

Follow John Glowatz on Twitter @BigNorthestPod



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