It’s March, which means college basketball’s finish line exists in plain sight.
One month from now, we’ll be previewing the Final Four and trying to make sense of all the events which led up to it. In the present tense, power-conference teams are fighting for championships and seeding slots in their upcoming league tournaments.
The transitions which occur in March — conference regular season to conference postseason; conference postseason to national postseason — create annual questions which are always worth revisiting. Two questions stand out above the rest?
1) Do conference champions normally win the NCAA tournament?
2) How many times does a regular season conference champion then go on to win the conference tournament AND the whole shebang?
Let’s take a look:
The first question offers an easier answer than the second one: Yes, conference champions (regular season, not necessarily conference tournament winners) generally win NCAA tournaments. It’s true that neither of the past two national champions won their conferences (Duke in 2015, Connecticut in 2014). However, this century has typically elevated conference champions to the winner’s circle.
Of the 16 national champions crowned in the 21st century, 11 won regular season conference titles. The other three exceptions beyond the past two seasons: 2004 and 2011 Connecticut plus 2006 Florida.
This next statement captures the complexity of March Madness: Trends that cut against many teams don’t necessarily coexist with the end results of the NCAA tournament. Lots of regular season conference champions fail in the postseason, but if asked, “Does a conference champion usually separate itself from the pack?”, the answer is more often yes than no.
Being the best during the regular season doesn’t mean everything for every power-conference program in March (see Kansas), but one team which proves itself in the regular season generally does find its way to the top in 21st-century college hoops.
The second question raised above is the one which points to the difficulty of making your bracket selections every year. The “Triple Crown” winner in college basketball — regular season title, conference tournament title, national title — isn’t so rare as to be aberrational or shocking when it emerges. However, you wouldn’t want to depend on that outcome most seasons.
Let’s start with a smaller slice of the past and then expand our survey, bit by bit.
Over the past five seasons, only one Triple Crown winner exists: Louisville, in 2013. If you extend your survey to the past 10 seasons, since 2006, the total number of Triple Crown winners increases to four: 2010 Duke, 2008 Kansas, and 2007 Florida all pulled off the feat.
If you go back to the start of the century, 2000 Michigan State and 2001 Duke won Triple Crowns. Remarkably, the 1998 through 2001 seasons (with Kentucky winning it all in 1998 and UConn doing the deed in 1999) all featured a Triple Crown winner. Overall, though, the frequency of Triple Crown winners has been remarkably consistent since the NCAA tournament began to be seeded in 1979.
Get this, Part I: Of the 16 national champions crowned this century, 6 won Triple Crowns, for a 37.5-percent success rate.
Get this, Part II: In the first decade of the 21st century, four teams won Triple Crowns (2000, 2001, 2007, 2008).
Get this, Part III: In the 1990s, four Triple Crown winners existed (1990, 1992, 1998, 1999).
Get this, Part IV: In the 1980s, four Triple Crown winners existed (1980, 1982, 1984, 1986).
The frequency of a Triple Crown winner is very much in the 37-to-40-percent range. It’s frequent enough that you can’t dismiss the prospect, but it’s not the prevailing outcome in most years (or decades).
In other words, March is tough to predict.
You knew that, of course… but sometimes, the journey which leads you to obvious realizations can be a lot more illuminating than the final conclusion might suggest.
Happy March, everyone.