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Which Conferences Do Best in the NCAA Tournament? Part I


This series is in direct response to a request by DawgBlawginIt analyzing which conferences have been performing best in the NCAA tournament. If you have an idea for a story you would like me to persue, just add it in the comments section of any of my posts, or go to the Seattle Times Husky Hoops Blog and add it in the comments section, since I am always there checking things out.

The East Coast media LOVES to rave about how wonderful the Big East is. And why wouldn’t they? The Big East has 16 teams in most of the largest media markets in the eastern U.S.. One thing ESPN and others always like to point out is the sheer number of teams the Big East sends to the NCAA tournament each year. But, then when the actual tournament comes along, it often seems the Big East disappoints in the actual games that are played on college basketball’s biggest stage.

On the other hand, the Pac-10 has often seemed ignored by the national media. Being on the west coast, their games are too late at night for the old-timers like Dickie V to actually stay up to watch the games. While the Pac-10 hasn’t necessarily done itself any favors in the past 2-3 seasons during non-conference play (and while poster-children Arizona and UCLA were down a bit), even when the Pac-10 was on fire during the middle part of the decade, they usually did not get the press and national buzz that eastern teams did.

However, no matter the number of teams who get the bids to the NCAA tournament, two trends seem to occur when the games are finally played; The Big East disappoints (therefore the nickname the Big Least) and the Pac-10 seems to over-perform its seedings.

One of the problems, of course, in looking at just the sheer number of teams getting invites to the NCAA tournament from a conference, is that not all conferences are the same size. The Big East is the only conference in the country with 16 teams, so one would expect them to have the largest number of invited teams in any given year. If the Big East gets eight teams invited to the tournament (that’s their average), proportionally that is the same as five teams being invited for the Pac-10.

Regardless of how many teams are invited to the Big Dance, the question remains, how do they actually perform? I compiled the data from the last six NCAA tournaments and analyzed how each conference has done in overall record, as well as, how far they advance in the tournament. While choosing the last six years is somewhat arbitrary (why not five or seven or ten?), I did it simply because it basically includes the time period where all of the major conferences have been stable in their membership size following the last round of major expansion (ending in 2005 with TCU to the MWC) and prior to the current round of realignment.

Now, there are 33 conferences in the country and I certainly was not going to analyze the results of all of them, especially since half of them literally never send more than one team to the NCAA tournament. So, I set up a filter and removed every conference who did not send a minimum of two teams to the tournament every year between 2006 and 2011.

Interestingly, this filter eliminated a few conferences that are generally considered to be fairly good basketball conferences. Bye bye WAC, MAC, Colonial, and WCC. The ones I was not expecting to be filtered out were Conference USA and the Missouri Valley Conference. While there are certainly individual teams who have performed extremely well during this time period (Butler, Memphis, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth), their data would have only confounded the statistics anyways since this is a conference-wide level analysis.

So, given this set of criteria, let’s take a look at the baseline data of the number of teams each conference sends to the tournament and how those teams do once they are there.

 Total TeamsTotal Bids% Conf in Tourney
Big Ten113553.03%
Big East164850.00%
Big 12123244.44%
Atlantic 10101626.67%

The first table shows the average number of teams each conference sent to the NCAA tournament between 2006 and 2011. As you can see, the Big Ten sends a higher proportion of its teams to the Big Dance than the Big East. And, despite the Pac-10 only sending two teams to the tournament in 2010, the conference is still third on the list ahead of the heralded ACC and Big 12.

 Total BidsTotals WinsTotal Losses Winning %
Big East48604159.41%
Big 1232292256.86%
Big Ten35282552.83%
Atlantic 101691145.00%

The next table shows the winning percentage in the NCAA tournament of the teams who do get invites. In what is probably not a surprise to anyone, the ACC has the highest winning percentage in the tournament. ACC teams win over 62% of their games (that is 5 out of 8). Some people may be surprised to see the SEC right behind them at a little over 61%, especially since the SEC is not generally considered a major basketball power conference and always has a conference RPI well below the other five “BCS conferences”.  But, you have to remember that the SEC has Kentucky and the Wildcats under John Calipari have made an Elite Eight and a Final Four in the past two seasons. In addition, that also includes the two national championships by Florida in 2006 and 2007 and an Elite Eight in 2011. In fact, one really has to wonder why the Florida Gators do not get more love as one of the premier basketball powers in America given their recent success. But, I digress…

Next in terms of NCAA tournament success is the Big East, followed closely behind by the Pac-10. Interestly, despite having the highest proportion of its teams make the NCAA tournament, the Big Ten has the lowest winning percentage of any of the so-called BCS-conferences.

So, to answer DawgBlawginit’s question about who seems to underperform in the NCAA tournament, it would seem to me like the answer is the Big Ten. As for who “over-performs”, based only on this data, it would appear to be the SEC, as it is carried primarily by two teams.

Now, there is more to determining how a conference is performing than simply the number of teams it sends to the tournament and how many games they win. Seeding is critical to this equation. If your conference is getting all the #1-4 seeds, then yeah you would expect to get a lot of wins since your first two games are usually against much weaker opponents. But, if your conference is ending up with a lot of the #8-12 seeds, then those wins would seem to mean more in the question of “over-performing” and “under-performing”.

In Part II of this series, I will examine how many teams a conference typically sends to the Sweet 16 and address the issue of “parity”, as opposed to having one or two dominant teams in a conference who rack up victories, despite the weakness of the conference as a whole.

In Part III, I will examine how teams have performed relative to their seeds in the tournament to see if there is a conference that stands out as the most successful once the tournament begins, rather than racking up wins by getting the benefit of the easy gimme games against NEAC and SWAC teams because of a great regular season, only to fall flat on their faces once the tougher games arrive.

Part IV will address the question, is there a conference more prone to first round upsets than the others?