Admittedly, most opinions in the world of college sports are quite reactionary. One big team falls and we’re quick to assume the worst of them and the best of their victor, even by the slimmest of margins most of the time. That especially rings true in March when anything can happen. We’ve seen big name programs fall in their conference tournaments and if they don’t have “conference champion” attached to their name, we’re likely to write them off earlier in the bracket. Makes sense: March is all about being hot at the right time, isn’t it?
But I’ll counter you this…what if it’s better to fall short in your conference play than to pull through for that automatic bid? That’s right, get it out of the way before the wheels fall off when it really matters. It may seem counter-intuitive, but recent tournament play has suggested at-large teams fare better for the most part, especially in earlier rounds.
In the past ten NCAA tournaments, 662 teams have entered the bracket (expanding the field from 65 to 68 in 2011): 310 auto-bids and 352 at-large berths. At-large teams have out-numbered tournament champions 53 to 47 percent. Purely following statistics, we should have expected an fairly even split of teams making the Sweet Sixteen as well, eight tournament winners and at-large teams each. But that’s not what happened.
Forty-one percent of tournament champions advanced into regional semifinals in that time period, and exactly half pushed through to the Elite Eight as well. Of course, you have to consider that some conference champs are playing other conference champs as well, but in many cases matchups are between auto-bids and champs. The equation becomes more confusing when you account for the second round games. But in that span of ten years, anomalies start to sort themselves out.
Nothing can really prove why this happens, but the idea is that teams that have a high win percentage in-season but lost in their conference bracket aren’t as likely to lose in such a close time span — a great weight has been lifted. Now teams can run looser after collecting from a loss, hoping to make a run. But that can only take a team so far. Overall play takes over and lands in favor of the teams able to hold it all together, as Kentucky hopes to extend their perfect record to 40 wins in the nation championship.
Conference champs come out victorious eighteen percent more often than at-large teams in the Elite Eight, evening out the Final Four to 50-50 between the two. Their advantage grows even more for teams advancing to the title game, and those crowned champion. Of the last ten championship matchups, twelve teams have been tournament champions and half of them were crowned national champs as well.
It’s also worth mentioning that Power Five conference champs hold a great advantage over other automatic bids. Only seven mid-majors in the last ten tournaments have advanced to the Elite Eight (nine percent of teams); only ’08 Memphis and ’10 & ’11 Butler have advanced to the championship. Keep that in mind when you’re filling out your brackets.
You may think it’s safe to go with a tournament champion because they’re coming in hot, but that’s really only beneficial in the long-run. The early rounds are where the at-large teams show up the most. Don’t overlook those at-large teams just because of a loss, but don’t get carried away thinking an at-large mid-major will be walking into the Final Four. It’s just not happening.