In many ways, conference tournaments get a bad rap. When somebody like Houston wins the Conference USA tournament, we are forced to try and make sense of how a team that had a losing conference record could be declared its champion. However, in the vast majority of situations a tournament is not a bad way to decide a conference champ.
More specifically, it’s not much worse than the regular season in this regard. It might seem like a 16-18 game schedule should reliably determine which team is the best, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Take for instance the Atlantic Sun. Four teams tied for the top spot with another a game back. The A-Sun could have played an 82-game schedule and we still could not have felt comfortable about which team was truly best. I don’t think anyone would argue that a tournament was a bad thing for the A-Sun. You have to break that tie somehow.
In order to determine how well conference tourneys do in identifying the best team, I used my ratings to see where the conference tournament champ ranked in its conference. I am taking the ranking after the conference tournament because that is one true benefit of playing a tournament – you get extra data points. I then compared these numbers to where the regular season champ ranked. The table below summarizes the findings.
Conference champs by kenpom ranking
Conf Rank (kenpom) Reg. season champ Conf. tourney champ 1 21 18 2 3 8 3 4 4 4 2 0 5 1 (Lispcomb) 0 6 0 1 (Houston)
For instance, for 21 of the 31 conference with a tournament, the regular season champ was the conference’s best team. In 18 of 31 cases, the tourney champ was the best team. As expected, the regular season was a truer test of conference supremacy. But that difference is small, especially when you consider that in only five tourneys did one of the two best teams not win. Compare that to the regular season where eight teams outside the top two were able to snag the tourney’s top seed.
Why is the conference tournament nearly as good of a test as the regular season? Think about the probabilities we assigned before the conference tourney. For instance, we thought Kansas had a 65% chance to win the Big 12 tourney. Now think about the chance that Kansas was truly the best team in the conference based on what we saw during the season. Ignoring, the eye test and just using numbers, I’d guess around 90%. There’s a difference between 90% and 65% of course, but in leagues without a dominant champ, that difference shrinks, and the additional info we get from conference tourney games helps make up the difference. Even in leagues with a dominant champ, the structure of the tourney can help, too. Think about the Horizon, with the double-bye and home court advantage that Butler benefited from.
So the next time you hear someone like Bob Knight bemoan the use of a tournament to decide the conference champ, think about what they’re saying. The regular season isn’t exactly a pristine way to identify a conference’s best team, either. Giving up the excitement (and revenue) that a conference tourney brings is not nearly worth it considering that tourneys also do a good job crowning the best team.