For the fourth time since 1999, Syracuse will enter the Big East Championship as the No. 1 seed. Ken Pomeroy gives the Orange a 39.5 percent chance to win the tournament, which he calls “still tougher to win than the NCAA Tournament.”
Regardless of whether SU wins the three games it will take to accomplish this feat or falls short, pundits and prognosticators will quickly take to the airwaves and their keyboards to claim how the result has dramatically altered Syracuse’s chances of winning a national championship.
Perhaps we will hear how a Big East Championship gives the Orange momentum and helps the team move past the distraction of the Yahoo! Sports investigation into the program’s enforcement of its drug policy. Or perhaps a loss will serve as a wake-up call to a team that has been winning all too many close games lately and help focus them for the tournament ahead. Those are the positive spins.
Somewhat less likely this year — although you never know, since it depends on the mood of the writer or broadcaster who is doing the punditry — are the negative spins. A loss could be bad, obviously, if it signals that the little problems SU had managed to overcome in its close wins, such as poor rebounding, have finally caught up with it and exposed it as fatally flawed. But, seemingly just as likely, winning the Big East Championship could spell disaster because it has tired the Orange out for the games they will need to win the following week in the NCAA Tournament.
With so many interpretations for all possible outcomes, one has to ask: does winning the conference tournament really matter at all for a team like Syracuse? I took a look at the numbers from the past 12 seasons (2000-2011), and I found that, no, winning the conference championship does not matter, at least when it comes to performance in the NCAA Tournament.
My methodology was as follows: I examined the No. 1 seed in each of the five major conference tournaments (and in some cases the two top seeds when a conference had two division winners with equal records) to see how many games they played in the conference tournament, how many they won and whether they took home the championship. (Side note: the PAC-10 did not hold a tournament in two years I looked at.) I then compared the results to these 72 teams’ performances in the NCAA Tournament, as measured by both their number of wins and their number of wins relative to the average for ateam of their seed.
What I found was a very slight positive correlation between winning a conference championship and the number of games a team wins in the NCAA Tournament (R=.19), roughly the same as the correlation between the number of wins in the conference tournament and NCAA Tournament wins (R=.21). These are not strong relationships, as an R-value of 0 means it is random, while an R-value of 1 or -1 means the relationship is a a match.
And when you consider what seed these teams received in the Big Dance and how well they performed relative to the average for that seed, there is essentially no correlation at all. Correlating the number of conference tournament games played to NCAA Tournament wins above average has an R-value of less than .08. Doing the same with conference tournament wins or championships shows even less of a relationship (R=.03 and R=-.05, respectively).
The conclusion, for those of you who don’t want to think about statistics, is that it’s essentially random. A team could win only one game in the conference tournament, as Syracuse did in 2003, and go on to win a National Championship. Alternately, a team could win one game in the conference tournament and then get upset on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, as happened to No. 1 seed Pittsburgh last year. Similarly, I found about as many conference champions who lost on opening weekend (three) as those who won a national championship (two).
For what it’s worth, although the sample size is small (just four teams), teams that went on to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – which Syracuse almost certainly will, regardless of what happens this week – but that lost the first game of their conference tournament won about one game less than the average No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. This is a group that includes three Big East schools: 2011 Pitt, 2010 Syracuse and 2006 Connecticut. Additionally, only one of the 72 teams I examined managed to make the Final Four after losing its first conference tournament game (UCLA in 2007).
Nonetheless, I would not panic if Syracuse gets knocked out in the Big East quarterfinal. The fate of the Orange will be determined by many things, from which teams get placed in its region to what Tim Higgins has for lunch – too many, in fact, for the results of the Big East Championship to make a noticeable difference one way or the other.
So, let’s hope Syracuse wins the national championship and the Big East Championship, to boot. After all, it can’t hurt.