Degree Of Difficulty: Conference Tournaments vs. NCAA Tournament

The proclamation by a talking head recently that winning the Big East tournament is harder than winning the NCAA tournament led to many people expressing their vehement disagreement, for obvious reasons. But the idea stuck in my head, and I thought I’d explore how much harder winning the NCAA tournament is, compared to winning a conference tournament.

There’s no single right answer to this question, because the difficulty of winning either type of tournament depends on a team’s draw. It’s harder for a #16 seed to win the NCAA tournament than it is for a #1 seed to do so, because the #16 seed has a tougher first round opponent. A similar issue exists for the conference tournaments, plus those vary wildly in overall difficulty. Think Big East compared to Big West.

Instead of trying to find a single number, I thought I’d look at all major conference teams (BCS conferences plus Mountain West and Atlantic 10) currently projected to make the tournament by every single one of the bracketologists that we track on our NCAA tournament bracket projections page. For each of those teams, I compiled the projected odds for the team to win their conference tournament from our NCAA conference tournament bracket predictions, and the projected odds for the team to win the NCAA tournament from our NCAA bracket predictions.

I then compared those two probabilities in two different ways: subtraction and division. (What, you were expecting something more complicated?) Here are the teams with the lowest ratio of conference win probability to NCAA tournament win probability:

TeamNCAA Win%Conf. Win%DifferenceRatioConference
Ohio State19.8%47.1%27.3%2.38Big Ten
Purdue10.9%29.7%18.9%2.74Big Ten
Pittsburgh9.6%28.1%18.5%2.92Big East
Connecticut0.9%2.8%1.9%3.08Big East
Kansas12.9%44.0%31.1%3.41Big 12
Wisconsin3.6%14.7%11.1%4.04Big Ten
Syracuse1.9%7.8%5.9%4.07Big East
W Virginia0.7%3.6%2.8%4.79Big East
Georgetown1.1%5.8%4.7%5.21Big East

What this shows is that, for Ohio State, winning the NCAA tournament is 2.38 times as difficult as winning the Big Ten tournament. It’s not a coincidence that two Big ten teams top the list. If they make the Big Ten final, that game could very well involve as good a pair of teams as the two that end up meeting in the NCAA final. It’s also not a coincidence that half the above list come from the Big East. That conference isn’t as top heavy as the Big Ten, but it has more quality depth than any other conference.

Here are the bottom ten, in case you were wondering:

TeamNCAA Win%Conf. Win%DifferenceRatioConference
Richmond0.04%19.9%19.9%497Atlantic 10
Xavier0.14%28.4%28.3%203Atlantic 10
Temple0.22%31.0%30.7%138Atlantic 10
UNLV0.15%19.9%19.8%137Mountain West
Florida St0.06%6.1%6.0%107ACC

It’s about 500 times less likely for Richmond to win the NCAA tournament that it is for them to win the Atlantic 10 tournament. I hope they take advantage of the situation. Note the presence of UNLV on this list. Credit their home court advantage for that.

Now, for the part that will surely inspire the most giant foam finger waving. Here are averages by conference:

ConferenceNCAA Win%Conf. Win%DifferenceAverage of RatiosRatio of Averages
Big East1.8%9.1%7.3%7.55.0
Big Ten6.9%19.6%12.6%9.72.8
Big 124.0%19.3%15.3%16.24.8
Mountain West2.7%31.2%28.5%52.411.4
Atlantic 100.1%26.4%26.3%279.6196.5

Note the difference between the last two columns. The “Average of Ratios” is exactly what it sounds like: the average of the ratios for all the NCAA-bound teams in a conference. This give a better representation of the difference between the conference tournament and NCAA tournament for a typical team in the conference. The “Ratio of Averages” is the ratio between the average conference tournament win odds and the average NCAA tournament win odds, for NCAA-bound teams in the conference. The nature of this calculation will emphasize the experience of the elite teams. It’s essentially a weighted average, where the weight is a team’s chance of winning the NCAA tournament.

So, what’s the summary, here? For a typical good-but-not-elite team, the Big East is the toughest conference tournament, followed relatively closely by the big Ten. The Big 12, in third, is slightly closer to the top tier than to the ACC and Mountain West, which are essentially tied. And, it looks like I shouldn’t have bothered to include the Atlantic 10.

On the other hand, for an elite team, the Big Ten is the toughest, followed by the Big 12 and Big East. This is surely be due to the Big Ten having the most top-heavy talent distribution, with three legitimate top-10-quality teams. In fact, just counting up elite teams is a pretty good rule of thumb for predicting the ranking of a conference in the “Ratio of Averages” column.

So, the Big East is the best! And the Big Ten is the best! And the Big 12 is better than the Big East!

I say we just let them play some basketball games to figure it out.