UConn's Big East Tournament success does not mean NCAA failure is coming

No Syracuse, he does not feel your pain.

Tonight UConn will play their fifth game in as many games. That is great for us because A) they won their previous four and B) more UConn. However, over the next few days you are probably going to hear a lot of people saying it is bad for UConn's NCAA tournament chances. Ignore them, they're wrong. Here's the gist of their argument (courtesy of 1c3creamcake's question on this post): 

This from ESPN:"Entering this year, 15 teams have won four games in exactly four days to capture their conference tournament title. Connecticut would be the first to win 5 games in 5 days. However, only 6 of those 15 teams went on to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament."

Thinking that big conference tournament runs lead to NCAA flameouts is a classic case of mistaking correlation for causation. The real issue here is that in most conferences a team has to be pretty bad to have a shot at winning four games in a row. In most formats the top four teams in a conference have a bye (meaning they'll only have three games), so only teams that finished fifth or below are eligible to go on a run and since every league except the Big East is typically sending six teams to the dance at best, that means most of the 15 teams that have done this before were marginal NCAA teams to begin with.

Take the most famous example: Syracuse in 2006. Gerry McNamara willed his team to four-straight wins (including one over UConn) to propel the Orange to a 5 seed where they promptly lost to Texas A+M. That seems like a bad loss until you consider this: Syracuse needed to win the Big East Tournament just to make the NCAA's. That team was 19-11 going in to MSG and had lost 9 of 13. The high-profile BET win shot them to a five seed, but an objective ranking probably would have put them in the 11 or 12 range -- they were supposed to lose in the first round. 

UConn is a different case.
The clearest reason is the strength of the Big East this year. Like the '06 Syracuse team, UConn was the Big East's 9 seed. Unlike that Syracuse team the Huskies were also ranked 21st in the country. They were not a bubble team on Tuesday. They were probably looking at something like a six seed, maybe lower if they lost to DePaul or got embarrassed by Georgetown. Now, they're all but guaranteed themselves a four and with a win tonight they'll probably be a three. Like with Syracuse, that seed is probably objectively too high, but it's not absurd. UConn would have been expected to win before the BET, and they'll be expected to win now.

Of course, that does not mean they will win. Let's be clear, it is still entirely possible that UConn will bow out early in the NCAA's. This has been a wonderful four-day run and the Huskies look like they've found answers for a lot of the questions that were dogging them. That does not mean the questions and problem spots cannot reappear though. This is a very talented team that has some undeniable flaws. They can play with anyone when they're on, and lose to anyone if they're not. This week they've been on and I hope that will continue throughout March but there are no gurantees.

If you want some additional reading, before the Big East tournament our SB Nation brethren Card Chronicle absolutely took apart the myth that deep conference tournament runs hurt a team in the NCAAs. You should read the whole thing but here is a sample:

  • Three of the four national semifinalists from last year and 2007 were conference tournament champions. All four teams in the 2008 Final Four won their league tourney. The anomaly is 2009 when national semifinalists Michigan State (Big Ten...damnit), Villanova (Big East), Connecticut (Big East...damnit), and North Carolina (ACC) had all bowed out early in their respective conference tournament. 
  • The combined NCAA Tournament record of the six major conference tournament champions last year was 18-5.Of those six teams, only one (Ohio State) lost to a non-conference tournament champion (Tennessee). Three (Kentucky, Washington, West Virginia), were knocked off by one of the other five BCS champs (West Virginia beat Kentucky and Washington before falling to Duke). 
  • There were 10 conferences that sent multiple teams to the tournament last year. Of those 10, only two (Big Ten, Big 12) had a team that didn't win its conference tournament advance further in the big dance than the team that did. 
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