The Numbers Behind Conference Tournaments

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Due to the coronavirus outbreak, only 13 of the 32 conference tournaments in women’s college basketball were completed earlier this month. Those 13 tournaments provided a lot of excitement, from Aislinn Konig leading NC State to its first ACC Tournament title since 1991 to Sabrina Ionescu winning her second Pac-12 Tournament title with the Oregon Ducks.

Watching the teams that did get to play duke it out for bragging rights and NCAA Tournament berths made me wonder about some of the numbers behind conference tournaments. Do top seeds nearly always win, or does the madness of March extend to conference tournaments, too? Is the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player always the winning team’s high scorer, or can a player with less eye-popping stats—or even from the losing team—get that honor once in a while? And how often do teams repeat as champions and players repeat as Most Outstanding Players?

To answer those questions, I compiled every conference tournament champion in the past four seasons, along with the team’s seed and statistics on the Most Outstanding Player. The data was collected from conference tournament websites, team websites, and Her Hoop Stats.

Seeding

In 2020, the worst-seeded team to win a conference tournament was Portland, which won the West Coast Conference Tournament as the No. 4 seed. While it was a thrilling run for the Pilots, the craziness paled in comparison to 2017, in which two 6-seeds and a 7-seed won their respective tournaments.

Over the past four years, top seeds have overwhelmingly won their conference tournaments:

Top seeds have also had better outcomes in the last two seasons than four years ago. The No. 1 seed won 66% of conference tournaments in 2019 and 69% in 2020, compared to 59% in 2017, and the winners’ average seed decreased from 2.0 in 2017 to 1.5 in 2020.

Most Outstanding Players

Over the past four seasons, the vast majority of Most Outstanding Players have been upperclassmen. Forty-seven percent have been seniors and 37% have been juniors. From 2017 through 2019, zero freshmen were named Most Outstanding Player, but two were in 2020: Portland’s Alex Fowler and Maryland’s Ashley Owusu.

The majority of Most Outstanding Player awards (69%) went to the player on the winning team who scored the most points in the tournament championship game. The Most Outstanding Players averaged 20.4 points per game in the championship game, and 14 of them (13%) scored at least 30 points.

The Most Outstanding Players’ performances in the championship game were generally a slight improvement from the regular season, when they collectively averaged 15.3 points per game. Over 90% averaged at least 10 points and 57% were their teams’ leading scorers during the regular season, suggesting that Most Outstanding Players are not generally players who come out of nowhere to have a big scoring day.

Just one Most Outstanding Player in the past four seasons came from the losing team: in 2018, Texas State senior Taeler Deer won the award in a 54-53 loss to Little Rock. Notably, she didn’t do it by having a record shooting day, as she shot only 7-for-22 from the field. But she had a game-high 20 points, 8 assists, and zero turnovers and led her team in scoring and assists in all three games of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

Repeat Champions

In 2018 through 2020, 34% of conference champions were repeat winners from the previous season. However, 2020 did not seem to be the year for defending champions, as just three of the 13 conferences that completed their tournaments crowned repeat champions: Boise State from the Mountain West, UConn from the American, and DePaul from the Big East. (Boise State and UConn won their conference tournaments in all four years of data, while DePaul has now won three in a row.)

It is even harder to get a repeat Most Outstanding Player, particularly since nearly half of them are seniors. This season, there were zero repeat Most Outstanding Players, and there were a combined eight in 2018 and 2019.


All of this data on conference tournaments begs the question, what about the biggest prize of all, an NCAA Tournament title? I’m glad you asked.

NCAA Tournament Champions and Most Outstanding Players

In the past decade, all but one national champion—No. 2 seed Texas A&M in 2011—has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. UConn won five titles in ten years; Baylor won two; and Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Notre Dame won one apiece.

The Final Four Most Outstanding Player has come from the winning team in all ten years, and eight of the ten winners were upperclassmen. UConn’s Breanna Stewart won the award the other two times, as a freshman in 2013 and again as a sophomore in 2014. The award also went to the leading scorer on the winning team eight times. The exceptions: Stewart as a junior in 2015, when she had eight points (but also 15 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals), and Arike Ogunbowale in 2018, when she scored 18 points for Notre Dame, one behind teammate Jessica Shepard. To find the last—and only—player from a losing team to win Most Outstanding Player, you’d have to go back to 1991, when Virginia’s Dawn Staley scored 28 points in an overtime loss to Tennessee.

The Final Four Most Outstanding Players scored an average of 22.2 points in the championship game, slightly above their 18.5 points per game in the regular season. Both of these averages are slightly better than those for the Most Outstanding Players in conference tournaments.

Baylor’s Chloe Jackson in 2019 was the only Most Outstanding Player who was not one of her team’s top two scorers during the regular season; she ranked third on her team with 11.7 points per game but had 26 in the championship game. That 26-point performance was the second-highest output by Most Outstanding Players in the past ten years, tied with that of Baylor’s Brittney Griner in 2012 and behind Danielle Adams’ 30 points for Texas A&M in 2011.

UConn was the only team to repeat as champions, winning four straight from 2013 to 2016. Stewart won Most Outstanding Player in all four years and was the only player in the past decade to win the award more than once. (She is also the only player in history to win it more than twice.)


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