The sweat was still glistening on their foreheads when UCLA players slipped on Pac-12 Conference tournament championship T-shirts inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, holding one finger aloft as they draped arms around each other for a group photo.
Jordan Adams, whose three-pointer in the final minute provided the go-ahead basket in that 2014 title game against Arizona, waved a school banner as fans chanted “U-C-L-A!” Kyle Anderson was the first player to ascend a ladder placed underneath that same basket, pulling a strand of nylon toward him before snipping it.
It was the one and only shining moment the Bruins would enjoy that postseason.
UCLA won two games in the NCAA tournament, advancing to a regional semifinal. That’s the same round the Bruins reached the following season after experiencing far worse results in their conference tournament, where they lost in a semifinal.
The top-tier teams that don’t go all the way in the Pac-12 tournament that starts Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas might console themselves knowing that conference tournament success is not a harbinger of how teams will fare in the tournament that matters most.
An analysis of the 60 teams that won major conference tournaments over the last 10 years showed that only 24 (40%) advanced further than their conference counterparts in the NCAA tournament. Of the last 10 national champions, only five — none since Louisville in 2013 — won their conference tournament.
The upside for those that won the Pac-12, Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern conference tournaments over that span was that the champions that did advance further than their conference brethren usually ventured much deeper into March. Major conference tournament winners made it an average of 3.48 rounds (roughly halfway between the regional semifinals and finals) in the NCAA tournament as compared with 2.14 rounds (the second round) for the other schools from the same conferences.
Former Stanford and California coach Mike Montgomery suggested that the differing formats of the conference and NCAA tournaments might be at least partially responsible for the conflicting results.
Unfavorable matchups against less familiar teams can also lead to the undoing of conference champions in the NCAA tournament, as Montgomery’s top-seeded Cardinal learned against eighth-seeded Alabama in 2004, after having won what was then the Pac-10 tournament.
“We got hammered pretty good inside physically and didn’t perform very well in the second round against a pretty good Alabama team,” Montgomery said. “The team that went to the Final Four [in 1998] was clearly not our best team, but we got matchups and seeds that went our direction, a lot of things that happened favorably for us.”
There have been more than a handful of flameouts involving teams only a few days removed from major conference championships. Just last season, Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament before losing to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Missouri suffered a similar fate in 2012, capturing the Big 12 tournament only to fall to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in its next game.
“Which one of you guys is going to call Obama and tell him we messed up his bracket?” Norfolk State assistant coach Wilson Washington asked reporters afterward, alluding to the fact that then-President Obama was one of 2.63 million people who picked Missouri to go to the Final Four that year.
Georgia (in 2008), Mississippi State (in 2009), Providence (in 2014), Iowa State (in 2015) and Seton Hall (in 2016) also busted scores of brackets after winning conference tournaments and then stumbling in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
There have been no such early missteps among the last 10 teams to win the Pac-12 tournament. Colorado, USC and Washington each lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament after winning the conference tournament, but there were also some deep runs among recent Pac-12 champions. UCLA reached a national semifinal in 2008 — losing to Memphis — and Oregon and Arizona each advanced to regional finals.
“A lot of teams know that they’re in the [NCAA] tournament, for example, and that they don’t necessarily have to win their conference tournament and so maybe psychologically there’s a little bit of a letdown,” said Montgomery, now an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. “The other thing might be that the really, really competitive teams want to win everything, so they’re going to get after it and try to win the [conference] tournament.”
The latter scenario seems to describe UCLA’s mentality going into its Pac-12 tournament opener Thursday against either USC or Washington.
“For a team like us, who’s won nine straight, it’s good to stay hot,” Bruins shooting guard Bryce Alford said. “I think we’re a hot basketball team right now and we’re playing well. You never want to lose a game and if you can continue a winning streak going into the NCAA tournament, that’s huge.”
If recent trends hold up, the teams that prevail during what’s been dubbed championship week should fully enjoy their titles. It might be the only time they get to celebrate.