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Best conference tournament team runs of all time

The NCAAB Championship is just around the corner but first we have the conference tournaments to look forward to as the battle to qualify for the tournament heats up.

For the power conferences, such as the Big Ten and the ACC, the winners will already receive at-large bids to the main event. 

The real interest at this stage of the season is in the other conferences, the mid-majors, where none of the teams receive at-large bids and they become winner-takes-all events. 

Regardless of what has happened in the regular season, if a team hits form in March they can secure a spot in arguably the best postseason tournament in sport, the NCAAB Championship, and we’ve taken a look at some of the best conference runs of all time.

St Peter’s memorable run starts with conference success - 2022 

We’ll start with one of the Cinderella stories of last season as St Peter’s emerged from the MAAC. 

Sometimes, the conference run is essentially the end of the success any given team will enjoy that season as they could come up against a top seed in the first round and then be sent packing but Saint Peter’s bucked that trend in some style last season. 

St Peter’s finished in second place in the conference then defeated Fairfield and Quinnipiac in the MAAC tournament to advance to the championship game. 

After beating Monmouth to claim the conference title and book a place in the NCAAB Championship, they embarked on a memorable run as they saw off 2-seed Kentucky - becoming just the 10th 15-seed to upset a 2-seed in the Tournament's history – before wins over Murray State and Purdue, eventually falling short against runners-up North Carolina in the last eight.

Michigan prevail in Big Ten - 2017 

Surprising conference tournament runs can happen in the power conferences and Michigan enjoyed a memorable postseason campaign back in 2017 in the Big Ten. 

In truth, a few wins in Washington DC would almost certainly have been enough for the 8-seeds to reach the dance after a 20-win season but their bid could have been derailed before the conference tournament even began. 

In scenes that could have been part of a movie script, the team’s plane slid off the runway and they arrived, no doubt shaken, just a few hours before their first game against Illinois. 

Michigan had to play their opener in their practice uniform but they prevailed regardless of the drama involving their plane to set up a showdown with top seeds Purdue. 

DJ Wilson starred with 26 points to lead them to an unlikely victory, before 29 points from Derrick Walton Jr. against Minnesota secured a place in the championship game. 

Michigan won their first Big Ten title by downing 2-seed Wisconsin and Walton starred again with 22 points. 

They carried that momentum into the NCAAB tournament, reaching the round of 16 and upsetting Louisville on the way.

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Western Kentucky save lost season - 2012 

As mentioned earlier, the regular season counts for very little when this stage of the season arrives but it is hard to see a team climbing a bigger mountain than Western Kentucky did in 2012. 

Coach Ken McDonald was axed after 16 games of the season after an abysmal 5-11 start in his fourth year in charge. 

Replacement Ray Harper fared better but the team still ended the regular season with an 11-18 record and it is fair to say expectations were low going into the Sun Belt Tournament 7-seeds. 

A year earlier, Little Rock had pulled off an unexpected conference run of their own in this event and they were Western Kentucky’s second opponents in 2012 after a narrow first round win over FIU. 

Little Rock were the 2-seeds and few gave Western Kentucky much of a chance but a huge display from Derrick Gordon, who scored 25 points and added 15 rebounds, proved crucial as they claimed a five-point win. 

A victory over 3-seed Denver followed but, with North Texas waiting in the championship game, a place in the NCAAB Championship still appeared a long-shot. 

Freshman Teen Akol had other ideas, scoring 23 points to lead Western Kentucky to victory and to the tournament, despite the fact their season looked like becoming a write-off after a midseason coaching change. 

Western Kentucky fell just short in their bid to reach the round of 64, losing out in the play-in round to Mississippi Valley State.

Connecticut do it the hard way - 2011 

Connecticut were a good team in the Big East back in 2011 but a mixed regular season gave them an incredibly tough run in the conference tournament. 

As the 9-seeds they needed to win five games in a row to win the Big East Tournament against a high-quality field, but Connecticut were up to the task. 

After a beating DePaul, Connecticut faced a huge test against Pittsburgh – the third ranked team in the country and an outfit they had lost to previously. 

The game was close but Kemba Walker snatched victory for Connecticut with a step-back buzzer-beater as he finished with 24 points. 

Walker had 33 points against Syracuse in the next game as they continued their remarkable run to set up a showdown with Louisville in the championship game. 

Connecticut led at the interval and then survived a Louisville comeback bid to claim the title. 

What makes this run so special is what happened next – as they built on their Big East momentum and went all the way to win the national championship itself.

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