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Sunday, March 14, 2010
Updated: March 16, 9:52 AM ET
Bracket bits to chew on

By Keith Lipscomb and Chris Fallica
Special to

The bracket has been unveiled, so let the overanalysis begin. If you follow the game closely, you've certainly heard many analysts mention how weak this year's at-large pool is. But with so few very good teams in the college game this season, it could lead to increased uncertainty in the bracket, which is really saying something. After all, it's not like the NCAA tournament is easy to handicap to start with.

This year's field is reminiscent of 2006, when there were thought to be a handful of favorites to reach the title game, but lots of volatility in the field otherwise. In case you don't remember, that's the year that 11th-seeded George Mason advanced to the Final Four, which featured nary a No. 1 seed. We may not see a repeat of that craziness, but even this year's top teams -- the Kansases, Kentuckys and Syracuses -- have their shortcomings, so gear up for a wild ride over the next three weeks.

Now comes the hard -- and most fun -- part, actually tearing through the bracket trying to pick the eventual Final Four and champion. What method do you use? Do you quickly go with your gut and never look back? Do you number-crunch using a spreadsheet and utilize specific metrics to determine winners for each game? Or do you let your fanhood make decisions for you?

No matter your rationale in making your selections, one thing that can't be changed is history. You can choose to use it in your analysis, or simply ignore it and decide that each NCAA tournament stands on its own. As many of the trends below will suggest, history can be quite telling at this time of year. But the Big Dance is a funny thing, and you have to decide which trends will continue and which ones simply don't apply to this year's field.

Early Rounds

Arizona was the only major surprise in last year's Sweet 16.
How many upsets should you pick? In the past 10 years, there has been an average of seven first-round upsets, in terms of seeding. There was an all-time high of 13 in 2001, but only three in 2000, representing the high and low during this time span. Last year, there were 10 upsets, according to seed -- the most since 2001 -- but only one of those 10 teams won their second-round game, and that was 12th-seeded Arizona, which defeated a 13-seed in Cleveland State.

Don't bother with "the impossible": A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 in 100 tries, and with the exception of last year's East Tennessee State-Pittsburgh 10-point contest, the games haven't been close at all the past three years, either. Eleven of the 12 games have been decided by 20 points or more, with an average margin of victory of 31.8 points for the top seeds. UConn and North Carolina won games by 56 and 43, respectively, last year. The last 1-versus-16 game decided by single digits was North Carolina's 82-74 victory over Fairfield 12 years ago. You can get pretty with your bracket elsewhere.

Same goes for No. 15s: At least there have been four 15-seeds to win a first-round game, but in 25 years of play, that's not saying much. There have been a few scares, no doubt, including Belmont-Duke in 2008, but No. 15 seeds have gone winless in the past eight years now (0-32). That's the longest drought for No. 15s since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The only 15-seed to win in the past 12 tournaments is Hampton in 2001, when it took out Iowa State in Boise, Idaho. When you're trying to maximize points in your bracket, it's just not mathematically sound to pin your hopes to a No. 15.

An upset of a top-4 seed is likely, though: If you're just itching to make a statement, take a hard look at the 13s and 14s to see if any matchups catch your eye. There may not be more than one such upset, but historically, it's a good bet that one of them will win. Only four times since 1985 have all of the top four seeds in each region survived the first round, although three of those occurrences have come this decade (2000, 2004, 2007). In 2008, two No. 4 seeds -- Connecticut and Vanderbilt -- made early exits; and last year, another No. 4, Wake Forest, got drilled by Cleveland State.

Target a No. 12 seed: Unless you're new to the NCAA tournament, you're probably well aware that No. 12 seeds are the main targets for bracketeers in search of an early-round upset, and with good reason. Three of the four No. 12s won first-round games last year, making it 19 of the past 21 years in which they've won at least one game, and eight of the past nine that they've won at least two. Since 1985, No. 12s have actually won more games in the first and second rounds than No. 11 seeds in the 64/65-team era -- and nearly as many as No. 10s.

But don't be shy about double-digit seeds from the ACC: Since 1985, there have been seven ACC teams seeded 10th or worse, and five of them pulled off first-round upsets, including Maryland last year. This year, Georgia Tech gets its shot to do the same.

Final at-large teams have a shot: Since 2000, there have been 65 teams seeded 10th or lower as at-large teams. Of those 65 teams, 23 won their first-round games (35.4 percent). This year, the six double-digit at-larges are Georgia Tech, Florida, Missouri, Minnesota, UTEP and Utah State.

Sweet 16

Don't be afraid of double-digit seeds: In fact, it's quite wise to pick at least one, if not two, to win a couple of games. If you like upsets, 2008 was fun for only one round, as only one team seeded worse than fifth reached the Sweet 16. In keeping with a historical trend, though, that team was a double-digit seed. There has been at least one double-digit seed to survive the first weekend in 23 of the 25 years since the field expanded to 64. And while at least two double-digit seeds have done so in 10 of the past 13 years, that hasn't been the case in two of the past three years.

As easy as 1, 2, 3, 4? If you think the top four seeds in a particular region look strong, you might want to take another look just to be sure. Since the tournament field expanded in 1985, there have been 100 regions played. In only 14 of those have the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, although it has happened at least once in each of the past three years.

Keeping lookin' out for No. 1: All four No. 1 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past five years now. Since 1985, 88 of 100 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16, and only once have two top seeds failed to get there in the same year.

12s make great sleeper teams: No. 12 seeds have just one fewer Sweet 16 appearance than No. 7s or 10s have. But don't get greedy. Even with the relative success No. 12 seeds have had, only once have two 12s reached the Sweet 16 in the same year (2008).

Kyle Singler
Top-seeded Duke and Kyle Singler are expected to advance to at least the Sweet 16, but will another ACC team join them?

No love for No. 9: It's certainly better to be a 10-, 11- or 12-seed, since they don't have to face a No. 1 in the second round, but it's interesting to note that No. 9 seeds have just one more Sweet 16 appearance (three) than No. 14 seeds (two) since 1985. Even 13-seeds have proven more likely to win two games in the Big Dance in a particular year than No. 9s.

Has the ACC righted the ship? In 2007 and 2008, the ACC had just one Sweet 16 participant each year, after supplying at least two teams for 27 consecutive years from 1980-2006. Last year, both Duke and North Carolina reached the second weekend, making it 28 of the past 30 years with at least two ACC teams in the Sweet 16. Duke is certainly favored to get at least that far, but will any of the other moody conference squads make it out of the first weekend alive?

Party of five: Last year, the Big East became the first conference with five teams to reach the Sweet 16. Even with great representation again in this year's field, it won't be easy to pull off.

Are there any schools you can count on? With so much turnover from year to year, along with the unpredictability of the tournament itself, the answer is no. The only teams in this year's field of 65 which have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past two years are Michigan State, Xavier, Villanova and Kansas, with the Jayhawks as the only school in the field to make it the past three years.

Elite Eight

Is Cinderella dying a slow death? For 10 straight years (from 1997-2006), at least one team seeded seventh or worse reached the Elite Eight. But it hasn't happened in two of the past three years. In fact, in 2007 and 2009 no seed worse than a No. 3 reached the Elite Eight. Prior to these two recent occurrences, the only other time all Elite Eight participants were seeded even fourth or better was in 1995. When you fill out your bracket, will you go with this new set of results?

... or do you still believe? Despite the recent lack of a Cinderella story, in the 25 years of the 64/65-team field, at least one team seeded sixth or worse has reached the Elite Eight in 20 of those years. If you do still believe, the percentages are in your favor. In seven of the past 13 years, a double-digit seed has gotten this far.

Enough is enough: While 12-seeds have actually reached the regional semifinals more often than No. 8 and 9 seeds combined by a comfortable margin (17 to 12) since 1985, they usually flame out. Of those 17 No. 12 seeds, only Missouri in 2002 won to advance to the regional finals.

Final Four

Pick at least one top seed: Only twice has there been a Final Four without a No. 1 seed (1980, 2006).

But don't pick all top seeds: 2008 marked the first time all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. Prior to that, the most No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four was three, and even that has occurred just three times (1993, 1997, 1999). Twenty-five of the 31 Final Fours since seeding began have featured one or two top regional seeds (80.6 percent).

Top-four seeds only: In nine of the first 10 years of seeding the NCAA tournament (1979-88), at least one team seeded lower than fourth reached the Final Four. But in the 21 years since, only eight such teams have gotten that far, and three of those came in one year (2000). The selection committee's clearly got a better grasp of things these days. And so should you when advancing teams this deep.

Another George Mason anyone? That 2006 Final Four run by the Patriots was special, especially as an 11-seed, but even asking a No. 6 to do it would be quite a task. Since 1985, only eight teams seeded worse than sixth have reached the Final Four, and only three in the past 23 NCAA tournaments.

Two teams from a conference: Don't feel compelled to change a pick if you wind up advancing two teams from the same conference to the Final Four. In fact, it happens more often than not. At least two teams from the same conference have made the Final Four in 18 of the past 25 years.

Picking a champion

Xavier Henry
Freshman Xavier Henry is one of many quality pieces for No. 1 overall seed Kansas.
Anatomy of a national champion: When discussing which teams have a legitimate shot at winning the national title, the first thing you have to feel confident about is that the team can win six games in a row, since that's what it will take.

But taking it one step further, not only have each of the past nine national champions entered the tournament having done just that -- won six in a row at some point during the season prior to the tournament -- but each had at least one 10-game winning streak before the start of the tourney. The last champion to not win six straight games entering the NCAA tournament was Michigan State in 2000; the Spartans entered the Big Dance with a season-high-tying five-game winning streak.

There are other common traits of national championship teams from the past 10 years, too. Please note that all statistics referenced below are for the entire season, not entering the tournament.

• All 10 had at least two future first-round NBA draft picks on the roster
• 9 of 10 had at least one winning streak of 10 games or more prior to the NCAA tournament
• 9 of 10 finished the season with a scoring margin of plus-14.1 ppg or better
• 9 of 10 had an opponents' field goal percentage of .410 or lower
• 8 of 10 had a percentage of .480 or better
• 8 of 10 were ranked in the top four of the preseason AP poll
• 8 of 10 won at least a share of their conference's regular-season title

So, which teams in this year's field meet these criteria?

Only Kansas and Kentucky, provided you expect the Wildcats to raise their .479 field goal percentage one notch. However, if you take away the AP preseason poll requirement, Syracuse would also qualify. Other teams in the conversation by this measure -- dismissing the preseason poll once again and making the win-streak requirement only six games -- are Duke (shooting less than 48 percent) and Ohio State (plus-13.0 scoring margin). The Buckeyes could make up that scoring margin by tourney's end conceivably, but whether they have two future first-rounders is debatable (William Buford, are you reading?).

There's a first time for everything: Heads up, Syracuse. No team has ever won a national championship after losing the first game in its conference tournament. Last year, three top-2 seeds (Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma) lost their first conference tourney game. Although the Huskies reached the Final Four before bowing out, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma were bounced in the Elite Eight, keeping this interesting trend alive. Jim Boeheim's bunch would love to put an end to that in 2010.

For the most part, chalk usually wins out: Since seeding began in 1979, 23 of the 31 national champions have been No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Not only have No. 1s won the past three titles (and eight of 11), it's been six years since the last No. 2 seed won the national championship. And the last national champ to be seeded worse than third was Arizona in 1997.

Strength in numbers? Not necessarily, at least when it comes to the conference which supplies the national champion. In only three of the previous 11 years has the conference with the most teams in the tournament also provided the national champion. And the only times it has happened is when three or more conferences have tied for the most bids. No such thing happened this year, as the Big East is all alone with eight tourney reps.

From unranked to champs: Only four teams since 1965 have won the national championship after being unranked in the preseason poll, although two of those have done so in the past seven years (2003 Syracuse, 2006 Florida). No. 1 seed Syracuse will try to do it again this year; it was unranked by The Associated Press prior to the start of the season.

Strictly seeds

• No. 1 seeds have met in the championship game three of the past five years, which may not sound all that interesting. But when you consider that it happened just three times in the first 26 years of seeding (1982, 1993, 1999), you realize just how rare it's been until recently.

• All four No. 1 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 in five straight years, which is notable since only one other time in the 64/65-team era has that happened even in back-to-back years (1987-89). How long can this type of run continue?

• Whoever says it doesn't matter whether a team gets a No. 1 or 2 seed hasn't been paying attention lately. When it comes to reaching the Sweet 16, there's quite a difference in recent years. All 20 top seeds have reached the Sweet 16, but more No. 3s escaped the first weekend (14) than did No. 2s (13).

• Only five times since seeding began in 1979 have all four No. 2 seeds reached the Sweet 16, with last year being the first time it happened in 13 years.

• The last No. 2 to win the title was Connecticut in 2004. And since the tournament expanded in 1985, only four No. 2 seeds have won the title ('04 Connecticut, '98 Kentucky, '91 Duke, '86 Louisville). In that same 25-year period, 15 No. 1 seeds have won the title.

• In the past three years, 11 of the 12 No. 3 seeds reached the Sweet 16 (Washington State in 2007 was the one that failed, and the Cougars lost in double-overtime in the second round).

• In those same three years, only four of the 12 No. 4 seeds reached the Sweet 16. And in the past five tournaments, only seven of the 20 No. 4s reached the Sweet 16. Just a little something to keep in mind as you pore over the bracket.

• A No. 5 seed has never won the national championship. In fact, Michigan State in 2005 is the last No. 5 to even reach the Elite Eight (the Spartans made the Final Four that year).

• A No. 7 seed has never reached the championship game, and the only one to even reach the Final Four was Virginia in 1984. And since the field expanded in 1985, only six No. 7s have reached the Elite Eight.

• The lowest seed to win the national title was No. 8 Villanova in 1985.

• In the past 15 tournaments, only one No. 9 seed has reached the Sweet 16 (UAB in 2004).

• The lowest seed to reach the Final Four is a No. 11 (LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006). In fact, they are the only teams seeded lower than eighth to do so.

• After going winless in 2007, Nos. 12 and 13 seeds combined to win six games in 2008 and five more in 2009.

• In addition, a No. 13 seed has won at least one game in nine of the past 12 years (no wins in 2000, 2004, 2007).

Conference call

More wins on the Horizon: The Horizon League has at least one win in nine of the past 12 years, dating back to when it was called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The league has done so despite sending only one representative in eight of those 12 years. It's no different this year, with fifth-seeded Butler the only Horizon team in the field.

WCC success: The West Coast Conference has at least one win in nine of the past 11 years. That's almost all thanks to Gonzaga. Of the 14 wins the conference has in that span, the Zags have all but two of them (Pepperdine 2000, San Diego 2008). Gonzaga and Saint Mary's received No. 8 and 10 seeds, respectively.

Nothing to SEC here: The Southeastern Conference has had a team reach the Final Four in only two of the past nine years (LSU and Florida in 2006, Florida in 2007). Top-seeded Kentucky's last Final Four appearance was in its title season of 1998.

Big Ten searching for a title: It's been 10 years since Michigan State gave the Big Ten its last national champion. This year, Ohio State is a No. 2 seed in a very difficult Midwest Regional, while some feel No. 4 seed Wisconsin could be considered a dark horse to make a run.

Don't call it the Mountain Worst: With four bids this season -- including a No. 3 for New Mexico -- the Mountain West Conference has history working against it. Since the formation of the conference in 2000, only twice has a MWC team reached the Sweet 16 (Utah in 2005, UNLV in 2007). Those instances are also the only times the conference has produced more than one NCAA tournament victory since its formation. In those 10 years, Mountain West teams are a pitiful 8-22 (.267 win percentage).

In the past four years, the four at-large selections from the MWC all lost their first-round games. In the history of the conference, it has had 12 at-large selections, nine of which have lost their first-round game. Utah (twice) and Wyoming are the only at-large teams from the MWC to win a game in the tournament. And in each of those occasions, the Utes and Pokes were regular-season conference champs, as at-large New Mexico is this season.

Jordan Eglseder
Seven-footer Jordan Eglseder will be a load for UNLV to handle in the first round.
Can UNI get the Valley off the schneid? The Missouri Valley Conference will be trying to avoid going winless in three straight NCAA tournaments for the first time since it did so for four straight years from 1987-90. The only other time the Valley went three straight years without a victory was from 1942-44, when no teams even qualified for the NCAAs. It's all on Northern Iowa, which has a tough first-round matchup with UNLV.

No Western Kentucky, no chance: The Hilltoppers have the past six NCAA tournament wins for the Sun Belt Conference, dating back to 1993. All other schools are 0-12 since that time. North Texas doesn't figure to break that streak against No. 2-seeded Kansas State.

Who's the MAC? The Mid-American Conference has gone six straight years without a win in the Big Dance, marking its longest drought. Kent State's Elite Eight run -- and near Final Four trip -- in 2002 seems so far away now. Ohio was the No. 9 seed in the conference tourney, so the Bobcats aren't expected to end the MAC's drought in this year's tourney.

Will the third time be the charm for Cornell? Many feel the Big Red are underseeded as a No. 12, but it's still the Ivy's best seed since 2003. Maybe Steve Donahue's bunch can help the Ivy League find NCAA tournament success again. Since Princeton won a first-round game as a 5-seed in 1998, the Ivy League champion has bowed out in the first round in each of the past 11 years -- and only two of those games were decided by single digits. Cornell hasn't come close the past two years, either.

Look out, Vandy: Murray State is a popular upset pick as a No. 13 seed, but it's been a long time since an Ohio Valley Conference team has made any noise in the tournament -- 21 years, in fact. That was when Middle Tennessee took out fourth-seeded Florida State.

No. 15 is special to the MEAC: Morgan State is representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the second straight season as a 15-seed. The MEAC is just 3-28 in NCAA tournament play, but two of those wins account for half of the all-time wins by No. 15 seeds ('97 Coppin State and '01 Hampton). We'll see if the Bears can take out a West Virginia team riding high off a Big East tournament championship.

Still looking for No. 1: The Northeast Conference is the only current conference yet to win a first-round game (3-28 overall, with all three wins coming in the "play-in" game). It's been 12 years since an NEC team came within single digits of an NCAA tournament opponent in the first round. Fairleigh Dickinson rode the hot hand of Elijah Allen and his 43 points, but couldn't top No. 2-seeded UConn in a 93-85 loss. Robert Morris came within 15 points of Michigan State last year and hopes to make a better showing against Villanova in Providence on Thursday.


• Making no promises beyond the first round, if you're looking for the schools with the longest active winning streaks in the first round, look no further than Purdue (11) and Maryland (9).

• Since Duke won the national championship in 2001, the Blue Devils have advanced past the Sweet 16 just once, and have not beaten a team seeded higher than fifth in the NCAA tournament. That may surprise you, since Duke reached the Final Four in 2004, but fifth-seeded Illinois was the only seed higher than a No. 7 that Coach K's crew has defeated in the past eight tourneys.

To further underscore how disappointing Duke has been during this span, it's been a No. 1 or 2 seed in six of those eight years (and a No. 3 and 6 in the other two years).

• Before suffering a first-round loss last year, West Virginia had great success in its previous four tournament trips, reaching at least the Sweet 16, each time as a 6-seed or lower. They'll have a much easier road to build on that success this time around as a No. 2 in the East Regional.

But Bob Huggins has been in this position before, only to fall well short of expectations. The past three times Huggins took a team into the NCAA tournament as a top-2 seed -- all while at Cincinnati -- his team was bounced in the second round.

• The difficulties of the Mountain West have already been discussed, and BYU has been as responsible as any team for those problems. The Cougars have lost eight straight NCAA tournament games, with their last win coming in 1993. And the last BYU team to win more than one game was the 1981 Elite Eight team, which featured Danny Ainge's mad dash to beat Digger Phelps' Notre Dame squad.

• Siena's back in the Dance yet again! After routing fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the 2008 first round, the Saints won a double-overtime thriller against Ohio State and scared top-seeded Louisville in Round 2 last year. You better believe Matt Painter will be dropping this knowledge on his Purdue players in preparation for Friday's meeting in Spokane.

Keith Lipscomb is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games. Chris Fallica is a researcher for ESPN Stats and Information.