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Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Tournament Challenge: Inside the numbers

By Andrew Feldman

If you're a college basketball fan, no week of the year surpasses this one. From Sunday night until Thursday at noon, our time is spent studying and filling out brackets. We hope we select every game wisely, but we know it doesn't always go as smoothly as we had hoped. When the brackets lock, the real fun begins as we watch our favorite teams battle it out in the most popular collegiate postseason around.

As soon as the brackets in the ESPN Men's Tournament Challenge opened when the selection committee revealed the field on Sunday night, users have been quite busy trying to predict the upsets. But this year, it looks like fans everywhere are more determined than ever to keep the faith in the No. 1 seeds … except for you, Duke.

There are only a few days left to fill in your choices, and I hope you'll be able to use the information below in some way to decide what's best for your bracket this year. The data comes from you, the Tournament Challenge participants. Every bracket is taken into consideration and the statistics are accurate as of 3 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

Are there any Kansas fans out there?

Wow. 2010 is apparently the year of the Jayhawks … or that's what most of you are hoping. This is my third year writing this column and never has the population been in such support of a team. According to the data, 39.96 percent of users believe that KU will be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis. Last year's favorite and eventual champion, North Carolina, was predicted by 28 percent of users to win it all.

After Kansas, Kentucky is selected to win the title by 22.5 percent of users, Matthew Berry's alma mater, Syracuse, owns 11 percent of the vote, while the last No. 1 seed, Duke, earned only 6.68 percent. In comparison, last year's lowest No. 1 seed was Connecticut, which earned 7.5 percent. Despite the lack of faith in Duke to win the championship, 43.63 percent of users believe Duke will reach the Final Four and 17.31 percent think it'll be playing in the title game.

The South bracket

I found this bracket to have the most interesting data by far. Only 43.63 percent of users predict Duke to come out of this bracket. Villanova seems to be the biggest beneficiary of a potential Duke collapse according to our users -- 32.97 percent believe the Wildcats will win the South. Baylor brings in 12.88 percent of the vote. However, nearly twice as many users believed Duke can move on to the championship game, in comparison to the 8.75 percent who voted for Villanova (Baylor received 2.26 percent of the votes).

Who does everyone believe will take down Duke? According to the users, if Duke does fall short of the Final Four, it's going to be at the hands of Villanova, which is predicted to beat Duke by one out of every five users.

No. 1 seeds

Only once has all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four, so while many of you are very confident in Kansas and Kentucky getting there (predicted by 72.91 and 61.15 percent of fans, respectively), Duke and Syracuse (55.51) seem like the toss-ups this year. Only 13 percent of entries believe that all four No. 1 seeds can get the job done. However, 27 percent of fans believe Kansas, Syracuse and Kentucky will all make the Final Four, showing just how questionable fans are about the South Regional.

This year, 80.14 percent of fans are picking No. 1 seeds to win the championship. In comparison to the past two years (69 and 77 percent in 2009 and 2008, respectively), fans are confident in the teams at the top this year. You can find out about all those teams in's college basketball coverage.

Will a 12-seed defeat a 5-seed this year?

In order to predict the most accurate bracket, you have to throw in a few upsets here and there. Users love the opportunity that the 5-versus-12 games usually offer, but this year, people are confident in the four No. 5 seeds advancing. Leading the 5s is last year's national runner-up, Michigan State, which seems to always step up its game entering the postseason. MSU is the most likely 5-seed to get out of the first round, picked by 90.16 percent of users. The other three 5-seeds are also heavily favored to move on: Texas A&M (78.98 percent), Butler (71.46 percent) and Temple (67.48 percent) are nowhere near the coin flip that Utah was last year, when only 53.6 percent of users predicted a victory.

So are the No. 5 seeds a safe pick? This year, it just might be the case.

The most trendy No. 12 seed this year is Cornell, which faces Temple, while the least reliable team seems to be New Mexico State, which plays Michigan State.

Toss-up: 8 versus 9

These first-round matchups that give you the extra few points you need to move up in your Tournament Challenge group are usually the most competitive games on Thursday and Friday. However, this year, users believe that some of these supposedly close games are a little one-sided, anticipating strong performances from No. 9 Louisville (71.22 percent) and No. 8 Gonzaga (67.94 percent).

Louisville opens against California, and if the Cardinals advance, they will face off against Duke, where 12.91 percent of users believe that the Blue Devils could be the first No. 1 seed to be sent home before the end of the first weekend. If Cal were to win that first-round matchup, only 2.11 percent believe the Bears can beat Duke. Pretty impressive to see a 9-seed get that much respect over the 8. Vegas agrees and has made Louisville the favorite in this game.

Users also picked Gonzaga by a wide margin in its first-round matchup against Florida State. However, coming off a loss in the West Coast Conference tournament finals, will Gonzaga be able to bounce back? Users believe so, but also believe that no matter who advances, Syracuse is predicted to win by 92.06 percent of users. Kansas faces the winner of No. 8 UNLV and No. 9 Northern Iowa and has over 98 percent of the vote in that second-round matchup. As of now, Northern Iowa is the favorite according to users, but by less than half of a percent.

In the final matchup, No. 8 Texas will challenge No. 9 Wake Forest for the opportunity to face Kentucky. Texas is predicted to win by 67.12 percent of users but is seldom predicted to upset Kentucky (5.57 percent).

A lack of upsets?

In 2009, I was shocked to see an astonishing 65 percent of users pick No. 10 Maryland to beat No. 7 California. This year, there isn't a ton to learn from the 6-11 games, with all four favorites receiving at least 65 percent of the vote. In the first three 7-10 games, the confidence of our users remains with the 7-seeds, but in the last game, there's finally a little something to note … barely. The fact that 10th-seeded Georgia Tech has 50.67 percent of the vote against Oklahoma State seems to be the one "risk" users are taking in their bracket early. Both teams are predicted to lose to Ohio State by the majority of users (84.97 percent) in the second round.

Unlucky matchups

It's tough to be a 15th or 16th seed. You get the "privilege" of being invited into the tournament only to face one of the toughest teams in the country. Congrats on making the Big Dance, we hope that you enjoy your quick stay.

Here is a list of the teams that are picked least often to win their first-round games:

(16) Opening-round winner (Winthrop/Arkansas-Pine Bluff) -- 0.4 percent
(16) Lehigh -- 0.5
(16) East Tennessee State -- 0.5
(16) Vermont -- 0.8
(15) Robert Morris -- 0.9
(15) Morgan State -- 1.0
(15) UC Santa Barbara -- 1.0
(15) North Texas -- 1.2

The most surprising team in the bottom 16: No. 11 seed Old Dominion, predicted to win by just 15.6 percent of users.

Quick hits

• Michigan State received enough support that the No. 5 seed finds itself with 0.61 percent of users predicting it to win it all. That places it 10th overall, but a full percent behind No. 2 seed Kansas State and No. 3 seed Georgetown.

• 15.4 percent believe that the Elite Eight will contain all four No. 2 seeds, up from 10 percent in 2009. Only 0.3 percent of entries believe that we will have an all-2-seed Final Four.

• The most commonly selected final game (27.8 percent of entries) is Kansas versus Kentucky.

• Four percent of users believe that Georgetown will make the Final Four. The Hoyas are the most popular pick among the 3-seeds, edging Baylor by 1.7 percent.

• For the second year in a row, users do not like Xavier. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's the Musketeers' tough region or maybe it's because the school's name starts with an "X." Either way, Xavier is picked to make the Final Four in just 0.9 percent of brackets, falling behind almost all of the Nos. 1 through 6 seeds.

• Users don't love Texas much, but if they predict the Longhorns to win a few games, apparently they predict them to win the whole thing. There might not be faith in other higher seeds, but users predict that eighth-seeded Texas will win the championship ahead of higher seeds New Mexico, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Purdue, Texas A&M, BYU and others, with their 0.3 percent of the vote.

• The Fantasy team has been very busy predicting our own brackets. Check out the brackets and thoughts from experts Christopher Harris, Keith Lipscomb and AJ Mass.

Best of luck to you on your selections. I hope that none of your brackets are busted after the noon games on Thursday.

You can read more from Andrew Feldman in the Poker section.