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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Tournament Challenge: Inside your brackets

By Andrew Feldman
ESPN.com

As the bracket was released Sunday night, it started a very special week for me. No, it's not because I get the privilege of writing my only college basketball story of the year or that I get the chance to work with different ESPN properties to create groups for their fans. It's because for a couple of days a year, I'm able to have a conversation about college basketball with my wife, and she'll care about each and every game.

On Monday night, we broke down our brackets. She wants to win her group with her friends and prove that she's on top of the college basketball scene (despite watching probably less than 10 minutes of any game this season), and so with her actual entry, we locked in on some solid teams we felt might make good runs and submitted the bracket. Then, we decided to create a second bracket. With this bracket, I wasn't going to debate or argue about any of her selections. This was all hers. If she wanted Kansas to be knocked off in the second round, so be it. As expected, the bracket immediately became legendary. Her Final Four included Michigan (we're both alumni), Ohio State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin. Of course, Michigan knocked off Ohio State in the Final Four and Notre Dame eliminated Wisconsin, creating an epic football matchup in the final. I doubt I need to tell you this, but of course Michigan won the title. Go Blue.

The point is that, as we look at the millions of brackets that have been submitted on ESPN.com, every bracket, created with analysis or randomness, must be considered. Fans this year have made some interesting selections, including showing a tremendous amount of love for Belmont and Connecticut, but when all is said and done, Ohio State is predicted by 25.9 percent of users to cut down the nets at the end.

As we look at the trends of the brackets, keep in mind that these stats are as of Tuesday afternoon and are most likely to change as more users make their predictions before Tournament Challenge locks at the start of the second round Thursday.

O-H-I-O versus KU:

The top seeds always get the most respect when it comes to the brackets. This year, Ohio State leads the No. 1 seeds in terms of brackets predicting it to win (25.9 percent), but that's not the entire story. Nearly all the users in the game, 98.9 percent, believe OSU will advance to the round of 32, but the confidence isn't seen all the way through.

Kansas owns the lowest percentage of the No. 1 seeds making it out of the round of 64 with 98.5 percent. That's a tiny difference, but it's a story to be told. Is it that a percentage of Boston University's large alumni base is predicting the upset? Perhaps. In any case, users believe Kansas is basically a lock, along with the other No. 1 seeds (Duke and Pittsburgh both at 98.8 percent). Once we begin to move on through, Kansas becomes the favorite of the No. 1 seeds to reach the final. In the third round, KU is getting 95.5 percent of users' support in comparison to OSU's 93.8 percent. The gap decreases in the Sweet 16 (Kansas 78.6 percent, Ohio State 77.4 percent) and increases in the Elite Eight (KU 59.4 percent, OSU 58.1 percent), but in the Final Four, fans are seeing things a little clearer.

All four No. 1 seeds are the most popular picks by fans to make it to Houston, but there's a huge range in confidence. KU's support far exceeds that of the other three schools, with 46.8 percent predicting it will make it versus 38.6 percent for Ohio State, 23.6 percent for Duke and 17.1 percent for Pittsburgh. If you believed everyone was confident in the Jayhawks making it that far, they'd have to be the top-selected team in the title game, right? Nope. The Buckeyes have more than a 3 percent edge in the final, with Kansas being picked in only 22.5 percent of the brackets. Defending national champion Duke, which, by the way, was the lowest-selected No. 1 seed last year, is the champ on 14.5 percent of brackets, and Pittsburgh is getting no respect with only 6.1 percent.

If we look specifically at the final, 19.4 percent of brackets have Ohio State against Kansas, and 11.6 percent believe the Buckeyes will become national champions.

Sorry, Wisconsin

On Wisconsin? Not this year, according to ESPN.com users. The No. 4 team in the Southeast Regional faces off against Belmont in the round of 64 and has become the target of upset-pickers everywhere. Belmont, the 13-seed, is predicted by 19.5 percent of brackets to defeat Wisconsin and advance to the third round. Wisconsin has the honor of being the least-respected 4-seed by our users with the lowest percentage of support in each and every round.

Kentucky is the 4-seed that fans feel can go the farthest with 1.9 percent of brackets predicting it as champion. Texas is right behind with 1.8 percent, followed by Louisville (1.2 percent) and finally Wisconsin (0.4 percent).

If Wisconsin is able to get by Belmont and face Kansas State, predicted by 73.3 percent to defeat Utah State (more on this in a second), the Badgers are predicted to advance to the Sweet 16 by 50.1 percent of users. If 12th-seeded Utah State makes it through (a matchup that 19 percent of users have selected), 70.8 percent of those entries have Wisconsin moving on. In both cases, the overwhelming love typically seen by 4-seeds in the round of 32 just isn't found here.

Trouble in the West and Southeast

You've seen the debacle Wisconsin is in, but that seems to be the trend for all teams in the Southeast Regional. There seems to be lots of indecision by ESPN.com users when it comes to picking a champion from that region, as well as in the West.

Looking at the Southeast, Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed, is predicted by 49.1 percent of brackets to make it to the Final Four, and the other 50.9 percent is split among many teams, including Florida (14.5 percent), BYU (11.2 percent), Wisconsin (6.7 percent), St. John's (6.4 percent) and Kansas State (5.8 percent). No other region sees this type of distribution in which fans really just didn't know which team to choose. One thing can be said for sure, though; St. John's is a fan favorite this year, and if the 6-seed manages to make it through, you'll be hearing about it from plenty of college basketball fans.

Heading to the West Regional, Duke has some tough competition with San Diego State as the No. 2 seed but perhaps more so, according to ESPN.com users, from Connecticut. Duke is the No. 1 seed most fans believe will head home before the Final Four, with only 47.3 percent of users sending it to Houston. San Diego State also is the lowest 2-seed, with 11.5 percent … which leaves UConn. Apparently, its run in the conference tournament has resonated with fans, and 26.0 percent of brackets believe it will be the one to represent the West this year. No. 4 Texas owns 10.4 percent of the brackets.

A lack of faith in Duke has become a trend on its own for the past few years in Tournament Challenge, but last year those who stuck with the Blue Devils were rewarded with plenty of points.

Dedicated to Michigan State

Apparently a team with 14 losses doesn't scare a lot of Tournament Challenge users. Michigan State, the 10-seed in the Southeast, has anything but an easy matchup against UCLA in the second round. It seems, though, that ESPN.com users disagree with that statement, as 56.4 percent of entries have the Spartans moving on to the third round. The other No. 10 seeds are predicted by our users to lose their second-round games (Penn State 46.7, Florida State 45.7 percent, Georgia 27.6 percent).

If MSU advances, it most likely will face off against No. 2 seed Florida, and 19.2 percent of users believe State will complete another upset to move on to the Sweet 16. Another 7.7 percent of users see Sparty in the Elite Eight, and 2.1 percent have them reaching the Final Four. That means users believe Michigan State has a better chance than 5-seeds Arizona, West Virginia and Vanderbilt, 6-seeds Georgetown, Xavier and Cincinnati, and all other teams seeded seventh or worse. Just for fun, 1,150 entries predicted that Michigan and Michigan State would meet in the final, with 836 of those having Michigan defeating its rival from East Lansing. That's what I call school spirit.

Pick 'em: 8 versus 9

Most years, the 8-seed usually gets the nod in these games, but this year, Butler is the only No. 8 being picked in more than 50 percent of the brackets, with 60.7 percent of fans having Butler over Old Dominion. Villanova is the most-predicted 9-seed with 54.7 percent over George Mason, followed by Tennessee over Michigan (53.5 percent) and Illinois over UNLV (50.3 percent).

As we look to the third round, when all the winners from these matchups face off against the No. 1 seeds in their respective regions, Butler is still at the top with 5.0 percent of brackets having it upsetting Pittsburgh. Old Dominion (also against Pittsburgh), Villanova (versus Ohio State) and Tennessee (versus Duke) all are predicted to advance in 3.0 percent of the brackets.

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

In order to make a run in Tournament Challenge, 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, like in 2010, people are confident in the four No. 5 seeds advancing. Leading the 5s is West Virginia with 83.5 percent of users advancing it on. Arizona (78.8), Kansas State (73.3) and Vanderbilt (63.2) all are strong favorites in the eyes of the users. That means Richmond, Vandy's second-round opponent, is the most popular No. 12 to win a game.

As mentioned above, Kansas State is one of the lower-seeded teams getting a surprising amount of support and is selected by 5.8 percent of brackets to make the Final Four in the unpredictable Southeast Regional. Arizona, with 1.5 percent, is the next most popular No. 5 seed to reach the Final Four.

Enjoy your game!

It's tough to be one of the lowest seeds in the tournament field. You get the honor of being invited to the tournament, only to be given a 15 or 16 next to your team's name and face one of the best teams in the country. The No. 16 seeds have never won a round-of-64 game, and the 15-seeds have four wins since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Not that I wouldn't love to see my bracket completely busted with an upset of this proportion, but to those teams … congrats on making the Big Dance. I hope you enjoy your quick stay and some time in the national spotlight. See you in your conference finals next season.

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

(16) First-round winner (UT-San Antonio/Alabama State) -- 0.5 percent
(16) Hampton -- 0.5
(16) First-round winner (UNC Asheville/Arkansas-Little Rock) -- 0.5
(16) Boston University -- 0.8
(15) Long Island -- 1.0
(15) Akron -- 1.5
(15) UC Santa Barbara -- 1.6 (up from 1.0 last year)
(15) Northern Colorado -- 2.2

It's interesting to see that Northern Colorado (against San Diego State) has an entire percent more support than last year's top 15-seed (North Texas) at 1.2 percent.

Of course, the first-round games really throw things off. After all, how can you predict a 12-seed to upset a 5-seed (or 11 versus 6) if you don't even know who it is going to be? Whichever team wins the 12-seed first-round game between UAB and Clemson is predicted by 16.0 percent of users to move on against West Virginia. The situation and support for the 11-seed in the Southwest is almost identical, as 16.5 percent of users predict that the winner of USC and VCU will defeat Georgetown. Those numbers might significantly change once the teams are set.

Quick hits

• Game 4? There is potential for Duke and North Carolina to face off in the Final Four, and 8.2 percent of entries have that matchup. If they do meet, 64.8 of those who predicted the game have Duke winning and advancing to the final.

• Just 4.6 percent believe the Elite Eight will contain all four No. 2 seeds, down from 15.4 percent in 2010. Only 0.1 percent of entries believe that we will have an all-2-seed Final Four.

• Despite Kansas being the No. 1 seed people predict most to make the Final Four, the No. 2 seed in the Southwest Regional falls into the same category. Notre Dame is predicted by 20.3 percent of brackets to make the Final Four. This region, more than any, seems to pan out in one direction, and that's with 44.4 percent of entries predicting a Kansas-versus-Notre Dame Elite Eight battle. Nearly 70 percent of users have Kansas advancing out of that matchup.

• Will we see all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four? It's doubtful, but 11 percent of entries believe that will happen.

• No. 3 Connecticut upsetting No. 2 San Diego State has been predicted by 48.6 percent of ESPN.com users, with 71.8 percent believing the two would meet up in the Sweet 16. The other 2-versus-3 matchups: BYU-Florida is at 36.9 percent (18.6 have BYU winning), Purdue-Notre Dame is at 61.6 percent (36.8 percent pick Notre Dame) and Syracuse-UNC is at 65.4 percent (33.1 percent pick Syracuse).

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