Bracket bits to chew on
There's no better event than the NCAA tournament. All you need to confirm that is to think about all the people you know who don't even like basketball, yet wouldn't miss out on entering the office pool year after year. It gives everyone a rooting interest, whether you already had one or you picked "Stone Cold" Stephen F. Austin because you're a big WWE fan.
Some people take their brackets seriously, too. You know who I'm talking about. That guy in the office who knew Davidson would reach the Elite Eight last year (but didn't say a word about it until after the Wildcats got there). And of course, there's always someone who will assure you they would've won the whole thing if not for a couple of bad calls in the first round, which cost them two of their Final Four teams (never mind the fact they finished 37th out of 45 in your department). But that's what makes it so fun. It's the beauty of sports. We don't know what's going to happen, because if we did, there would be nothing to complain about.
Now that we know who will be playing whom -- and when and where -- it's time to get down to the nitty gritty and actually pick these games. Everyone has their own method in filling out the bracket. Some people pick their Final Four and champion before they even give the entire bracket a good once-over, and work backwards from there. Then there are those who cozy up with Excel in order to "excel" in Tournament Challenge, like last year's winner. And there are always those who choose to "trust their eyes" and go with who they think is the better team in each matchup. This year, we've even got a new tool called the Bracket Optimizer to help you in the process.
No matter your rationale in making your selections, one thing that can't be changed is history. It can often be telling at this time of year, as many of the trends below will suggest. 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.
AJ Mass, Christopher Harris and I will be offering our opinions plenty during the next couple of days -- via the typed word and the magic of video -- but for now, let's stick with the facts of NCAA tournament history, to give you that something extra to chew on while agonizing over your selections. Some of these trends will confirm what you already feel, while others will just make you more conflicted about your picks. Nevertheless, enjoy!
How many upsets should you pick? There have been an average of seven first-round upsets, in terms of seeding, this decade. There was an all-time high of 13 in 2001, but only three in 2000, representing the high and low during this time span.
This 16 is anything but sweet: Gotta get this one out of the way early. Don't waste your time taking a No. 16 seed to win in the first round. Move along, nothing to see here. It's never happened in 96 tries, and the games haven't been close the past couple of years, either; all eight games have been decided by at least 21 points, with an average margin of victory of 31.6 for the top seeds. And while No. 16s like Albany against UConn in 2006, and Delaware State against Duke in 2005 have played well, the last 16-seed to come within single digits of a No. 1 was Fairfield against North Carolina 12 years ago.
An upset of a top-4 seed is likely, though: Maybe not more than one, but if you're feeling frisky, it's a good bet to happen. Only four times since 1985 have the top four seeds in each region survived the first round, although three of those occurrences have come this decade (2000, 2004, 2007). Last year, two No. 4 seeds -- Connecticut and Vanderbilt -- made early exits.
The worst-kept secret: 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. They've actually won more games in the first and second rounds than No. 11 seeds in the 64/65-team era, and in only three of the past 26 years were all four No. 12s sent home without a W. In fact, in six of the past 10 years, at least two 12-seeds won first-round games.
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. At least one double-digit seed has reached the Sweet 16 in 22 of the 24 years since the field expanded to 64 teams, and in 10 of the past 12 years, at least two have done so. Last year, three such teams got that far (Davidson, Villanova and Western Kentucky).
It's not 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 96 regions played. In only 12 of those have the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet 16, although it has happened once in each of the past two years.
Keeping lookin' out for No. 1: All four No. 1 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past four years now. Since 1985, 84 of 96 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 (88 percent), and only once have two top seeds failed to get there in the same year.
Don't advance all your 2s: In five of the past six years, exactly two No. 2 seeds reached the Sweet 16. That means two have been knocked out during the first weekend in those years. And if you think that's just an odd recent trend, you should know that only four times since seeding began in 1979 have all four No. 2 seeds survived the first two rounds, the last time coming in 1996.
More to say about 12-seeds: They have reached the regional semifinals more than eighth and ninth seeds combined since 1985. But don't get greedy with them in your bracket. While the relative success of No. 12 seeds is well-known, last year marked the first time when two 12s reached the Sweet 16 in a single tournament.
No love potion 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.
Is the ACC slippin'? The Atlantic Coast Conference has had just one Sweet 16 participant in each of the past two years (North Carolina each time) after supplying at least two teams for 27 consecutive years from 1980 to 2006. Is this just a mini-hiccup for the conference, or a sign of the times?
The slipper still fits: While many people will target a Cinderella team or two to reach the Sweet 16, it doesn't end there, at least not for one team almost every year. In 11 of the past 12 years, at least one team seeded seventh or lower has reached the Elite Eight. And in 20 of the 24 years of the 64/65-team field, at least one team seeded sixth or lower has gotten that far.
Last year, it was No. 10 Davidson, making it seven times in the past 12 years that a double-digit seed advanced to the regional finals. Who's it gonna be this year?
Enough with the 12s: Remember all that gushy stuff I said about No. 12s earlier? Well, the run ends in the Sweet 16. Of the 16 No. 12 seeds to get that far, only one advanced to the Elite Eight (Missouri in 2002).
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: Last year marked the first time all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. Prior to 2008, the most No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four was three, and even that has occurred just three times (1993, 1997, 1999). Twenty-four of the 30 Final Fours since seeding began have featured one or two top regional seeds.
Top-four seeds only: In nine of the first 10 years of seeding the NCAA tournament (1979 to '88), at least one team seeded lower than fourth reached the Final Four. But in the 20 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.
Two teams from a conference: At least two teams from the same conference have made the Final Four in 17 of the past 24 years. Does this old trend still apply? In each of the past two years, four different conferences were represented in the Final Four. It has never happened three straight years in the 64/65-team era.
Chalk usually wins out: Since seeding began in 1979, 22 of the 30 national champions have been No. 1 or 2 seeds.
Doesn't hurt to be hot: The past 11 national champions either won their conference tournament or had an eight-game winning streak or better prior to losing in their conference tourney. Arizona, which won it all in 1997, was the last team to not do either of these. Not only did the Pac-10 not have a tournament back then, but the Wildcats actually lost their final two games before receiving a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
• A No. 5 seed has never won the national championship.
• A No. 7 seed has never reached the championship game, and the only one to even reach the Final Four was Virginia in 1984.
• The lowest seed to win the national championship was No. 8 Villanova in 1985.
• The lowest seed to reach the Final Four is a No. 11 (LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006). In fact, they are the only teams seeded lower than eighth to do so.
• A No. 13 seed has won at least one game in eight of the past 11 years.
• Do you believe in recent history? No. 1 seeds have met in the championship game in three of the past four 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 was until recently.
Plenty of good on the Horizon: The Horizon League has at least one win in eight of the past 11 years, dating back to when it was named the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The league has done so despite sending just one team in eight of those 11 years, too. This year, there are two reps: always-dangerous Butler and Cleveland State.
No longer MAC daddies: After three straight years (and five of six) with at least one tourney victory, the Mid-American Conference has gone winless in five straight years for the first time since the span of 1984 to '88. The MAC has never gone six straight years without a win in the Big Dance.
NEC equals "Not even a chance": Robert Morris is surely happy to be dancing for the first time in 17 years, but the Colonials would really like to be the first Northeast Conference team to win a first-round NCAA tournament game. Yeah, that's right, the NEC is the only current conference yet to win a first-round game (all three wins have come in the opening round, aka the play-in game).
Twenty, and counting, for the OVC: Continuing with the negativity, the Ohio Valley Conference actually has the longest current losing streak in the NCAA tournament. The last time the OVC snagged a win in the Dance was 1989, when Middle Tennessee took out fourth-seeded Florida State. Conference reps have lost 20 straight games since then. At least Morehead State plays in the opening-round game, with a legit shot of putting an end to that.
Big Ten and Pac-10 coming up empty: The last Big Ten team to win a national championship was Michigan State in 2000, while the Pac-10 hasn't raised the trophy since 1997, when fourth-seeded Arizona won it all.
Can Gonzaga be trusted? The Zags are making their 11th straight NCAA tournament appearance, and some have discussed them as a dark-horse Final Four candidate. But they haven't had much success since wearing the slipper three straight years as a double-digit seed from 1999 to 2001. Since then, they are just 5-7 in tournament games, with one Sweet 16 appearance in seven years. And you can't blame it on seeding, either. Gonzaga has been a 7-seed or higher five times in that span, and this year they're a No. 4.
O-VER-RA-TED? Duke's name carries lots of weight in the college hoops world, and for good reason, with three national championships and 14 Final Fours to its credit. But since the Blue Devils won their third national crown in 2001, they have advanced past the Sweet 16 just once, and have not beaten a team seeded higher than fifth in that span. That may surprise you, since Duke reached the Final Four in 2004, but fifth-seeded Illinois represents the only seed higher than a No. 7 that Coach K's crew has defeated in the past seven tourneys. To further underscore how much they've underachieved during this stretch, the Dukies have been a No. 1 seed in four of those years (and a No. 2, 3 and 6 in the others).
Don't trust Pittsburgh to get past the Sweet 16: In its 20 previous NCAA tournament appearances, Pittsburgh has advanced past the Sweet 16 just once, and that was in 1974, when the Panthers had to win just two games to reach the Elite Eight. In fact, they've never beaten an opponent seeded higher than sixth! They are 0-6 versus top-5 seeds. Maybe the school's first-ever No. 1 seed will help the Panthers put an end to all of this.
Keith Lipscomb is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.
Special thanks to Chris Fallica of ESPN Research for his great help in this endeavor.