Commentary

NCAA tournament bracket facts

Updated: March 14, 2011, 1:12 PM ET
By Keith Lipscomb and Chris Fallica | Special to ESPN.com

You've now seen the bracket, with three more teams but even less certainty. If you thought last year's games were tough to call, this year promises to make it an even more agonizing process.

But it's a process all of us college basketball fans embrace, even if most of our time spent breaking down the field can be viewed, in retrospect, as a waste once the first weekend of play is complete.

While hindsight may be 20/20, you know that trying to handicap the NCAA tournament -- including looking at that bracket for hours on end -- only makes things blurry. The uncertainty of how things will play out seems to be increasing in recent years, as parity rules, so how do you make sense of it all?

Do you just go with your gut, fill out your bracket quickly 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

Because of the change in the names of rounds -- the former opening round is now called the "First Four," followed by the second round and third round -- we will refer to the second round as the "round of 64" and the third round as the "round of 32," for clarity's sake, in terms of how many teams remain at the start of that particular round.

Let's get this out of the way first ...: Don't pick a No. 1 seed to lose its first game. In the past 26 years, since the field expanded to 64 teams, No. 1 seeds are 104-0 against No. 16s, and rarely are the games close. In the past four tourneys, not only have all but one of the 16 such meetings been decided by 16 points or more, but the average margin of victory for the No. 1s has been 29.3 points (14 of the 16 games have been decided by 20 or more). The last time a 1-versus-16 game was decided by single digits was 1997.

Don't pick against No. 2s, either: Although teams like Robert Morris (versus Villanova), Cal State Northridge (versus Memphis) and Belmont (versus Duke) have put scares into No. 2 seeds the past three years, No. 15 seeds have gone winless in the past nine years now (0-36). 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 13 tournaments is Hampton in 2001, when the Pirates took out Iowa State in Boise. When you're trying to maximize points in your bracket, it's just not mathematically sound to pin your hopes to a No. 15.

[+] EnlargeKenneth Faried
Don McPeak/US PresswireKenneth Faried leads the nation in rebounding and will be handful for Louisville in the Round of 64.

So, how many upsets should you pick? Last year marked the second straight year in which there were 10 upsets according to seed. That's interesting when you consider that a double-digit number of upsets occurred just four times in the first 30 years of seeding. During the past 10 years, there have been an average of eight per year. And if you're curious about highs and lows, the record for the most such upsets is 13 in 2001, and the fewest is three in 2000.

An upset of a top-four 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 those lower seeds will win. Only four times since 1985 have all of the top four seeds in each region survived the round of 64, with the last time being in 2007. Last year marked the third straight year -- and eighth in the past 10 -- in which a No. 13 seed won a game, when Murray State upended Vanderbilt.

Beware, Arizona: In the past three years, eight teams have been seeded fourth or fifth after missing the tournament the previous year. Seven of those eight teams lost in the round of 64, and the team that didn't -- Washington in 2009 -- lost in the next round. Arizona falls into this category this year, and will face 12th-seeded Memphis Friday in Tulsa.

Target a No. 12 seed: If you're familiar with 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. In only three of the past 26 years have No. 12 seeds failed to win a round-of-64 game (1988, 2000, 2007). Cornell was the only No. 12 to win last year, but the Big Red advanced to the Sweet 16, making it nine of the past 10 years that 12-seeds have combined to win at least two games. Since 1985, No. 12s have actually won more games in the round of 64 and round of 32 than No. 11 seeds.

Ignore the seeds in the 7/10 and 8/9 games: Historically, No. 9s hold a slight edge on No. 8s overall, but that's expected to be a 50/50 game. However, No. 10 seeds are 6-2 the past two years against No. 7 seeds. You could argue there's very little difference between teams seeded sixth through 11th anymore, so don't let seeds affect your thought process too much when picking these matchups.

Don't be shy about picking double-digit seeds from the ACC: Since 1985, there have been eight ACC teams seeded 10th or worse, and six of them pulled off round-of-64 upsets, including Maryland in 2009 and Georgia Tech last year. This year, 10th-seeded Florida State will have its hands full with Texas A&M, while 12th-seeded Clemson will have to take care of UAB first before it gets a shot to do the same against West Virginia.

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, 2010 was an enjoyable tournament, as three double-digit seeds reached the Sweet 16. There has been at least one double-digit seed to survive the first weekend in 24 of the 26 years since the field expanded to 64, and at least two double-digit seeds have done so in 11 of the past 14 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 104 regions played. In only 14 of those have the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet 16.

Keep lookin' out for No. 1: Kansas' loss to Northern Iowa last year marked the first time in six years that all four No. 1 seeds didn't make the Sweet 16. Since 1985, 91 of 104 No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16, and only once have two top seeds failed to get there in the same year.

No. 2s are by no means automatic: While No. 1s generally breeze through the first two games, it's not the case for 2-seeds. Only five times since seeding began in 1979 have all four No. 2 seeds reached the Sweet 16, and only once in the past 14 years (1982, 1989, 1995, 1996, 2009). Comparing the 1s and 2s during the past six years, eight No. 2 seeds have lost in the round of 32, while just one No. 1 seed has done so (Kansas last year).

[+] EnlargeBo Ryan
AP Photo/Darron CummingsBo Ryan and Wisconsin face a tough road in Tucson, starting with Belmont on Thursday.

No. 3 seeds are considerably safer than 4s: Obviously, it's important to get a No. 1 seed, but there's also a noticeable difference between the third and fourth seed, when it comes to reaching the Sweet 16. Last year was a rough one for both, as only one of each reached the Sweet 16. But once again looking at the past six years, take a look at the difficulty No. 4 seeds have had in reaching the Sweet 16 in comparison to the other protected seeds:

No. 1 Seeds: 23 of 24 (96%)
No. 2 Seeds: 16 of 24 (67%)
No. 3 Seeds: 15 of 24 (63%)
No. 4 Seeds: 8 of 24 (33%)

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 round of 32, but it's interesting to note that No. 9 seeds have as many Sweet 16 appearances (four) as No. 13s, and just two more than No. 14 seeds since 1985.

No. 12s make great sleepers: Since 1985, No. 12 seeds have the same number of Sweet 16 appearances as No. 7s (18), and just one fewer than No. 10s. 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).

Don't bank on a 13, though: Only six schools seeded below 12th have made it to the Sweet 16 (only one since 2000).

Looking for schools to target? Good luck. Winning a couple games each year may not seem like much to ask for the big-time programs in college basketball, but with the landscape constantly changing, and the general unpredictability of the tournament, only two schools have reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past three years: Michigan State and Xavier, neither of which has an easy draw to extend the streak.

ACC tailspin: After supplying at least two Sweet 16 teams for 27 consecutive years from 1980 to 2006, the ACC has had just one representative remaining after the first weekend in three of the past four years. The last time an ACC school other than Duke or North Carolina made the Sweet 16 was 2006 with Boston College.

How many from the Big East?: In 2009, the Big East became the first conference with five teams to reach the Sweet 16. Even with the most teams from a conference in NCAA tournament history, it's no sure thing for the conference to match or exceed that number this year.

Elite Eight

Is Cinderella outgrowing the slipper after two games now? For 10 straight years (from 1997 to 2006), at least one team seeded seventh or worse reached the Elite Eight. But it hasn't happened in three of the past four years. In fact, in 2007 and 2009, no seed worse than a No. 3 reached the Elite Eight. Last year, two 5s and a 6 got there.

Reason to believe the slipper still fits: Despite the recent lack of a true Cinderella story (not counting Butler last year, since it was a No. 5 seed), in the past 26 years, at least one team seeded sixth or worse has reached the Elite Eight in 21 of those years. Last year, it was sixth-seeded Tennessee that turned the trick.

Avoid advancing a No. 12 this far: While 12-seeds have actually reached the regional semifinals more than No. 8 and No. 9 seeds combined by a comfortable margin (18 to 13) since 1985, they usually flame out. Of those 18 No. 12 seeds to reach the Sweet 16, only Missouri in 2002 reached the Elite Eight.

Final Four

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

And now on the 1s and 2s ...: Twenty-seven of the past 40 Final Four teams were either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds.

But don't pick all top seeds: In 2008, the Final Four was comprised of all No. 1 seeds for the first time ever. 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-six of the 32 Final Fours since seeding began have featured one or two top regional seeds (81 percent).

Top-four seeds generally rule: When a pair of No. 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State, reached the Final Four last year, they became the ninth and 10th teams seeded worse than fourth in the past 22 years to get that far. Five of those 10 came in two years (2000 and 2010), so it's a percentage play to stick with teams seeded among the top four in their region when choosing your Final Four.

Two teams from a conference: Although it has happened only once in the past four years, it's not an odd occurrence to see two teams from the same conference reach 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 26 years.

True Cinderellas: Only eight teams seeded worse than sixth have reached the Final Four, and only three in the past 24 NCAA tourneys (2006 George Mason, 2000 North Carolina, 2000 Wisconsin).

[+] EnlargeMarcus Morris
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarcus Morris and Kansas grabbed a No. 1 seed for the second straight year, but hope things turn out differently in 2011.

Picking a champion

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 10 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 eight-game winning streak before the start of the tourney. The last champion not to 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. Please note that all statistics referenced below are for the entire season, not entering the tournament.

• All 10 had an opponents' field goal percentage of .416 or lower
• 9 of 10 had at least two future first-round NBA draft picks on the roster (2010 Duke still could, which would make it 10 of 10)
• 9 of 10 finished the season with a scoring margin of plus-14.1 ppg or better
• 9 of 10 had a field goal percentage of .475 or better
• 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 meets all criteria, assuming that at least two of its players are future first-rounders, which the Morris twins could take care of all by themselves.

But teams just missing out on a component or two include Ohio State (opponents' field goal percentage), Duke (.468 field goal percentage and finished one game out of ACC regular-season title) and Pittsburgh (.474 field goal percentage and plus-13.1 scoring differential). It's no coincidence that these four teams are the No. 1 seeds.

There's a first time for everything: Heads up, Pittsburgh. Sure, the Panthers got a top seed, but they've got an interesting trend working against them. No team has ever won a national championship after losing its first game in its conference tournament. Last year, No. 1-seeded Syracuse also lost its first Big East conference tourney game, and was bounced in the Sweet 16 by Butler. Will Jamie Dixon's team finally put this trend to rest?

For the most part, chalk usually wins out: Since seeding began in 1979, 24 of the 32 national champions have been No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Not only have No. 1s won the past four titles (and nine of 12), it's been seven years since the last No. 2 seed won the national championship. In fact, only four No. 2s have won the title since the tournament expanded in 1985, while 16 No. 1 seeds have done so in that same span. 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 12 years has the conference with the most teams in the tournament also provided the national champion. And the only times it has happened are when three or more conferences have tied for the most bids. The pressure is definitely on the Big East this year, with significantly more bids than any other conference.

Lending credence to preseason polls: While many feel that preseason polls are useless, 10 of the past 12 national champions were ranked in the top 10 of the AP preseason top 25. Interestingly, the only exceptions were teams which were unranked in the preseason poll (2003 Syracuse, 2006 Florida). Those two schools are also the only teams in the past 13 NCAA tourneys not seeded No. 1 or 2 to win it all. Among this year's high seeds to be ranked in the preseason top 10: Duke (1), Ohio State (4), Pittsburgh (5), Kansas (7), North Carolina (8), Florida (9), Syracuse (10).

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 eight years (2003 Syracuse, 2006 Florida). There are some intriguing candidates to become the fifth team to join this list. Among teams unranked entering the season were Texas, Arizona, UConn, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, which wasn't even among "others receiving votes" in the initial AP poll on Oct. 28.

Strictly seeds

• Since seeding began in 1979, No. 1 seeds have met in the championship game just six times (1982, 1993, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2008).

• From 2007 to '09, 11 of the 12 No. 3 seeds reached the Sweet 16, but last year Baylor was the only No. 3 to survive the first weekend.

• In the past four years, only five of the 16 No. 4 seeds reached the Sweet 16.

• A No. 5 seed has never won the national championship. In fact, only three have ever reached the title game (2000 Florida, 2002 Indiana, 2010 Butler).

• 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.

• Northern Iowa (2010), UAB (2004), Boston College (1994) and UTEP (1992) are the only No. 9 seeds to reach the Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. BC is the only one to advance to the Elite Eight, though.

• 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 have combined to win 14 games in the past three years (6 in 2008, 5 in 2009, 3 in 2010).

• No. 12 seeds have won at least one game in 20 of the past 22 years (no wins in 2000 and 2007), and at least two games in 10 of the past 12 years.

• In addition, a No. 13 seed has won at least one game in 10 of the past 13 years (no wins in 2000, 2004, 2007).

Conference call

Last year, Duke gave the ACC its 10th national championship (and second straight) since seeding began in 1979, but the Big Ten hasn't won a national title since 2000, when Michigan State cut down the nets. In addition, the Big 12 has just one title since its formation in 1997 (Kansas '08), while the Big East hasn't supplied a champ since 2004 (UConn). The Pac-10's last title came in 1997 (Arizona).

How many Big East teams will reach the Sweet 16?: Even with 11 Big East teams in the field, it might be too much to expect the majority of them to advance past the first weekend. In 2009, the Big East became the first conference to send five schools to the Sweet 16, marking just the fifth time in the past 10 years that a conference had at least four teams get that far in the same year. No conference besides the Big East has done it since the Big 12 in 2002, though.

More wins on the Horizon: The Horizon League has at least one win in 10 of the past 13 years (this dates back to when the conference was called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference). The league has done so despite sending only one representative in nine of those 13 years. Last year, Butler came up just two points shy in the national championship game as the lone Horizon rep, and it's no different this year, as Butler is the only league team in the field once again.

WCC success: The West Coast Conference has at least one win in 10 of the past 12 years. Of the 17 wins the WCC has in that span, Gonzaga owns all but four of them (Pepperdine 2000, San Diego 2008, Saint Mary's two in 2010). The Zags are the only WCC team in the field this year and will face a senior-laden St. John's squad in the round of 64.

Nothing to SEC here: The Southeastern Conference has had a team reach the Final Four in only two of the past 10 years (LSU and Florida in 2006, Florida in 2007). And while the conference doesn't have a No. 1 seed in the field, Florida is a No. 2 in the Southeast Regional, while Kentucky is a 4-seed in the very tough East Regional.

Big Ten searching for a title: It's been 11 years since Michigan State gave the Big Ten its last national champion. This year, Ohio State will try to get that elusive title as a No. 1 seed, while Purdue and Wisconsin would have to be considered dark horses to make a run.

[+] EnlargeKawhi Leonard
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiKawhi Leonard hopes to lead San Diego State not only to its first tournament win, but a deep run.

Don't call it the Mountain Worst: This could be the year the Mountain West turns things around, with its first two protected seeds ever in San Diego State and BYU. However, since the formation of the conference in 2000, only twice has a MWC team reached the Sweet 16 (Utah in 2005, UNLV in 2007). Last year, the conference grabbed four bids, but still earned only two wins, marking just the third time the MWC has produced more than one NCAA tournament victory as a conference since its formation. The MWC is 10-26 in those 11 years (.278 win pct.).

Conference USA is up against it: For the first time since its formation in the 1995-96 season, Conference USA went winless in the tourney last year. It'll be up to two No. 12 seeds -- UAB and Memphis -- to avoid a second straight winless Big Dance for the conference. The Blazers will get the first crack on Tuesday in the first round against Clemson.

Is the MAC back?: 14th-seeded Ohio's shocking rout of Georgetown last year gave the MAC its first NCAA win since 2003, ending the conference's longest NCAA tournament drought ever. Akron will have to outdo Ohio by winning as a 15-seed against a strong Notre Dame squad in order to give the MAC a tourney victory in consecutive years for the first time since 2001-03.

Still looking for No. 1: The Northeast Conference is the only current conference yet to win a round-of-64 game (3-29 overall, with all three wins coming in the "play-in" game). Robert Morris came this close to taking out Villanova as a No. 15 seed last year. Long Island, which dominated the NEC this season, hopes to finally get the conference in the win column in the round of 64 on Friday, also as a 15-seed, against North Carolina. Simply put, it's not likely.

Teams

• Pittsburgh got the No. 1 seed in the Southeast region, but history makes it difficult to pencil in the Panthers to get to Houston (or click on them, for that matter). The Panthers have lost to lower-seeded teams in seven of the past nine years, and are just 1-7 all-time against teams seeded fifth or better.

• How much this trend means is up for debate, but if you're looking for the school with the longest active winning streak in the round of 64, look no further than Purdue (12). But expect a heart-stopper, as the Boilermakers' last four tourney victories have come by a total of 17 points.

• San Diego State is seeking its first NCAA tournament victory in school history. And head coach Steve Fisher is looking for his first Big Dance win since 1994, when he took Michigan to the Elite Eight.

• Think Kansas is going to be tough to beat once again? Many do, but keep in mind that history's not on the Jayhawks' side. Of the 13 times a regional No. 1 seed has lost in the round of 32 since 1985, Kansas has accounted for three of those instances, the only school to do so more than twice.

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

Keith Lipscomb is a senior editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.

Chris Fallica

ESPN Stats & Information