How to pick the early rounds, Final Fours and champions in NCAA Tournament

Mar 14 2011 - 4:55pm

Don't worry, we won't tell anyone if your eyes glaze over at the sight of this season's bracket. We won't tell anyone if you haven't watched a college basketball game since the Duke-Butler thriller last season.

At this point, the first four games of the tournament must look like alphabet soup -- UTSA, UAB, USC, VCU, UALR. It can be quite intimidating.

At the same time, we won't tell anyone if you're an avid college hoops fan looking for last-minute reassurance on your tournament picks.

Whether you're a beginner or an old pro, we'll help you with your bracket by pointing out some key historic trends from the First Four through the Final Four.

We love the NCAA tournament because it defies expectations. If the tournament results were cold and calculating, you wouldn't watch. If you're sold on a double-digit seed going to the Final Four, go for it. It has happened before and it will happen again. If you want to pick a No. 8 seed to win the title, as Villanova did in 1985, go right ahead.

Unless noted, all numbers and statistics are trends from the NCAA tournament since 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams.

Picking the early rounds

For starters, don't wait until Wednesday night to fill out your bracket. This will not only expose you as a beginner, it could be costly. The tournament expanded to 68 teams this season, and there will be "First Four" games on Tuesday and Wednesday. This includes two play-in games to determine No. 16 seeds (UTSA vs. Alabama State and UNC-Asheville vs. Arkansas-Little Rock), a No. 12 seed (UAB vs. Clemson) and a No. 11 seed (USC vs. VCU).

The tournament begins in earnest Thursday with the first round (though the NCAA now is calling this the second round).

Here's the first and easiest part of pricking your bracket: Advance every No. 1 seed to the round of 32. Don't think about it. Don't rationalize it. A No. 16 seed never has beaten a No. 1 seed. Sure, it may happen one day, and you'd like to look like the genius who picked it. But more than likely, you'll end up the laughing stock of your picks contest.

Unless you're the risky type, advance every No. 2 seed, too. Every No. 2 seed since 2001 has won its first tournament games.

The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are where it starts to get interesting. No. 3 seeds have won about 85 percent of their first-round games, No. 4 seeds about 79 percent. This is where you need to do a little homework: Is the No. 3 or 4 seed limping into the tournament? Did it recently lose a key player to injury? What about the No. 13 or 14 seed? These usually are the better teams from one-bid leagues. Did this team dominate its league or score a major upset of a high-major team early in the season? Does the lower-seeded team do one thing really well or have one elite player? Last season, Murray State went 30-4 before upsetting Vanderbilt. This season's trendy pick seems to be Belmont, which also went 30-4.

If you've filled out a bracket or two or 200, you know about No. 12 seeds upsetting No. 5 seeds. For whatever reason, No. 5 seeds have a worse first-round record than No. 6 seeds and a significantly worse first-round record than No. 4 seeds. This makes sense: No. 12 seeds usually are quality mid-majors or some of the lesser teams from major conferences. The major-conference teams wouldn't be in the field unless they were capable of knocking off top-tier teams from time to time. Don't advance every 12 seed, but think of picking against one or two vulnerable No. 5 seeds in the first round.

No. 1 seeds usually make it to the Sweet 16, but here's a spot where you can start thinking about major upsets. All four No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 in 15 of the past 26 tournaments. Before Northern Iowa defeated Kansas last season, all four No. 1 seeds had advanced to the Sweet 16 in five consecutive seasons, the longest such stretch since the tournament expanded.

That consistency in the Sweet 16 ends with the No. 1 seeds. All four No. 2 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 only four times and only once since 1996.

When advancing a Cinderella to the Sweet 16, pay attention. Here are the double-digit seeds who advanced to the Sweet 16 in the past seven tournaments: Auburn and Butler in 2003; Nevada in 2004; North Carolina State and UW Milwaukee in 2005; George Mason and Bradley in 2006; Davidson, Western Kentucky and Villanova in 2008; Arizona in 2009; and Saint Mary's, Washington and Cornell in 2010. There's no rhyme or reason -- some were established programs, some had veteran rosters, some were underseeded, some (like Western Kentucky and Villanova in 2008) lucked out and played No. 13 seeds in the second round.

By the time you get to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, you can stop thinking too much about seeding with a couple of exceptions -- the No. 1 seeds and No. 2 seeds are the only teams with winning records in the Sweet 16 (No. 1s are 75-16, No. 2s are 48-19).

If you had a double-digit seed make it this far, you can start thinking about knocking them out now. Since 2003, only two double-digit seeds have advanced to the Elite Eight -- 2006 George Mason (which went on to the Final Four) and 2008 Davidson. Those are considered to be two of the most miraculous tournament runs in the past 10 seasons.

Picking a Final Four

Don't automatically advance all four No. 1 seeds to the Final Four. It's only happened once (2008).

At the same time, make sure your Final Four includes a majority of highly seeded teams. Teams earn top seeds for good reasons: First, they're good teams, and second, they generally receive more favorable draws and play closer to home.

If you were upset-happy early in the tournament, this is where it will catch up with you. The Final Four has been without a No. 1 seed only once (2006). Chew on these numbers: 43 percent of No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four (45 No. 1 seeds among 104 Final Four teams). During the same span, 23 of 104 Final Four teams were No. 2 seeds. Overall, 86.5 percent of Final Four teams were seeded fourth or better. Only one Final Four team since 2001 was seeded lower than fifth (No. 11 seed George Mason in 2006).

Here's a safe rule of thumb: Add up the sum of the seeds in your Final Four. Is it between six and 10? If so, you're in line with 15 of 26 Final Fours. Any sum greater than 15 has contained outliers (No. 11 seeds in the 1986 and 2006 Final Fours, two No.8 seeds in 2000).

Picking a champion

Look for a team that's around 26-5. All but one national champion since 1998 had won at least 25 games going into the tournament (the exception is 2003 Syracuse, which had won 24). In that same span, all but one national champion had lost fewer than six games. The average record for a national champion in the 64-team era is 26-5.

And seeding does matter: Sixteen of 26 national champions were No. 1 seeds, four were No. 2 seeds, three were No. 3 seeds, one was a No. 4, one was a No. 6 and one was a No. 8. The first four tournaments since expansion had two true surprise national champions: Eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985 and sixth-seeded Kansas in 1988. Since then, all but one national champion (Arizona was a No. 4 in 1997) was a top-three seed.

In addition, take a look at the preseason top 10: Only three national champions weren't ranked in the top 10 to start the season. This season's preseason top 10: Duke, Michigan State, Kansas State, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida and Syracuse.

If you want to dig a little deeper, look at scoring averages. Since the 3-point line was established, only one national champion didn't average 77 points during the season. Teams in the preseason top 10 and averaging at least 77 points this season are Duke, Ohio State, Kansas and North Carolina.

Finally, for those of you who choose your titlist based on team colors, each of the past seven national champions have worn some shade of blue.

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