There are no two days on the sports calendar I look forward to more than the Thursday and Friday on which the first round of the men's NCAA tournament is played. By definition, Selection Sunday would have to be my third-favorite day, since that's when we sit in front of the TV with our empty brackets awaiting the matchups we are about to overanalyze for the 90 hours leading to the first tip-off.
I've been extra impatient this year, since the festivities are kicking off a week later than usual. And after watching seemingly every bubble team refuse to take advantage of its opportunity to impress the selection committee during the past week, the wait is over and it's time to dissect the brackets.
Watching a lot of games during the regular season can be as much of a hindrance, as a help when it comes to having success in NCAA tournament pools. I've seen many of these teams at their best and worst, which can be just enough to affect my analysis in any given matchup. "Going with your gut" is a theory many subscribe to.
On Tuesday, AJ Mass, Christopher Harris and I will reveal our picks for this year's Big Dance, everything from which No. 1 seed will be the first to fall to our Final Four squads. We will each have our own methods of knocking out our selections, taking many different factors into consideration.
Are you someone who likes to buck the odds and didn't pick a No. 12 seed to win a game last year? If so, you were rewarded. Or are you the type that runs with every fact or trend at your disposal to arrive at your Final Four picks?
Whether you are a crazy fan whose TiVo is smoking after four months of continuous roundball recording or someone who thinks Winthrop is your rich great uncle on your mother's side of the family, these recent bracket trends are something for you to chew on and do with what you like.
Chalk talk: Since seeding began in 1979, 21 of the 29 national champions have been No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, and the last national champ to be seeded worse than third was fourth-seeded Arizona in 1997.
Strong No. 1s:
For the first time since 1987-1989, all four No. 1 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 in three straight years. Since seeding began in 1979, it's never happened in four consecutive years, even when the field was 48 deep and the No. 1s only needed to win one game to get there.
Representin': Only twice since 1979 have all four No. 1 seeds failed to make the Final Four (1980, 2006), and never have all four No. 1s made it there. Care to be daring in your bracket this year and go "all" or "nothing"?
Low five: No fifth seed has ever won the national championship. See "No. 12 seeds are dangerous" below for some contributing factors why. Hey, at least a No. 5 has reached the championship game, which is something No. 7 seeds can't say.
Ten is greater than seven, eight or nine: It doesn't just apply in early-elementary math. During the past decade, there have nearly been as many No. 10 seeds (11) to make the Sweet 16 as 7th, 8th and 9th seeds combined (14).
No. 12 seeds are dangerous: This is the most commonly-known trend, but last year marked just the third time in the 23 years since the field was expanded to 64/65 teams that a No. 12 seed didn't win a game. Illinois came close, dropping a two-point decision to Virginia Tech, but no cigar. Are you willing to gamble that No. 12 seeds will get shut out in consecutive years for the first time in the modern era of the NCAA tournament?
Lucky 13?: If you're feeling frisky, pick a 13-seed in Round 1. No. 13s were blanked last year, snapping a modest streak of two straight years with a win. So, why be so hopeful, you ask? No. 13 seeds have never gone winless in consecutive years!
Overdue?: No. 15 seeds have gone winless in the past six years. That's the longest drought for No. 15s since the first six years of the 64-team field (1985-1990).
Don't bet on it: Think this is the year a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1? Well, if the 0-92 all-time record doesn't scare you away, consider that last year's 16s lost by an average of 31.3 points in the first round. Hey, if you're on point when it does happen, it's something you'll never forget ... or let anyone else forget.
Elite Eight dark horses:: Last year was the first time since 1996 that there was an Elite Eight without a team seeded seventh or lower. Yes, you read that right. In fact, only four times in the 23 years of the modern bracket have the regional finals not featured at least one team seeded sixth or lower.
ACC = multiple Sweet 16 teams: One of the best bracket facts going is no more. In 2007, the Atlantic Coast Conference had its remarkable streak of at least two teams reaching the Sweet 16 stopped at 27 consecutive years when No. 1 seed North Carolina was the only one of the ACC-record seven tournament participants to get there. Discouraged by the fact the conference only has four representatives this year? Keep in mind -- beyond the fact that North Carolina and Duke are obviously strong favorites to get there -- the previous streak was kept alive on two occasions (1999 and 2000) in which the ACC had only three teams in the fray.
ACC, Part II: The Final Four has been played without an ACC member in three of the past five years, this after the conference placed at least one team in the Final Four in 14 of the previous 15 seasons.
Dirty dozen: This is the 12th year of Big 12 Conference play, but despite all of the quality teams that have nabbed high seeds over the years, the conference has yet to win a national title. There have been five Big 12 teams to reach the Final Four, and certainly there will be some that pick Kansas and/or Texas to go that far. But will either bring home the conference's first title this year? And, more importantly, are you willing to write them onto that final line on your bracket?
Horizon League is lethal: It doesn't matter what seed Horizon League schools receive, no one wants to play them. The league has at least one win in four of the past five years, including a trio of Sweet 16 trips by Butler (twice) and UW-Milwaukee, two of which came as No. 12 seeds. Butler did it as a No. 5 seed last year and some would argue that the Bulldogs gave eventual national champion Florida its toughest game in the regional semifinals. Will we once again be uttering the phrase, "The Butler did it"?
Putting the "ack" in MAC: In the late '90s and early this decade, the Mid-American Conference was what the Horizon League is now: a big pain to deal with for the big boys. However, the MAC hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since Chris Kaman and Central Michigan reached the second round in 2003. That's the longest drought since the conference went five straight years without a victory during 1984-1988. The good news? Kent State is in as a No. 9 seed. Remember back in 2002, the Golden Flashes made a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.
Valley at its peak:: For just the second time since the field expanded in 1985, the Missouri Valley Conference has supplied a Sweet 16 team in consecutive seasons, but never have they done it in three straight years during this span. Can Drake give The Valley its first hat trick? It's all on the shoulders of Keno Davis' crew, since this is the first time in 10 years only one team from the MVC qualified for the Big Dance.
Mountain West = early exit?: Since the formation of the Mountain West Conference in 2000, last year marked just the second time a MWC team reached the Sweet 16 when 7th-seeded UNLV defeated Georgia Tech and Wisconsin to get there. It also marked just the second time the conference produced more than one victory in a single NCAA tourney, despite sending multiple teams in seven of those eight years. In fairness, since those two occurrences have come in the past three years (6th-seeded Utah reached the Sweet 16 in 2005), maybe the MWC is in the process of reversing this historical struggle. BYU and UNLV are making return trips this season.
It's been a long time: If you count the opening-round game -- and the NCAA insists we should -- the conference that's gone the longest without an NCAA tournament victory is the Ohio Valley Conference. It's been nearly two decades now since Middle Tennessee knocked off fourth-seeded Florida State in 1989. Just two years earlier, Dickie V stood on his head on the air after this year's OVC rep, Austin Peay, upset Illinois in the first round. If you're reading this, Dick, I'd like to suggest you stand on your head again if the Governors get the OVC off the schneid this year. I'd be more than happy to join you, of course.
When the Pac-10 gets six bids, three survive the first weekend: The Pac-10 have had six teams in the tournament on two other occasions (2002, 2007). In 2002, three of them reached the Sweet 16, but none reached the Final Four. Last year was much more successful, as three once again made the Sweet 16, two made the Elite Eight and one (UCLA) reached the Final Four. The Pac-10 was arguably the best conference in the land this season, and three schools are favored to get that far, at least according to seeding.
Battle-tested: We're about to find out if playing that outstanding non-conference schedule prepared Davidson for a first-round upset. The Southern Conference is certainly due to pull one off. SoCon teams have gone winless in the past 10 NCAA tournaments. The last conference team to win a tournament game was Chattanooga in 1997, when Johnny Taylor led the Mocs to the Sweet 16. In fact, the conference has just two other wins since 1978 ('82 by Chattanooga and '92 by East Tennessee State), but there have been plenty of close calls in recent years, most of which have involved Davidson.
It takes two: The Sun Belt has two teams in the field for the first time since 1994. Maybe double the representation will help the conference's surprising streak of 12 straight years without a tournament victory. Only twice in those 12 years has the Sun Belt received a seed lower than 14th, so they've sent quality teams to the tourney.
This is the 11th time in West Coast Conference history that multiple teams have received bids, and the first time three teams are dancing from the WCC. However, only twice has more than one WCC school come away with a victory in the same year (1979, 2000). Gonzaga and Saint Mary's will certainly be tough outs, and automatic qualifier San Diego knocked both of them off to get its dance ticket.
Other bracket bits
Teams that lose their first conference tourney game are off limits: This serves as a heads-up to the likes of Louisville, Notre Dame, Purdue, Connecticut and Indiana, as well as those of you who have them pegged for a title run. No team has ever won a national championship after losing its first game in the conference tournament. Last year, UCLA (No. 2 seed), Texas A&M (No. 3 seed) and Maryland (No. 4 seed) were among those to contribute to the cause. Think this trend is a bit overblown? In 2006, Connecticut was a favorite to win it all and earned a No. 1 seed despite losing its first Big East Conference tournament game, but lost in the Elite Eight to, you guessed it, George Mason.
Gonzaga is better off as a double-digit seed: This is the Zags' 10th straight tourney appearance. In their past nine appearances, they have just five wins in five years -- and just one Sweet 16 -- as a single-digit seed, but have at least reached the Sweet 16 in three of their four trips as a 10th-seed or worse. However, all three of those trips occurred during 1999-2001 when Gonzaga started to become known for more than producing John Stockton. The bracket brought bad news: the Zags are a single-digit seed this year.
Nothing is free: So, you like Memphis to finish 39-1, huh? Well, you're probably going to have to sweat out those trips to the line late in a close game at some point during this basketball fiesta. The Tigers enter the tournament shooting a paltry 59.6 percent from the free-throw line this season. No national champion since 1985 has shot it that poorly from the so-called charity stripe. The 2004 UConn Huskies won it all despite a 62.3 percent mark.
Final at-large teams in, have struggled recently: Last year's Big Dance marked the second time in four years that at-large entries seeded 10th or lower came up empty. Of course double-digit seeds aren't expected to win the majority of first-round games as they did in 2006 when the likes of George Mason, Bradley and three major-conference schools (Alabama, NC State and Texas A&M) pulled surprises, but you would think that these "deserving" schools would be good for at least one victory a year. In a season in which some of the final at-larges possessed what could be considered underwhelming resumes, are we in for another year of donuts? If you need a larger sample size, since 2000, at-large double-digit seeds have won 16 of 51 first-round games (31.3 percent).
Keith Lipscomb is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.
Special thanks to Chris Fallica of ESPN Research for his great help in this endeavor.