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Andy Wittry | | April 13, 2020

These are the men's basketball teams the public likes in the first round of the NCAA tournament — and the ones it's avoided

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When it comes time to fill out your NCAA tournament bracket in the official Bracket Challenge Game, you might be tempted to spend most of your time worrying about the first-round matchups.

That makes sense because there are 32 first-round games.

But keep in mind that each of those games is only worth one point, while second round games are worth two points and Sweet 16 games four points, all the way up to the 32-point national championship game.

So you're arguably better off spending more time picking the winners in the later rounds than you are stressing about which No. 13 seed you think will upset a No. 4 seed.

We're here to help you find value in your first-round picks, by determining the most — and least — popular first-round picks over the last six NCAA tournaments.

Here's the process we used.

Using the Bracket Challenge Game data from the 2014 NCAA tournament through the 2019 NCAA tournament, we identified every school that made the NCAA tournament multiple times during that time span. For each school, we compared what percent of users picked the school to win in the first round compared to the average percent of users who picked schools of the same seed line to win in the first round in that year's NCAA tournament.

As a hypothetical example, if Arizona was a No. 4 seed and 85 percent of users picked Arizona to win in the first round, but No. 4 seeds were picked to win in the first round only 75 percent of the time that season, on average, then the Wildcats were picked 10 percentage points more than average compared to their peers.

We then averaged each school's differential for every year it was in the NCAA tournament from 2014-19.

For example, if Arizona was a No. 1 seed in 2014, the Wildcats were compared to just No. 1 seeds for that season. If it was a No. 2 seed in 2015, it was just compared to No. 2 seeds that year, and so on, then we averaged the differentials for each season.

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Here are some important things to keep in mind about these numbers.

Two teams that play in the First Four have the same percentages in the Bracket Challenge Game. If Team A and Team B are both No. 11 seeds, the Bracket Challenge Game will provide fans the option to pick the to-be-determined winner of Team A and Team B, or their No. 6 seed opponent in the first round.

Also, a school's first-round opponent could greatly impact what percentage of brackets picked the school to win in the first round in a given year. Kentucky is one of the most common Bracket Challenge Game picks — in any round — so if a school is playing Kentucky in the first round, Bracket Challenge Game users aren't necessarily picking against the Wildcats' opponent, the data just says that a lot of users are picking for Kentucky.

In the table below, we listed the schools that were picked to win in the first round by an average of at least four percentage points more than their seed-line peers.

Since 2014, Notre Dame has been a No. 3, No. 5 and No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament and compared to its No. 3, No. 5 and No. 6 seed peers in each of those respective seasons, the Fighting Irish were picked to win in the first round 8.8 percent more often, on average.

School conference Avg. Diff. in 1st round Record in 1st Round (2014-19)
Notre Dame ACC +8.83% 3-0
Pittsburgh ACC +8.32% 1-1
Ohio State Big Ten +7.95% 3-1
UConn AAC +7.75% 2-0
Middle Tennessee C-USA +7.50% 2-0
Michigan State Big Ten +6.34% 5-1
Auburn SEC +6.33% 2-0
Kentucky SEC +5.49% 6-0
Yale Ivy +5.30% 1-1
Florida Gulf Coast A-Sun +5.24% 0-2
Oregon Pac-12 +5.07% 5-0
Tennessee SEC +4.93% 3-0
Murray State OVC +4.67% 1-1
Texas A&M SEC +4.48% 2-0
SMU AAC +4.43% 0-2
Xavier Big East +4.11% 4-1
Belmont OVC +4.07% 0-2
Louisville* ACC +4.01% 3-1

*Louisville later had its participation in the 2014 and 2015 NCAA Tournaments vacated.

As you can see in the chart above, the public is high on many of these programs for good reason. In the time period examined, Kentucky was 6-0 in the first round, Oregon was 5-0, Michigan State was 5-1 and Xavier was 4-1 — just to name a few notable records.

Now what about the opposite end of the spectrum — teams that aren't picked to win in the first round as often as their peers on the same seed lines?

Here are the top 20 teams that have the lowest average first-round differentials. For the fourth column, losses in the First Four were counted as a loss in the first round.

team conference Avg. Diff. in 1st round record in 1st round (2014-19)
Colorado Pac-12 -17.00% 0-2
Minnesota Big Ten -11.71% 1-1
Kansas State Big 12 -10.16% 1-3
Oklahoma State Big 12 -7.11% 0-3
Dayton A-10 -6.92% 2-2
Nevada Mountain West -5.14% 1-2
Saint Louis A-10 -5.13% 1-1
Maryland Big Ten -4.99% 3-1
Wofford SoCon -4.82% 1-2
Providence Big East -4.76% 1-4
Tulsa AAC -4.49% 0-2
Baylor Big 12 -3.99% 3-2
BYU WCC -3.75% 0-2
UNC Wilmington CAA -3.70% 0-2
Seton Hall Big East -3.62% 1-3
Northeastern CAA -3.62% 0-2
Virginia Tech ACC -3.57% 1-2
Florida State ACC -3.55% 3-0
Vanderbilt SEC -3.18% 0-2
Miami (FL) ACC -3.02% 1-2

Similarly to the first chart, it appears the public largely knows what it's doing when picking first-round NCAA tournament games involving the teams in the chart above.

There are a few outliers in the second chart and these are the teams you should probably pick more often — Florida State (3-0), Maryland (3-1) and Baylor (3-2) — but each of the other 17 teams has a record of .500 or worse in the first round/First Four of the NCAA tournament since 2014.

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