Smallwood: We're all bracket experts, until they actually play the games

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Players for Big Ten squad Wisconsin celebrate after knocking off defending champion Villanova.

IT'S PART of the fun of the NCAA Tournament - predicting who will make the Field of 68, talking about seeding, who can make a deep run and who will go home early.

Heck, back in 1995, Joe Lunardi, Saint Joseph's assistant vice president of marketing communications, created a new industry when he began predicting who would be selected to make the NCAA Tournament.

The original "bracketologist" - a term coined by the Inquirer in a story on Lunardi on Feb. 26, 1996 - turned his love of figuring out what the NCAA selection committee would do into a bracketology page at ESPN in 2002. He even teaches an online course at Saint Joseph's called "Fundamentals of Bracketology."

And, of course, there is the specter of filling out NCAA Tournament pools, which no one really considers betting, even though Americans filled out an estimated 70 million brackets for the 2017 tournament, at an average cost of $29 and a total of about $10.4 billion in cash up for grabs.

All of this interest leads to hours upon hours of analysis, from the moment the field is announced on Selection Sunday through the "First Four" to the first-round games.

Every media outlet has some kind of tournament preview that breaks down teams, gives analysis and tells you which teams will do what, and why.

And then each year, during that first weekend of play, we all find out how much we don't know.

I remember watching ESPN's NCAA Tournament special right after the bids were announced, and analysts Jay Bilas, Jason Williams and Dick Vitale hammered the selection committee for not putting in Syracuse as the 10th team from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Orange finished 10-8 in the ACC but went 18-14 overall and lost five of its last seven.

Still, the ESPN crew was aghast.

"My eyes - I got one eye and I can see that they belong," Vitale said a week ago. "I cannot understand how you can go 10-8 in the ACC, the toughest conference of all, beat three that were rated in the Top 10 in America and be left out."

Vitale, Williams and Bilas all drove home the point that since the ACC was the best conference, it deserved even more than the tournament-high nine bids it received.

Well, on Thursday when the tournament resumes with the Sweet 16, North Carolina will be the only ACC school left playing.

The Tar Heels, seeded No. 1 in the South Regional, are good enough to win the whole shebang, but that wouldn't change how poorly the ACC performed.

Duke and Louisville both lost as No. 2 seeds in the second round. Florida State lost in the second round as a No. 3 seed, while Virginia and Notre Dame bowed out as No. 5s.

Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest loss their first games.

The eight ACC losses were by an average of 13.9 points.

By comparison, the Pac-12 got only four bids, but has Arizona, UCLA and Oregon playing in the Sweet 16.

It says something about your conference when 75 percent of your teams invited to the Big Dance are still around for the second weekend.

The highest seed out of the Southeastern Conference was Kentucky at No. 2 in the South, but Florida and South Carolina, No. 4 and No. 7, respectively, in the East, are also still alive.

South Carolina advanced to the first Sweet 16 in school history by beating Duke.

By numbers, the Pac-12 and SEC got fewer teams, but no Power 5 Conference received as little respect as the Big Ten.

The Big Ten tied the Big East with seven bids, but regular-season champion Purdue got the highest seed at No. 4 in the Midwest. The Boilermakers will play Midwest top seed Kansas.

Michigan, which managed only a seventh-seed in the Midwest, knocked out Louisville in the second round.

Wisconsin had 27 wins in the regular season, but got only an eight seed in the East. The Badgers knocked out the first No. 1 seed when they took out reigning NCAA champion Villanova in the second round.

With Florida, South Carolina, Wisconsin and No. 3 Baylor, the East is the only region that lost its top two seeds during the first weekend.

The lowest seed left in the field is No. 11 Xavier, which plays Arizona in the West Regional. The Musketeers took out No. 6 Maryland in the first round and then beat Florida State.

Next year when the 2018 NCAA field is announced, pundits will again moan about who deserved to get in and who didn't.

Then the games will actually be played and, by the end of the first weekend, the teams will show us we rarely know as much as we think we know.

smallwj@phillynews.com

@SmallTerp

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