Bracketology is not an exact science, but making informed hypotheses rather than going with your gut will increase your odds of winning the office pool, so this breakdown is an indispensible tool as you look to fill out your NCAA Tournament 2012 bracket.
First we'll outline the best upset picks, as there's never been a March Madness in which every team has played according to its seed. The wisdom is that you've got to select at least a few upsets from the lot, and a little insight into which upsets may be most likely will go a long way.
Our List of the Best Upset & Cinderella March Madness Picks:
1. First Round, South: (12) VCU over (5) Wichita State: Virginia Commonwealth University proved itself last year by making it from the First Four play-in games to the Final Four. And the Wichita State Shockers are probably the better selection, as far as conventional methods of evaluation go. But you can't count VCU out. The Rams are looking for another deep NCAA Tournament run this year, and the school's P.R. team took out a newspaper ad in the Washington Post's Monday edition stating that the school is back to bust your bracket again. Don't be surprised if the Rams do just that if you make the choice to second-guess VCU this year.
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2. First Round, South: (10) Xavier over (7) Notre Dame: Notre Dame may be one of the most-overrated teams in the NCAA Tournament. Sure they beat one-seed Syracuse, but the Orange's star, Fab Melo was out that game (and he will in fact be out for the whole NCAA Tournament due to ineligibility, the school's athletics department announced Tuesday, in case you live under a rock and didn't hear the bombshell news.) And they may have some pretty good wins over UConn and Louisville, but Notre Dame had an unenviable succession of losses against big teams otherwise, and it is unreasonable to expect that to end anytime soon. But Xavier doesn't have too many massive wins either, so this one's a toss-up. Some analysts have Xavier topping Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils though, so don't count the Musketeers out either.
3. First Round, West: (10) Virginia over (7) Florida: The University of Florida Gators started the year super-strong, losing only to Ohio State University and Syracuse in the team's first dozen games. But the season went downhill from there, with losses to Rutgers and Tennessee over the next four games. The team cruised for a while after that but totally fell off at the end of the regular season, falling to Georgia, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in back-to-back losses, and ending the season with another loss to Kentucky. Difficult schedule, that, but they did little to wow fans at the end of the season, and hopes shouldn't be too high as they head into the post-season. And with the league's 135th-place rebounding ranking and 66th-worst team field goal percentage, the Gators are lucky to have the 23-10 record they have. As for the UVA Cavaliers, they're not the best team in the tournament, but nearly all of their losses are to ranked or near-ranked teams. So this one may have to be a gut check: will Florida be able to tough it out and pull out a win after a sad end to their regular season? Probably, but this could be a good Cinderella story in the making.
4. First Round, East: (12) Harvard over (5) Vanderbilt: This storyline has been popping up in a number of analysts' and experts' brackets, but I don't see it. Harvard University had a strong season in the Ivy League, but with losses to Penn, Fordham, and Princeton (by 8 points), its NCAA Tournament 2012 prospects are not too strong. Plus Harvard is facing off against Vandy, who is coming off a huge win over Kentucky, the overall one-seed this March Madness. Not putting too much stock in an upset here, but it's worth pointing out that there have been projections to that effect.
5. First Round, Midwest: (11) North Carolina State over (6) San Diego State: San Diego State is seen by many observers as one of the weakest six-seeds in the tourney, and NC State is consistently rated as a sleeper candidate for a Cinderella run to the second or third round, as if it beats San Diego State it will have to face Georgetown, which was no powerhouse as the season wound down either. SD State lost twice to New Mexico and once each to Air Force and Colorado State, putting it in no rarified air, and North Carolina State had a tough conference schedule. NC State's losses are nearly all to ranked teams, and its last game was an impressive effort against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, during which the Wolfpack lost by only two points to UNC, one of NCAA Tournament 2012's one seeds. So don't bet against NC State, they could make it at least to the second round and not really surprise anyone.
6. Second Round, South: (6) UNLV over (3) Baylor: This is one of the most common upsets this year, and with good reason. Though Baylor pulled off one of the best seasons the program has ever had, it may not have the strength to beat UNLV on a good night. UNLV, which had a great run in the 1990s, was an on-and-off team this year, but when the Rebels are running hot, they're nearly unstoppable. Notching one of the biggest upsets of the season UNLV beat then-number-one UNC 90-80 on Nov. 26. They also topped then-top-25 Illinois by 16 a month later and beat then-ranked San Diego State by two points on Feb. 11. But they've also suffered embarassing losses to Wyoming, TCU and Colorado State, so it's hard to say they're anything nearing a shoo-in. But beware, Baylor may not have had any such terrible losses, but they also couldn't top most of the ranked teams they faced. This one is pretty much up in the air, despite what the experts will say about Baylor making a Final Four run. Don't believe the hype, this could be a great underdog win to put you ahead in your bracketology.
7. Second Round, East: (8) Kansas State over (1) Syracuse: Before Tuesday, this idea would have been laughed away. But with Fab Melo out of the picture and the Orange likely reeling, Kansas State is just the first in a series of teams that could topple the Big East monsters (Vandy/Wisconsin could easily do it in the Sweet Sixteen, and after that good money is on 'Cuse being gone no matter who comes next.) Kansas State has topped Baylor and Mizzou in the past month, and though the Wildcats are not a powerhouse this year, junior Rodney McGruder and crew have proven they have what it takes to win big games. A second-round out for Syracuse may not be the best bet, but it's not an insane one, and definitely don't have them going too far past that.
8. Second Round, East: (5) Vanderbilt over (4) Wisconsin: This one almost shouldn't even be called an upset prediction, as Vanderbilt is coming off the biggest upset of the entire season after toppling the mighty Kentucky Wildcats to win the SEC Tournament on Sunday. Vandy also beat Marquette (#13 at the time) by a stunning 17 on Dec. 29, and has had two tight overtime losses to ranked opponents this season that can't be overlooked. The Commodores have a knack for winning big games, and are on a roll. But Wisconsin is also a great team this year, having beaten the strong Ohio State squad as well as Indiani within the last couple of weeks and suffering only two losses to unranked teams all season (both, oddly, came at the hands of Iowa, which didn't even make the Big Dance.) So this is not any easy match-up to call, but a bet against the Badgers is certainly not an unreasonable one to make.
9. Second Round, East: (6) Cincinnati over (3) Florida State University: Now this one sounds unlikely, as FSU has been a popular candidate to make a Final Four run, but the Cincinnati Bearcats showed up toward the end of the season and blew everyone away with its Big East Tournament victory over the mighty Syracuse, so they have to be expected to come to the NCAA Tournament with everything they've got. Florida State has a lot of pieces, but with losses to Clemson, Princeton and the University of Miami, they're nowhere near the flawless top-tier team many prognosticators are making them out to be. Cincy isn't a bad bet to win this second-round matchup.
10. Second Round, Midwest: (11) North Carolina State over (3) Georgetown: I know what you're saying, again with the NC State talk. But as we were saying the Wolfpack are on a roll after their impressive performance against UNC in the ACC Tournament, and that momentum should carry such a rising team into the NCAA Tournament. The Hoyas, meanwhile are coming off five losses in their last 12 games, and three in their last six (including an embarassing 18-point blowout by Seton Hall.), including an early out in the Big East Tournament. So this game will be a big one to watch in the second round, as Georgetown may be bowing out early.