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When the fever starts to spread this year, you're gonna need to call an expert!

FERUPTEMEFVOLCANIMEFMATERIAMEFINVOLVEMEFIMEFAMEFINDOOMEFCHILDRENMEFGAMME

ILWAUKABETEASHELPBALLLAYASSISTRHOSSERVELUBASOORLDBOOSTRIESITLSUPPORTS

DEMPRIVADINASDLEFADIRDELLAGULLYDWRETADCIMPOTARDCIDA

REDENTIALINITUTIONPRINENTLYFEUREDWIINMAINCHNINSTOAWDWIINGMUCAL

LIKECNAHCITINRARISENILTROHSORXATEMOCNILOADDKLAWDRAOBRVOLVRSLIAJNI [FF]

DLTARNATEUAUTEWYPACALLYRFFAREDDSWHAUASULTRFFARFRASHESRRVLAWXRAFFIC

EIVGIAEHTKSDOLCUTRHOULDESNYOTMNGURINDHILOCIASNJSATHERINGGTX

YIORITLYMSTELMNTELNDPLEMENTELDNTHILNDOWDELDYERGENCLYSOMLS [MW]

SPEBONTDHAIACTVOLYOENCURAQESANEGTSVEABEHVIYRSEVIKEDOMSDICLVIOEXCE

SAMAUNTSRECAMMENDEDSFARSCANSUMPTIANSPERSSITTINGSACCARDINGSTASTHESFAADSPYRAMID [E]

PNGPLURALIZELZIPALGIFNBLTXTSITCOLCSVSTARRINLEXETELWAVDANSOLRARALCOMSALMOVMALONL

LYUSMSGUCOMPONERBUREFRIGERASGUMAGNDAUNEUPOPCSYUKERNEEUEFUTHSQUHAZA

The answer is a twelve-letter thematic word.


Hint for extraction

If you've solved all the clues and have a sentence, then follow the instructions. The first letter clues a relation with the clue solutions.

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The 12-letter answer to this puzzle is:

BRACKETOLOGY

Why? Read on, to find out!


Firstly, the 12 letter strings that we have been given are all clues that have been disguised. In each case, their decryption can be described by a very specific transformation, unique to each clue. Once deciphered, each clue leads us to a one-word answer. Then - crucially - once we have that one-word answer:

That answer can then be manipulated by applying to it the same specific transformation that was used to encrypt its clue in the first place. The words that result from these transformations are all nicknames of college basketball teams, plus one additional superfluous letter.
(I owe this initial discovery to a very useful nudge from @Deusovi in the comments...)

This was hinted at in the puzzle title and flavourtext, as the day this puzzle was published marks the first day of March Madness, the annual college basketball competition in the US. The puzzle's title, 'Progress towards insanity', is very much a 'March (of) Madness', after all...

The complete set of transformed words is as follows:

1. LAVA → FLA(V)ME
2. BREWER → RAID(W)ER
3. HACK → D(H)UCK
4. ORPHANAGE → ORAN(A)GE
5. BULLETED → BULL(T)DOG
6. DETOUR → GATO(U)R
7. SHUN → (N)HUSKY
8. TRIAGE → E(I)AGLE
9. ENABLER → BE(N)AVER
10. PORTION → SPART(I)AN
11. CHEER → TAR(C)HEEL
12. CHOKING → GAUCHO(K)

Explanations for decrypting the original strings:

  1. FERUPTEMEFVOLCANIMEFMATERIAMEFINVOLVEMEFIMEFAMEFINDOOMEFCHILDRENMEFGAMME

This is a sequence of words where three things have been done to each one: (i) an 'F' has been added to the front, (ii) the last letter of the word has been changed to an 'M', and (iii) an 'E' has been added to the end. Thus, we have:

FERUPTEdE FVOLCANIcE FMATERIAlE FINVOLVEdE FInE FAnE FINDOOrE FCHILDRENsE FGAMeE

This clues LAVA as in the indoor children's game, 'Floor Is Lava'. Applying the same transformation to 'LAVA' gives us 'FLAVME, the word 'FLAME' (as in Liberty Flames) with an additional 'V'...

  1. ILWAUKABETEASHELPBALLLAYASSISTRHOSSERVELUBASOORLDBOOSTRIESITLSUPPORTS

As noted by @Mohirl and @samm82, this letter sequence contains many synonyms for the word 'AID':

ILWAUKABETEASHELPBALLLAYASSISTRHOSSERVELUBASOORLDBOOSTRIESITLSUPPORTS

If we replace each of these words with the letter 'E' we end up with a concatenated series of words that are missing their first letters. From these we can work out the intended clue as:

mILWAUKEE bASEBALL pLAYER wHOSE cLUB hAS nO wORLD sERIES tITLES

This clues the word BREWER, as the Milwaukee Brewers are an MLB team who have never won the World Series. If we then replace the first 'E' with 'AID' and remove the first letter, we get RAIDWER: the word 'RAIDER' (as in Colgate Raiders) with an additional 'W'...

  1. DEMPRIVADINASDLEFADIRDELLAGULLYDWRETADCIMPOTARDCIDA

This string is a concatenation of words preceded by the letter 'D', and where each vowel needs to be moved along one in the looping vowel sequence A-E-I-O-U-A, like so:

D|IMPROVE|D|ONES|D|LIFE|D|OR|D|ILLEGALLY|D|WRITE|D|COMPUTER|D|CODE

The clue 'IMPROVE ONE'S LIFE OR ILLEGALLY WRITE COMPUTER CODE' leads us to the word 'HACK. If we prefix this with a 'D' and move the 'A' back in the chain to 'U', we end up with 'DHUCK', which is the word 'DUCK' (as in Oregon Ducks) with an additional 'H'...

  1. REDENTIALINITUTIONPRINENTLYFEUREDWIINMAINCHNINSTOAWDWIINGMUCAL

Here we have a concatenated string of words which are all missing their third and fourth letters:
RESIDENTIAL INSTITUTION PROMINENTLY FEATURED WITHIN MARTIN CHARNIN'S TONY AWARD WINNING MUSICAL

The only Martin Charnin musical that has ever won a Tony was Annie in 1977. This takes place largely in an ORPHANAGE. Removing the third and fourth letters gives us ORANAGE: the word 'ORANGE' (as in Syracuse Orange) with an additional 'A'...

  1. LIKECNAHCITINRARISENILTROHSORXATEMOCNILOADDKLAWDRAOBRVOLVRSLIAJNI [FF]

Reading this string backwards we can spot the names of several squares on the US Monopoly board:

LIKECNAHCITINRARISENILTROHSORXATEMOCNILOADDKLAWDRAOBRVOLVRSLIAJNI [FF]
(In Jail, Boardwalk, Income Tax, Short Line, Chance)

If we remove these, we are left with the chunks:
LIK ITINRARIS OR LOADD RVOLVRS [FF]

Adding the letter 'E' into obvious positions in this yields:
LIKE ITINERARIES OR LOADED REVOLVERS

This suggests the answer BULLETED (itineraries have bullet points, loaded revolvers have bullets!). If we remove the letter E's and add 'OG' (backwards 'GO', from the Monopoly board) to the end of it, we get BULLTDOG: the word 'BULLDOG' (as in Drake/Gonzaga Bulldogs) with an additional 'T'...

Furthermore, here the presence of the '[FF]' at the end of the encrypted string is intended to help us resolve the ambiguity in there being two teams in this year's contest with this nickname. 'FF' here stands for 'First Four', the name of the round in this year's tournament in which Drake Bulldogs first competed, meaning that team is the one we require. (We will see soon why it is important to differentiate between the two teams with the same nickname in this way...)

  1. DLTARNATEUAUTEWYPACALLYRFFAREDDSWHAUASULTRFFARFRASHESRRVLAWXRAFFIC

With thanks to @Deusovi in comments (who formalised my discovery into an actual formulaic substitution process), this is a string of words that have had (i) their first letter shifted forwards in the alphabet by 3 letter positions, and (ii) their first vowel replaced by the letter 'A'. If we break the string up thus:
DLTARNATE UAUTE WYPACALLY RFFARED DS W HAUASULT RF FAR FRASHES RR VLAW XRAFFIC

...we can generate the alternative sentence:
ALTERNATE ROUTE TYPICALLY OFFERED AS THE RESULT OF CAR CRASHES OR SLOW TRAFFIC

This suggests the answer DETOUR. Moving the leading 'D' on 3 spaces and replacing the 'E' with an 'A' yields 'GATOUR', i.e. the word 'GATOR' (as in Florida Gators) with an additional 'U'...

  1. EIVGIAEHTKSDOLCUTRHOULDESNYOTMNGURINDHILOCIASNJSATHERINGGTX

Big hat-tip to @Mohirl on this one, who parsed the sentence before me - the sentence can be split into letter chunks, each suffixed by a US state abbreviation:

EIVG IA EHT KS DOLC UT RHOULDES NY OT MN GURIND HI LOCIAS NJ SATHERINGG TX

Notice that you can then swap the first and last letters of each of the sections between the chunks to make real words:
GIVE THE COLD SHOULDER TO DURING SOCIAL GATHERINGS

This clues the word 'SHUN', which with the first-last letter swap and the addition of KY (Kentucky) becomes 'NHUSKY', i.e. the word 'HUSKY' (as in UConn Huskies) with an additional 'N'...

  1. YIORITLYMSTELMNTELNDPLEMENTELDNTHILNDOWDELDYERGENCLYSOMLS [MW]

This took a while to spot, but if we split up the string like so:
YIORITLY MSTELM NTELN DPLEMENTELD NTHILN DOWDELD YERGENCLY SOMLS [MW]

then we can spot a pattern - this is a series of words where (i) the first two letters have been removed and replaced with the last letter of the word, and (ii) an 'L' has been inserted before the last letter. Decoding this gives us:
PRIORITY SYSTEM OFTEN IMPLEMENTED WITHIN CROWDED EMERGENCY ROOMS.

The answer is therefore 'TRIAGE', which becomes EIAGLE by following the same rules. This is the word 'EAGLE' (as in Winthrop Eagles, Eastern Washington Eagles, and Morehead State Eagles) with an additional 'I'...

The '[MW]' at the end of the string is provided to help differentiate which of the three 'Eagles' teams is required for the solution of the puzzle. The team taking part in the MidWest Regional section of the tournament is Morehead State Eagles (note this for later).

  1. SPEBONTDHAIACTVOLYOENCURAQESANEGTSVEABEHVIYRSEVIKEDOMSDICLVIOEXCE

In this string we have a series of words that have been manipulated by (i) moving their fourth letter to the front of the word, and then (ii) shifting the third letter from the end 10 places onward in the alphabet (looping from Z to A as required). If we split the string like so:

SPEBON TDHA IACTVOLY OENCURAQES ANEGTSVE ABEHVIYRS EVIK EDOMSDIC LVIOEXCE

Then we can translate this by the rules set out above to:

PERSON THAT ACTIVELY ENCOURAGES NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS LIKE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

This defines the word 'ENABLER'. If we then move its fourth letter (B) to the front and shift its third-to-last letter (L) forward by 10 alphabet positions, we get 'BENAVER', which is the word 'BEAVER' (as in Oregon State Beavers) with an additional 'N'...

  1. SAMAUNTSRECAMMENDEDSFARSCANSUMPTIANSPERSSITTINGSACCARDINGSTASTHESFAADSPYRAMID [E]

Here, every 'O' has been replaced by an 'A', and every word has been preceded by an 'S'. The sentence should read:
AMOUNT RECOMMENDED FOR CONSUMPTION PER SITTING ACCORDING TO THE FOOD PYRAMID [E]

This reference to the food pyramid leads us to PORTION. If we replace its O's with A's and add an 'S' at the start, this gives us SPARTIAN, which is the word 'SPARTAN' (as in UNC Greensboro, Norfolk Stae, and Michigan State Spartans) with an additional 'I'...

To remove ambiguity, the '[E]' provided at the end of the string suggests we need to choose the team playing in the East Regional section of the tournament - this is UNC Greensboro Spartans.

  1. PNGPLURALIZELZIPALGIFNBLTXTSITCOLCSVSTARRINLEXETELWAVDANSOLRARALCOMSALMOVMALONL

This comprises a series of words whose last letters have been changed to 'L', and which are all preceded by common 3-letter file extensions:

.PNG PLURALIZEL .ZIP AL .GIF NBL .TXT SITCOL .CSV STARRINL .EXE TEL .WAV DANSOL .RAR AL .COM SAL .MOV MALONL

Correcting the last letters gives the clue:
PLURALIZED, AN NBC SITCOM STARRING TED DANSON AS SAM MALONE.

The sitcom is Cheers, so the answer we need is CHEER. If we add the .TAR file extension to the front and change the final 'R' to an 'L', we get 'TARCHEEL', which is 'TAR HEEL' (as in North Carolina Tar Heels) with an additional 'C'...

  1. LYUSMSGUCOMPONERBUREFRIGERASGUMAGNDAUNEUPOPCSYUKERNEEUEFUTHSQUHAZA

Here, we can split the string into several sections beginning with 3 seemingly nonsensical letters (the last of which is always a 'U') which appear to be corruptions of real words:
LYUSM SGUCOMPONE RBUREFRIGERA SGUMAGN DAU NEUPOPC SYUKERN EEU EFUTH SQUHAZA

What's going on here, and what are these 'nonsense' letters? Well, it appears that each of the chunks after the 'nonsense' is a word missing its three last letters. Then the first letter of the 'nonsense' section is the word's original last letter, moved to its front; the second is the word's original second-to-last letter but rot-13'd (shifted 13 places along in the alphabet); and the third is just 'U'. With this in mind, we can parse the sentence as:
SMALL COMPONENTS, REFRIGERATOR MAGNETS AND POPCORN KERNELS ARE THESE HAZARDS

This clues CHOKING, which can then be transformed by the same mechanism into 'GAUCHOK', which is 'GAUCHO' (as in UC Santa Barbara Gauchos) with an additional 'K'...

Now that we know all 12 surplus letters, what do we do next?

The surplus letters spell 'VWHATUNINICK'. This needs to be parsed as "V WHAT UNI NICK?", and we must then interpret it as a requirement for us to find out WHAT is the NICKname of the UNIversity team that each of these teams played (i.e. 'V' for 'versus') in their first match of this year's tournament.

So taking our list of answers, these would be:

1. [Liberty] FLA(V)ME vs [Oklahoma State] COWBOYS
2. [Colgate] RAID(W)ER vs [Arkansas] RAZORBACKS
3. [Oregon] D(H)UCK vs [VCU] RAMS
4. [Syracuse] ORAN(A)GE vs [San Diego State] AZTECS
5. [Drake] BULL(T)DOG vs [Wichita State] SHOCKERS
6. [Florida] GATO(U)R vs [Virginia Tech] HOKIES
7. [UConn] (N)HUSKY vs [Maryland] TERRAPINS
8. [Morehead State] E(I)AGLE vs [West Virginia] MOUNTAINEERS
9. [Oregon State] BE(N)AVER vs [Tennessee] VOLUNTEERS
10. [UNC Greensboro] SPART(I)AN vs [Florida State] SEMINOLES
11. [North Carolina] TAR(C)HEEL vs [Wisconsin] BADGERS
12. [UC Santa Barbara] GAUCHO(K) vs [Creighton] BLUEJAYS

Finally, there is one more step to extracting the final answer:

We must index into the opposing team nicknames, looking at the same position in their name as is occupied by the superfluous letter in the names of the teams we've already found. This gives us:

1. FLA(V)ME → COW(B)OYS
2. RAID(W)ER → RAZO(R)BACKS
3. D(H)UCK → R(A)MS
4. ORAN(A)GE → AZTE(C)S
5. BULL(T)DOG → SHOC(K)ERS
6. GATO(U)R → HOKI(E)S
7. (N)HUSKY → (T)ERRAPINS
8. E(I)AGLE → M(O)UNTAINEERS
9. BE(N)AVER → VO(L)UNTEERS
10. SPART(I)AN → SEMIN(O)LES
11. TAR(C)HEEL → BAD(G)ERS
12. GAUCHO(K) → BLUEJA(Y)S

And these letters in order spell BRACKETOLOGY, defined by MW as "the practice or study of predicting the outcome of an elimination tournament or competition."

Many people following March Madness 2021 and trying to predict the outcome of each match in order to win big in the usual sweepstakes that run alongside the tournament is no doubt desperate to be proved an expert (see the initial puzzle flavourtext) in this field!

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    $\begingroup$ The transformations used are important! Specifically, (rot13)vs lbh nccyl rnpu genafsbezngvba gb gur pbeerfcbaqvat pyhr'f nafjre, lbh trg fbzrguvat ryfr. Urer, vg'f n fgevat gung nccrnef gb or n onfxrgonyy grnz, cyhf bar yrggre: SYNIZR, ENVQJRE, GNEPURRY... $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi
    Mar 18 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Deusovi OH! Then this is all leading us towards rot13(Znepu Znqarff) - especially with the title! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Mar 18 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, of course! I didn't even consider that. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi
    Mar 18 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ You all are making fantastic progress BTW, let me know if any of you need an additional hint to keep it going $\endgroup$
    – HTM
    Mar 18 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Mohirl Funnily enough I literally just worked out number 12! (Writing up now...) I got stuck for ages thinking the 'U' might relate to 'University', but it's another tricksy substitution one - posting shortly...! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Mar 19 at 15:18
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Very partial, but for at least some of the lines

We can make coherent sentences using various letter substitutions. All of the resulting sentences seem to be straightforward clues.

FERUPTEMEFVOLCANIMEFMATERIAMEFINVOLVEMEFIMEFAMEFINDOOMEFCHILDRENMEFGAMME

Replacing EF with spaces gives us FERUPTEM VOLCANIM MATERIAM INVOLVEM IM AM INDOOM CHILDRENM GAMME, which seems be the sentence ERUPTED VOLCANIC MATERIAL INVOLVED IN AN INDOOR CHILDRENS GAME but with most of the last letters replaced with M. Which seems to be a clue to HOT LAVA.

ILWAUKABETEASHELPBALLLAYASSISTRHOSSERVELUBASOORLDSBOOSTRIESITLSUPPORTS

Contains a number of synonyms - HELP, ASSIST, SERVE, BOOST, SUPPORT. The initial ILWAUK beings Milwaukee to mind, might just be coincidence.

REDENTIALINITUTIONPRINENTLYFEUREDWIINMAINCHNINSTOAWDWIINGMUCAL

Add in a lot of pairs of missing letters, and we get RESIDENTIAL INSTITUTION PROMINENTLY FEATURED WITHIN MAINCHNINSTO???? AWARD WINNING MUSICAL, the missing pairs being SI ST OM AT TH ??? AR NN SI. Seems to be another clue, not sure of the answer.

EIVGIAEHTKSDOLCUTRHOULDESNYOTMNGURINDHILOCIASNJSATHERINGGTX

If we ignore some letters and treat them as spaces, we end up with GIVE THE COLD SHOULDER TO DURING SOCIAL GATHERING individually anagrammed. The ignored letters are IA KS UT NY MN HI NJ TX. The clue answer might be IGNORE, which is interesting since we've ignored some letters. Also those letters seem to clue US states

SAMAUNTSRECAMMENDEDSFARSCANSUMPTIANSPERSSITTINGSACCARDINGSTASTHESFAADSPYRAMID [E]

Replace most of the As with O, and S with space, and we get AMOUNT RECOMMENDED FOR CONSUMPTION PER SITTING ACCORDING TO THE FOOD PYRAMID

I can't see an overall pattern though

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    $\begingroup$ The one beginning REDENTIAL should be rot13(ERFVQRAGVNY VAFGVGHGVBA CEBZVARAGYL SRNGHERQ JVGUVA ZNEGVA PUNEAVAF GBAL NJNEQ JVAAVAT ZHFVPNY) - always the third and fourth letters are missing in a word. The musical referred to is rot13(NAAVR) so presumably the institution is rot13(BECUNANTR)? I have a few other lines partially solved already too, but won't post until I have them resolved fully... $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Mar 18 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Some observations: the second one also contains rot13(NORG), and the last one might clue rot13(FREIVAT) $\endgroup$
    – samm82
    Mar 18 at 18:31

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