Transcript: ESPN Conference Call with Bracketologist Joe Lunardi

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Transcript: ESPN Conference Call with Bracketologist Joe Lunardi

Earlier today, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi spoke with media about his latest bracket predictions heading into Selection Sunday and what teams need to do to close out the season.  Lunardi has been projecting the NCAA Tournament field for since its inception.  Each year, Lunardi breaks down the Tournament hopefuls, analysis, and a constantly changing bracket of potential seedings.

Q. How do you see the Big Ten coming out on Sunday?

Well, if I could answer that I’d probably try to win the Warren Buffett bet.

I think one of three teams is the most likely winner.  The two Michigans and Wisconsin.  But having said that, it’s a very wide open tournament.

What I think the biggest story line is at the Big‑10 tournament from a bracket perspective is can the winner of that tournament be a No. 1 seed?  If it’s Michigan‑Wisconsin or even Michigan State, they’ll certainly have enough really good wins to justify consideration for being a No. 1 seed.

And then you run into what do they do at 5:30 on a Sunday to an area with trying to get the bracket done in the meantime?  Will they stay with it and have an either/or scenario or a Big Ten champion?  It’s possible, but past history would suggest that it’s not very likely.

Q. Joe, is there a big surprise for you in the Big Ten?  Is it obviously Nebraska or somebody else?

I would say during the season it has been Nebraska.  They haven’t been in the tournament since, what ’98, I think.  And they’ve never won an NCAA tournament game, that hasn’t been since they’ve joined the Big Ten.

And I think the only way they’re even in jeopardy now is if they end up facing Purdue on Friday, and then lose that game to a 12 seed.  They’ve never won a NCAA game and it seems to me they are in excellent position.

Q. My question is essentially straight to the point, I felt like New Mexico was really a surprise team this year and capable of making a respectable run.  What do you think after the more or less meltdown, I would say, they had against San Diego State?

I think they’ll play at least one out of three games before the NCAA starts.  Going through the Mountain West tournament, in my experience the players are at an age where they’re a whole lot more resilient than the adults involved in these things.  I think they’ll be fine.

I think the bigger issue is once they get in, everybody reminding them of losing to a 14 seed last year.  I think that’s the bigger psychological hurdle for New Mexico.

Q. I was just wondering how much you can see Michigan State’s seeding being affected really in either direction by how they play and how far they’re able to go this weekend in the tournament?

Right now they’re a 5.  I don’t think they’re going to fall worse than that.  Again, provided they don’t suffer the worst possible loss, which be drawing and losing to Nebraska.  I think they have a good draw ‑‑ losing to Northwestern, excuse me, that would be the 11.  They should beat Northwestern.  Iowa is going in the wrong direction, so they should win their first Big Ten tournament game.

I actually think Michigan State is going to win the Big Ten tournament, because I think that’s the kind of year that it’s been in the Big Ten.  And Wisconsin had the best non‑conference portion of the season among Big Ten teams.  Michigan clearly had the best conference season among Big Ten teams.  And it just strikes me as fitting for another team to have the best conference tournament.  So I’m going with Michigan State.

If they do win a conference tournament I think they could get as high as a 2, but a 3 is probably the most likely.  They need some help elsewhere to get them to a 2.  I don’t think they can be a 1, too many teams to pass.

Q. I was just wondering, can Kentucky do anything to help itself in the SEC tournament or not, seeding, short of winning a championship?

Kentucky could best help itself by starting its season over.  And I don’t mean to be snarky.  Last time I looked they were 1‑7 against the top 50.  And they can only really play one team that can help them and that’s Florida.  And they haven’t really shown the ability to compete with Florida.

So they’re in like the 6, 7 range at the moment.  Short of beating Florida in the final that’s where they’re going to stay.  And the real risk for UK in this tournament is having a loss to somebody below them and actually falling into the 7, 8 range, which is actually more what their profile would suggest.

So, no, I don’t think they’re likely to help themselves.  And they’re more likely in fact to go the other way.

Q. A couple weeks ago you were on a conference call and you said the Kentucky résumé wasn’t very good.  Since then they’ve lost two or three games, so I’m assuming their struggles likely have not surprised you?

I’m used to taking heat from fans, particularly in places where this sport is taken very seriously.

But you take the name off the jersey and this team has been really ordinary, at least by Kentucky standards.  And they’re allowed to be just regular good, instead of a borderline NBA team.

And my lesson with Kentucky this year is what happened two years ago with all the great freshmen coming together was the exception.  And that the last two years are maybe more likely when you try and make a high level Division I team out of some incredibly talented but non‑fit together pieces, they’re highly rated, but have never been attained.  I have all the respect in the world for Cal trying to do that and doing it so unbelievably well two years ago, but he did have a lot of ‑‑ the No. 1 pick in an Olympian.

So maybe this whole idea of building a new team every year with All Stars and win the National Championship is a little harder than they thought.

Q. You touched on Nebraska a little bit earlier, I want to know what degree can they sit back and enjoy the Big Ten tournament this week?

I think they really can.  I think Sunday night I think the only way it gets nervous is if they lose to Purdue.  I’m very high on Nebraska, both from a Bracketology perspective at being in, and that could conspire where they drop into the first four groups.  I wouldn’t actually think that would be a terrible thing in that would make it more likely that they’d win an NCAA game and kind of get that monkey off their back.

But, yeah, if I was a Nebraska fan I’d be going to Indy, ready to enjoy it, ready to have some nice nights out and kind of feel like you’re relevant in that league from a basketball standpoint, maybe for the first time.

Q. What’s the feeling for the Huskers if they’re able to go on a run in the [Big Ten] tournament?

I just think everything they win is probably, short of Purdue, every game they win is going to be a half to a full seed improvement in where they’re going to end up in the main bracket.  If they win their quarter final against Ohio State, Dayton is definitely off the table.  And they they’re saying, hey, let’s get as high as we can.

Q. First thing I wanted to ask you, I guess, is you’ve got Syracuse I believe still in your Bracketology as a 3 in the Midwest and Indy, but they would open up in Buffalo still.  What does Syracuse have to do to secure the New York East Region as opposed to getting a 3 out in the Midwest?

I think the New York East, Madison Square Garden path is a little out of their hands at this point, because they brought other games into play by losing, right?  And they’re still pretty comfortable in a Buffalo subregional.

But I would say to lock up New York for the second weekend we’d probably be talking about getting to the ACC final.  And then you’d be eliminating other teams for whom New York would also be a preferred destination, like Duke and maybe Virginia.

So I think that getting to the final, that would almost absolutely eliminate Duke because you’d be going through them.  And then you’d have a chance to play Virginia, if Virginia made the finals.  But it’s more Duke is the issue.  You need to be ahead of them on the seed list because I’m sure with the preponderance of Duke fans in the northeast, they would love to be in the Garden, as well.

Q. Obviously body of work, though, is still something to talk about.  They were missing Jeremy Grant against Georgia Tech, second half of Virginia.  The bad call at Duke.  Syracuse only has four losses.  So their body of work still isn’t good enough?  I’m trying to figure out the body of work for them as opposed to other teams with 6, 7, 8 losses.  Duke has a major injury, still 4 overall losses.  And on a national level, especially by people like you, of taken out of a lot of equations automatically?

Yeah, I hadn’t taken them out automatically.  I’m just reacting to their play.  If you’re making an argument, vis‑a‑vis their potential seed, I don’t think it’s going to take a lot for them to move up to be a 2 again.  I think a 1 is probably off the table now, although win the ACC and it will be revisited.

But in terms of site preference that’s a lot more mechanical.  Meaning depending on where they are in the seed list, like let’s say they’re 7th on the seed list, Villanova is 4th and Duke is 6th, they’re going to go in that seed list and assign teams to subregionals and regionals by preferred landing spots for teams in the order of the seed list.

And if there are two teams for whom New York, in this case, is the best landing spot, and they’re ahead of Syracuse on the seed list, Syracuse isn’t going to go to New York, regardless of the arguments that we make.  Because only two of these teams can go there as 1s and 2s.  Could they be a 3 in New York?  Yeah, but that would mean probably losing, and they’re not rooting for that.

Q. When you have two teams that are trying to get into The Dance, what are you looking at more, what they did in the regular season or the conference tournament?

I think every committee member is different in what they choose to value.  I’m certainly a three months is more important than a three days kind of person.  But if you get an obvious situation, like where St. John’s playing Providence tomorrow or maybe Tennessee playing Arkansas Friday or maybe St. Joe’s playing Dayton on Friday, these aren’t just all in or all out.

It’s not unrealistic, nor do I think it’s inappropriate for someone to say these teams are so close, and we’re watching, how can that not be a rubber game or a play‑in kind of situation.  Usually there’s one or two of those a year and it looks like this year we’re going to have three.

And I think for the most part the loser of all three of those games, should they happen, is not going to make it.  Tennessee has the best chance to lose and stay among that group.

Q. Instead of having whoever wins the conference tournament just give an at‑large bid to the regular season winners, do you like possibly removing conference tournaments and keeping whoever wins the regular season into the tournament at an at‑large bid?

To be honest, I wish lots of things.  And I tend not to focus on things that are really never going to happen.  This is never going to happen.  Because for mostly the exposure and the ticket sales for the conference final is too important just to do an out.  I’d like there to be peace in the Middle East, too, but I can’t make that happen.

I just don’t think it’s a realistic topic.  And I’m not trying to be rude.  I do love the idea of conference tournament ‑‑ a conference regular season champion getting every consideration.  And I think the move a few years ago to put the regular season champions of the lesser conferences to the NIT, if they don’t win the automatic bid.  I think that’s a great thing.  And that’s been really good for those leagues and for the sport.  But the thing that we’re going to eliminate conference tournaments when they’re such a part of everything is just not going to happen.

Q. I’m assuming no matter what Massachusetts does this week in Brooklyn, they are in.  How does what they do in Brooklyn this week affect ‑‑ how much it would affect where they go and who they play and where do you see them right now?

I think in relation to UMass, I believe, is most committee members, and they’ve gotten much better at this over the years, they recognize that UMass’ RPI is an outlier.  They’re not 11th or 12th or 13th best team in the country.  There’s no shame in that.  UMass is having really good A‑10 season, an exceptional non‑conference season, and they’ve earned a spot in the tournament no matter what.

But if they’re able to make a seed run and get to the final let’s say or even win it, then what you’re saying is maybe this RPI isn’t that much of an outlier, and maybe they could be seeded a little closer to that number than some of us are doing right now.

I see UMass more in the 25 to 35 range in terms than I see them in the 10 to 20 range in terms of quality.  In order to be seeded closer to that first group they’ve got to win some games and be a little bit more dominant than they have been in league play.

Personally I think they’re playing now to what they actually are, which is a good team and not a great one.

Q. Where do you think they end up, when all is said and done, what seed do you think they’re going to end up at is, who are they going to play and where?

I think they’ll be in 7th, and I think they’ll play some 2 in Buffalo.  Or they’ll play a 10 first, but they’ll be bracketed with the 2‑15 in Buffalo, if I had to guess.

Q. Is Oklahoma State in any danger of not making the tournament, [with] Texas Tech up next, in the 8‑9 game in the first round?

Yeah, I think the only real danger would be actually if they were playing VCU.

Q. My other one, what is your feeling in the 4 for Kansas this week in their odd situation in terms of seed loss?

That’s a great question.  I think the chance of being a 1 have now failed, that ship has sailed.  But I also don’t think, the worst loss they could have would be Texas Tech, which is still a conference team.

I don’t think they’re going to drop more than a line.  I think they’re going to be a two or three, no matter what happens.  If they win in the Big 12 tournament, then I guess we could talk about a 1 again.  I think too many other teams would have to lose for them to move up at this point.  I think they’re pretty close to locked in to where they are.

Q. People are getting nervous about [Arizona State] around here, coming off the two losses.  I know you have them safely in the field.  What’s their worst case scenario, if they were to lose their Pac‑12 opener tomorrow?

I can understand their trepidation.  They’ve seen this movie before, right?  And it hasn’t always ended well.  But I would like to reassure folks there that I believe Arizona State will be in the tournament no matter what.

I could see them, if they lose to Washington State, that’s the worst team they could play, right?  Could they slide all the way down to the first four in Dayton?  Possibly.  I think it’s really unlikely.  I think they have enough good wins to be in at this point.  They’re not going to miss the tournament.

Q. I wondered how Iowa State could possibly improve itself in the Big 12 tournament, and how much they might be hurt if they exit the first round?

They would play ‑‑ I don’t know, I’m pulling it up now.  I think they have KSU and then possibly Kansas.  They can’t have a bad loss.  That’s what would hurt them.  I think right now I have them at the last 3.  If they lose, they’ll probably be a 4 or worse a high 5.  And really that’s the difference between a 4 and a 5?  When you predict for the second weekend or the round of 32, they could move up to a 3 in this tournament.  I don’t think they can get up to be a 2, they’re going to be in the 3 to 5 range.

Q. Is there a chance they can improve maybe location more than seed a little bit?

Probably not.  Where is their best ‑‑ if they had their way, where would they like to go?

St. Louis, maybe. 

That’s not going to happen because there’s too many teams ahead of them for whom St. Louis is the preferred spot.  There can only be two 1 through 4’s in any subregionals.  And as my dad used to say when he was looking at a map, you can’t get there from here.

Q. My question is there a team or teams right now that are in danger of being, for lack of a better word, Virginia Tech, where they feel like they’re definitely in, but the committee might have other thoughts on them right now?

I think for those kind of things you look at teams with really, really poor non‑conference schedule strength.  When they make the movie that will be the Virginia Tech syndrome, right?  And we’ve seen Tech get banged on that once or twice, the year Penn State won the MIT, they were ways up 200.  There was one year Arizona State didn’t make it for that reason.  There’s one or two teams every year.  And I think the ones that come to mind are Pitt in the 230s, and not ‑‑ a lot of meat on their résumé, and that’s being kind.  Arkansas is floating around 200.  If they were to lose to South Carolina or Auburn they could maybe get kicked to the curb unexpectedly.  A team that’s actually pretty good that is the No. 1 seed in Conference‑USA, Louisiana Tech, I’m sure they think that like 25 ‑‑ I think they’re 25‑5 or 25‑6, that if they lose in the Conference‑USA tournament, that they could make it, because they won in Oklahoma.  But even with that game their non‑conference schedule is 280.  So I’m telling you, that ain’t going to happen.

Utah may be the worst non‑conference schedule number I’ve ever seen from a power league bubble team, with 335.  They have no shot with that number as an at‑large, short of getting to the final and losing at the buzzer to Arizona.

So those are the things that I look at.  Another team with a really bad non‑conference schedule number is SMU.  I just think they’ve gotten too many good wins.  They can’t fall close enough to the bubble to bring that into play.

Q. I was just wondering how you evaluate Louisville at this point?  Could you see a scenario where Kentucky and Louisville could end up, if they don’t win a game, being paired against each other?

The first question is ‑‑ I think Louisville is going to get probably a better seed than their straight profile would indicate, A, because they’re Louisville, and B, because they’re playing great right now.  And I expect them to win the ACC tournament, and maybe be as high as a 3, which their RPI numbers wouldn’t necessarily equate to at this point.

Whether or not they’re paired with Kentucky for a round of 72 or Sweet 16 game really random.  It’s just the way the seed list falls and what pods are available for teams when they come up for placement.  I think the single biggest misconception out there is ‑‑ last night I did a slot selection exercise with the Bracketology class, I teach at St. Joe’s, and tripping can’t be done, there’s too many other obstacles in terms of procedures that get in the way.  I know nobody believes that, but this group of 30 people saw it firsthand last night and if people believe me it’s that the rules prevent matchmaking.  It happens because when you have an event that has 67 games, even randomly you’re going to get great story line, you can’t avoid them.  But you don’t have to create them artificially.

Q. Can you give me the feeling for Oklahoma?

Well, I like Oklahoma a lot right now.  And I think the bracket of the Big 12 tournament actually serves them pretty well for getting to the final and maybe not playing Kansas, right?  So they could win this tournament and keep rising.  I think Oklahoma can be a 3 here.  And short of losing to VCU, I don’t think they can fall much below a 5.  I guess they could be a 6.  I just think they’re really good and ahead of schedule.  I think he’s a great coach, he’s a great coach in the tournament, and I’m very high on them right now.

Q. This may be Urban Legend in Washington, if it is, but are the conference tournaments all on Sunday, are those inconsequential, barring a Cinderella team matching an automatic bid, are those game inconsequential in terms of seed?

I think they tried to tweak the process to make them more inconsequential in the last year or two.  We saw a case the last year where the results of the SEC and Big Ten involving Florida and Ohio State saw a flip‑flop between them as 2s and 3’s at the last moment.  And I don’t recall seeing that in the past, short of, like you said, there’s a team playing in the Big Ten final that’s only going to get in if they win, right?  Or the SEC.  Or the ACC final, same thing, only going to get in if they win.

So what happens then is the committee will have selected and evaluated an additional at‑large team.  So they’ll have an either/or.  That happens more commonly than movement among like 1s and 2s and 3s with those Sunday games.  So I wouldn’t call them less consequential, not inconsequential.

Q. I was curious, I just have one, and I’ll get off the line, obviously in March everything is about matchups.  And Syracuse as the 2‑3 zone that obviously can be difficult, because they adjust to all the teams.  But at the same time they can get hurt by 3 point shooting teams.  With that in mind, do you have any teams out there that would be trouble for Syracuse in terms of head‑to‑head?

Creighton comes to mind, and that wouldn’t be an early match, right?  It could be like a Sweet 16 game or an Elite 8 game.  I think Creighton is a good 3 point shooting team as ‑‑ not just as there is in the country, but one of the best that we’ve every seen, and if you don’t believe me, ask Villanova at.  Villanova is really good, and Creighton has been their  kryptonite and could be for Syracuse, also.

Q. Are Duke, Virginia and Syracuse, seem to benefit the most in the ACC tournament?

They all can.  I mean somebody is going to win that tournament.  I actually think it’s going to be North Carolina.  It’s ironic that you named the other three.

But I think if Virginia wins the ACC tournament on top of winning the regular season by two games, they can’t be worse than a 2.  Because they’re not in this position ‑‑ Duke and Syracuse, they’re always playing for 1s and 2s, same with Carolina.  I think Virginia has the most to gain.

Q. Just really quickly, Joe, how did you come to think of Bracketology and can you give me little bit of depth on it? 

You know, it came about by accident, as many things do, when I was involved with Blue Ribbon back in the 90’s, Blue Ribbon A book, the chronical that many people called it back in the day when we didn’t have the internet.  When we added a postseason tournament addition, in 1995, we were planning an 80‑page book, overnight Selection Sunday night and shipping it Monday and Tuesday so people would have it in their hands before Thursday.

And the first year we did it I had writers in conference tournaments all over the country filing stuff to us.  And we just didn’t do a very good job of narrowing down the scope of teams that needed to be considered to do this book well.

And after that year, which was just a fire drill, you know, I kind of said to myself, there has to be a way to prepare let’s say 80 pages and not 100.

So I started investigating the selection process a little bit to try to narrow down our workload.  And frankly our overhead.  So it came about for none of the reasons that now exists, like the thought that people would actually give a hoot about what I say, or what people like me say, about who, when, and where they’re going and why, was the furthest thing from the table at that point.

But over time we ended up posting the projections of mine on the in return for them kind of giving out our phone number and the link to buy the book.  And lo and behold the projections took on a life of their own because at that time the process was really in the dark.  And the NCAA was making no effort to kind of educate their fans about how and why this all worked the way it did.

So I became not necessarily the best at it, just the first, who was taking the time to explain things to a wider audience than had ever been exposed to it.  So that’s how it happened.

And then after doing that for a few years, somebody in Bristol had the crazy idea to put that little guy on TV and let him explain it that way.  And I guess not screwing up then has led to this now.

And every year I’m just amazed at the number of people who care what I think and ‑‑ I regularly host Martelli’s weekly show for St. Joe’s, and almost invariable by this point in the season there are more people asking me questions, and he just rolls his eyes and laughs, and says, don’t these people know you don’t have a vote?

And I start every interview at this point in time saying let’s be mindful of the fact that I don’t have a vote.  But that hasn’t stopped the train, because it has long since left the station.  I also say to Martelli, I go to the tournament every year.  But hopefully this yearly we’ll both make it.


Kristie Adler

Kristie is Director of Communications. She graduated from Penn State University and is based in New York City.
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