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 and what teams need to do to close out the season. Lunardi has been projecting the NCAA Tournament field for ESPN.com since its inception. Each year, Lunardi breaks down the Tournament hopefuls, analysis, and a constantly changing bracket of potential seedings.

Q. Joe, what issue do you take on Illinois’s chances?

It’s just so hard to know with teams that have had significant player absences what the Illini — how the committee will treat that team.

We’re seeing it with the top of the bracket with Virginia, bubble teams like Temple and Illinois. It’s very unusual to have teams so close to the cut line with such significant issues around injuries and suspensions, whatnot, eligibility.

The prescription for the Illini, to quote the late Al Davis, Just win, baby, is probably the best advice I could give.

Certainly a win to finish would be a winning record in the league. I mean, if they win three more games, I think they’ll definitely get in. If they win two more games, they’re going to be right there sweating it out with everybody else.

Q. How have they dealt with the Rayvonte Rice thing?

There’s no one way. That’s the thing. If there was one way, we could put it into our collective memory bank and try to make a prediction. But there isn’t.

This isn’t like a hugely obvious thing like Kenyon Martin years ago, top player on the top team in the country breaking his leg, clearly being unavailable. You had to knock them down a little bit.

In Rice’s case, they’ve played some good games with him back and some not good games with him back. It’s reasonably fair for a person to say ‘Davis maker,’ but he might not be the difference maker. That might be a fine line, but that’s kind of how I see it.

Q. Joe, Bobby Hurley’s Buffalo team is 33rd in the RPI right now because they played and lost at Kentucky and Wisconsin. If they went to the Mid-American final and lost, would they have a chance at an at-large? Also, does leading games at Kentucky and Wisconsin that you lost have any bearing in the committee room?

I don’t think so. But I can certainly feel the argument. That’s been maybe the second most commented thing to me on Twitter is, you know, Buffalo’s RPI, how good they were in those games. Somehow that hasn’t eclipsed my hair as a Twitter conversation topic.

When I look at it, recent history is not kind to Buffalo in this case. So what they need is one or two people in that room who saw them or saw those games to really make a passionate case. On paper, RPI notwithstanding, they won’t make it. In recent years it’s become much more about quality wins than it has become about the RPI, and not quality-almost wins, unfortunately, in their case.

You have to remember one other element here that nobody takes into account with a question like this, whether it’s Buffalo or Stephen F. Austin, Iona, any of these other really solid teams that have dominant regular seasons and stretches in their league.

They can’t be in the position of needing an at-large bid without taking a loss that someone thinks they shouldn’t have, right? So that’s really the problem more than anything else.

Q. Regarding Iowa State, a couple scenarios. I know you have them a three now. If they win at TCU and make at least a deep run in the Big 12 tournament, can they muscle themselves up to a two? Conversely, how much might they fall if they lose at TCU and have an early exit at the Big 12 tournament?

The two line is unusually strong, and it’s unusually spaced from the three line this year. In the mock NCAA selections a couple weeks ago, I wasn’t there this year, but the word was, when they did the voting for the top two lines, only eight teams got votes. Like that never happens. That would be like going out with your wife to buy eight things for a dinner party, and her agreeing on the first eight things that she saw. It’s just not very likely.

I’ll get in trouble for that, no doubt (laughter).

So what has to happen isn’t a deep run, but they have to win it. That would essentially mean winning a rubber game with Kansas, or some point in the bracket, I don’t have it in front of me. I think they need to win out to pass Kansas and get that last number two, unless – and here would be the big ‘unless’ – does Gonzaga lose in its tournament to someone not (indiscernible) to BYU. They would maybe drop then to a three or cause there to be an open spot on the two line.

So I’m not bullish on Iowa State’s chances getting that help.

As far as dropping, they just have too many good, really good wins I think to fall further than one line almost no matter what happens.

Q. I know where you have Georgia on your projection. The question I have is, do you think a win at Auburn Saturday would lock up an NCAA tournament spot? If they lost at Auburn, the first game in the SEC tournament, do you think Georgia would still get in?

I think they’re going to make it regardless. We’re getting to the point now where there aren’t enough games left for anybody for there to be enough movement to fall from an eight, nine gain to off the board.

In terms of making it, we’re talking about selection, not seeding, is that if I and a lot of other people apparently have valued Georgia incorrectly. Like if they’re really a 10 or an 11 in the committee’s eyes at this moment, then there’s a problem. I don’t think they are.

I actually think the SEC across the board is going to do a whole lot better than people think in terms of Selection Sunday results. Whether they’ll win in the tournament, I have no idea.

Q. One of Georgia’s top players apparently has a foot injury. I don’t know if that would factor into their seeding or getting in if they have a bad couple weeks here.

Is he expected back or we don’t know anything?

Q. We don’t know at this point.

I mean, if it’s one of those week-long ankle sprains, day-to-day thing, it probably won’t be much of an impact.

Q. You have Ohio State currently as the number seven seed in the east. Could they improve their seeding with a win over Wisconsin? Are they going to have to do something a little bit more in the Big Ten tournament next week?

That would help a lot. The only thing that would help more would be going back and playing a better non-league schedule. Of course, that horse is out of the barn. It’s legitimately an anchor for them and has been in terms of evaluation all season because it’s historically weak…

[LOSS OF AUDIO]

(in response to question regarding LSU) …I have a hard time thinking the committee will send them to Omaha to lead those pods in Portland and Seattle. Are we talking like 300-mile difference or three-mile difference? I should probably know that, but geography is not a strong point, so it just seems to me they’re going to go to Portland regardless.

Q. And staying in the west region?

Yes. And they should thank BYU for that.

Q. If they lose to Arkansas on Saturday, which would not be a bad loss, would they have to win one or two SEC tournament games to get in?

I guess it depends on who the first one is. I have no idea what that hypothetically looks like at this stage. You would know better than I.

Q. They still have a chance to get the number four seed with some help if they win tomorrow. Looks like they’re going to meet a fifth or sixth seed, which means they would have to play one of the 11th or 14th seeds, North Carolina, Mississippi State in the first round.

Just the kind of game that can end your season.

Because if they lose two in a row here, that’s going to be a problem. In my view, the tournament game that’s more of a risk. In some respects LSU is like the opposite of Texas A&M. If they’re the two legitimate bubble teams, LSU has enough good wins, they can’t take another bad loss. With A&M, it’s the other way around. Their biggest chit is beating LSU twice.

Ultimately, I think both will still make it, but there’s certainly ample opportunity in either’s case to screw it up.

Q. Looking at the ones and twos that you have on the site right now, would you say that Wisconsin is your top number two as of right now?

Correct.

Q. The question I would have, do you consider Kentucky to be the top number one, because you’d have your top one and top two in the same region, or is that by an S-curve? How do you rectify that or rationalize that?

Thankfully I can disagree with the committee on this because this is their preference of how to do it now. They’ll put the top four teams in, and then even if Wisconsin is the leader of the twos, they’re going to give Wisconsin geographic preference. That happens to be Cleveland. Their thinking, not mine, is we don’t project subsequent rounds of the tournament. Wisconsin deserves to be as close as possible for their fans, et cetera. And there’s no guarantee that if Wisconsin gets to an Elite 8 game, that its opponents will be the one seed because historically the one doesn’t play the two at a very high percentage.

So they’re going by kind of the logic and precedent and ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which this year is a really dominant number one overall seed.

So while Wisconsin would probably rather play in China than Cleveland and avoid Kentucky, that’s just procedurally not how it works anymore.

The only way that would change if these two remain at the lead of their groups, Kentucky the one, Wisconsin the two, certainly Kentucky is, is they do add up the true seeds of the top four lines.

In the Cleveland region, it would be one plus five, that makes six, and a perfect score is 34, if it goes one, eight, nine, 16, and all the regions add up to 34. They will allow deviation by what they call four or five ordinals of that.

You might have a region that’s 31 or 32, and another one that’s 36 in true seed totals. If it gets beyond that, then they’ll go back and play with something. It could be Wisconsin.

But more likely what I’ve been doing in the mocks that we run, I give that region weaker threes and fours, not because I think it’s the right thing to do, but because in recent years that’s how they’ve done it.

It’s a great question. I just don’t have the answer that people want.

Q. The Big Ten, they’ve been legitimately strong in past seasons. To my understanding, I don’t think they beat a ranked team outside the conference this year. I’m sure somebody will debunk that. The question I have, it’s been such a great conference in year’s past, people look at the projections, see seven teams in there, is this an indication of how soft the bubble is or the fact that the top six or seven beat up on the bottom four or five in the Big Ten?

I think it’s mostly a function of the fact that there’s now 14 teams in the Big Ten. Their percentage of bids is still kind of aligned with what I normally would have, there’s just more of them to pick from. A lot of it’s just arithmetic.

What’s more impressive, eight out of 14 from the Big Ten or seven out of 10 from the Big 12? I would argue it’s the Big 12. Somebody else might have a different opinion.

Q. Joe, where are you with the Big Ten overall? Where do you think it’s going to end up? How many teams at this moment?

I think it will stay right where it is. I think because three of the seven are kind of so close to the cut line, Purdue, Indiana and Illinois, I think that the odds are that if the Illini make it in, it won’t be specifically at the expense of a Big Ten team, but the odds are that’s how it will fall out.

If a couple of these teams end up facing each other on a neutral floor next week, that kind of makes it easy for the committee. We see a couple, three games like that every year.

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Kristie Adler

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