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 ESPN.com since its inception. Each year, Lunardi breaks down the Tournament hopefuls, analysis, and a constantly changing bracket of potential seedings.
Q. We’ve noted that Richmond is on the fringe perhaps of being included in potential bubble situations. Wonder what you feel they need to do in the A‑10 to get them more heavily involved in that situation?
Can I channel my inner Al Davis here and say, “Just win, baby”? I think in the Spiders case, is there a scenario where they get to the final and lose; that they could sneak into the tournament? Yes. Would I bet a mortgage payment on it? No.
Because I have them at this point nine spots away, and that’s a lot of ground to make up, given the fact that it could be ten or 11 or 12 spots away with upsets elsewhere that don’t have anything to do with how the Spiders are playing.
Q. Just wondering what you think about Texas A&M situation, and maybe what are the biggest things working against them right now?
It’s a great question, because, you know, I’ve been pretty high on Texas A&M most of the year. But you know, at the end of the regular season, I kind of do a scrub of everybody’s numbers and record, and to be as honest as I can, it didn’t come out as good as I expected for Texas A&M which is why at least I have them sitting where they are.
You look back and the best thing now they can say is sweeping LSU. That’s probably the best chip that they have in terms of an arguing point, and that’s probably not going to be enough given that as we said on the prior call, the bubble is starting to shrink and probably will continue to shrink.
So I look at them needing to get at least one, not just a win, but a tournament‑level win over there in Nashville and maybe one just to feel safe given the way things are shaping up.
Q. When you say tournament‑level win, their first game would be against the winner of Mississippi State, Auburn. So you’re not counting that; it would be the next round against a team like LSU already in the field?
Correct. That first game can only hurt them.
And maybe I ask you, what’s the House situation there?
House is, they have not ruled him out officially but it’s unlikely he’ll play ‑‑
Will he play at all anymore?
Billy Kennedy said he would be a stretch that he would be ready for the tournament this week.
That’s going to hurt them, too, not just on the court. The committee won’t be able to watch them with him to try to project ahead, so I would say that A&M is looking less and less likely here.
Q. Purdue has a unique case, maybe not a lot of really top wins, but a lot of middle wins that came in the Big Ten season. How safe do you feel they are going into the Big Ten Tournament and do they need to help themselves?
I think ultimately make it. I think being 12‑6 in the Big Ten outweighs their negatives, but their negatives are not inconsiderable because the non‑conference schedule strength is so weak and we have seen year after year after year teams disqualify themselves if they are right at the edge with a bad non‑conference schedule strength number.
Think about SMU last year which had a profile pretty similar to what Purdue’s is now. And you know, it had beaten UCONN, the national champion, twice, in fact.
Now, we didn’t know that at the time, but a pretty comparable set of numbers across the board. Now what I don’t have in front of me is the Big Ten bracket, what’s their path?
Well, it’s up in the air right now because of the new double bias. So Penn State and Nebraska played in the round of 12, or the first round, and they move on to play Iowa and the winner of that game would then move on and play Purdue. So it could be someone as good as Iowa or as bad as Penn State or Nebraska.
Right, if they beat Iowa, they can breathe easy and they won’t even have to think about Dayton in my mind.
If they lose to one of the weaker teams, that could knot knock them out. And a loss to Iowa probably keeps them right about where they are.
Q. What strengths and weaknesses do you see in Indiana and what do they need to do to ensure a March Madness bid?
Well, the strength of Indiana’s case, at the moment, is their wins are better than their team, at least the way they are playing right now, and I don’t think anybody would argue the point.
A lot of the evaluation of IU is going to come down to, you know, kind of the basketball judgment that folks make of how they are playing at the end of the season. Because I think if you were to have watched them, right, over the last two or three weeks, and if my social media responses from folks are to be believed to any great length, people think I’m nuts for having them in at all because of the way they are playing.
What they need to do is win, probably win more than once; and look good doing it, because that would be the opposite of how it’s been down the stretch.
I’m no more able to predict what’s going to happen when they show up at the Big Ten Tournament, than anyone else who is looking at it from afar. Because I think in a lot of people’s eyes, they are probably not in the field at all.
Yet I am not quite ready to rule out a team with four top‑50 wins and a couple other wins over teams that look like they are in the field.
So but another loss, if it comes in their first game, they are going to be hosting an NIT game, for sure.
Q. Do you feel even more confident this week than you did last week that Kentucky and Wisconsin are going to end up in the same bracket together or in the same regional? And what do you think with Murray State; is there any chance you see a scenario where they get into the tournament?
Let me answer the second question first about Murray.
I do not see Murray making the tournament. And the more I think about it, the more I think they are not going to make the tournament. I just don’t know how the committee can get up and preach the quality wins mantra, and then leave out teams with multiple wins over tournament teams.
And I’m looking at still a non‑conference schedule number of Murray in the 230s. That’s independent of their league schedule. And that’s the same argument that we are making about the Purdue or a Miami, and those teams have beaten teams like Duke, and Murray has not. So no, I’m not seeing that they will make it.
As far as the Kentucky, Wisconsin thing, I wouldn’t use the word confident that they will be in the same region. I would simply say that if Wisconsin is on the two line, and Kentucky is on the one line, which is where I have them now, then it’s extremely likely that they will be in the same region. Not because of anything other than geographic procedure that the committee has established.
If Wisconsin moves up to the one line, which can obviously happen here, then we are talking about a different story. But if Kentucky is a one and Wisconsin is a two, then that’s how it’s going to be, because that’s the way the rules are written now. It’s not my rule. It’s not your rule, and it’s certainly not Wisconsin’s rule. But that’s simply the precedent that’s been established, and if we know one thing about the committee, they do tend to follow their own rules pretty well.
Q. Want to ask you about Michigan State, best‑case scenario, worst‑case scenario; and also Columbus, Pittsburgh, would those be considered local and rewarding, or could we see Michigan State hit those ‑‑ if they were six or seven.
Yeah, I have Michigan State as a seven now. I don’t think they can drop much. I could see them in an eight, nine game. But short of running the table here and winning three games in the Big Ten Tournament, I also don’t think they are going to decline considerably. You know, because by their standards, it’s been a pretty average season, right. I don’t think I’m insulting them by saying that, their standards.
And having said that, in terms of kind of geographic assignment, unless they get into the top three of a region, and that’s not going to happen; their geographic assignment is really out of their control. And to a large extent out of the committee’s control, because what happens is, the pods are assigned to the Top‑4 teams in each region and then they are simply kind of connected after that.
So if Michigan State is a seven like they are right now, they are linked to the twos. And they are going to go where one of the twos is. Because in the pod system, a two goes with a seven, a ten and 15. If they are a six, they are going to go with a three because the threes go with a six and 11 and a 14.
So the closest available spot for Michigan State, let’s say they are the top seven on the board. So the twos right now, two of them are in Omaha, one is as Seattle and one is in Portland. So the best they can do as a seven, is to be in Omaha. Pittsburgh and Columbus are really not an option for them. If they move up to a six, then Pitt and Columbus come into play and Louisville comes into play on my board currently and then we have a whole different story. But it’s really about the twos and the threes ahead of them more than it’s about what’s good for Michigan State.
Q. Wanted to ask about Texas and how you feel about their situation right now.
What do I feel about Texas? Some of their numbers are impossible to ignore from a power standpoint. From a basketball standpoint, sometimes you just kind of scratch your head and have to look away, right.
And, you know, they play Texas Tech, if I’m not mistaken, and certainly if I were Texas, I wouldn’t want to give the committee a reason to leave me out at this moment. So I wouldn’t want to lose that game.
After that, I think a win certainly locks them into the field and a loss keeps them right where they are as one of the last couple of teams on the at‑large board, and probably on the good side of the bubble.
But, you know, the risk for Texas at this point is not the Murray States and the Ionas of the world. It’s a team outside of the top two or three winning in the Mountain West, which could happen; in the Atlantic 10, which not only could, but maybe will happen. I don’t think we’ll see a team outside the at‑large pool win one of the power five or six leagues.
So I think the bigger risks now are in that next‑level league for Texas, and if more than one of them were to happen, then it’s going to get tight for them. But if I had to bet, I would say that they make it and that they are playing in Dayton.
Q. I’d like to ask you about the Big Ten. How many teams do you think the Big Ten will get in with? What’s the envelope there for number of teams from the Big Ten to make the NCAA Tournament?
I think it’s going to be six, because I think Indiana is going to find a way to not make it. And I don’t think the team next in line, Illinois, is quite going to get there.
So seven today; I would set the over and under at six and a half, and personally I would bet the under. Of course, the great thing about being able to win these kind of bets is being the guy who sets the odds.
Q. Along those same lines, why is the candidacy for someone like Purdue so much better than the one for Illinois who has some more top quality wins, Baylor, Maryland, that sort of thing?
I think you have to give some weight to the entirety of the conference season. Even in an era of unbalanced schedules, Purdue beat them by three games, and at least according to my measuring of this, they played a tougher in‑league schedule in doing so.
I have Purdue’s in‑conference schedule strength at 42 and Illinois’s at 54. And this is the first year that that intra‑conference RPI and schedule strength is on the team sheets for the committee members, and I think that that will be a great aid to them in answering these kind of questions. But I don’t even think they would go to it given the gap of three games in the league between those two teams ‑‑ if it were those two for the last spot.
Q. What recently, if anything, has impressed you more about Kentucky than things you maybe saw earlier in the season or has there been anything?
You know, that’s a great question, because I’ve been saying, and now, I don’t get asked the X&O basketball questions a lot, because of this other entity that’s been created around bracketology.
But what I’m seeing is a team whose offense has not just gun but is well on the way to catching up with its defense. Like to me, Kentucky is way better than they were, four, five, six weeks ago, and they are a whole lot more unbeatable now, to my eyes than they were then.
I went on the record at the start of the league season, not only saying that they would lose, but that they would lose multiple times before the tournament. Not because I think they are fatally flawed in any way, but because I think that it’s just really hard to win every road game in any league.
I mean, it almost never happens for a reason. Division I teams lose 70 percent of their road games for a season, and it’s because it’s really hard to win game after game after game after game on the road.
So what we’ve seen is really remarkable here. You know, being able to survive a one‑possession game at LSU, being able to win every time they are in overtime; being able to, you know, have a finishing kick every time they are in a four or five‑minute game. And I think that makes them an even more overwhelming favorite for March than where they were four to six weeks ago and I think it’s mostly because of their increased efficiency at the offensive end.
It also helps that when you’re in a one‑possession game like they were at LSU and they are a rebound away from winning or losing; to have a couple seven‑footers on the floor, because, you know, sometimes tall people get to those balls better than short people, or at least that’s what I always thought at 5’5″ 1/2.