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. I would like to ask about two of the Bay Area schools. One: your thoughts on Saint Mary’s, who lost a tough one to Gonzaga last night and then Cal: what you think they need to do in the PAC-12 tournament to maybe qualify for the NCAA Tournament?

Yeah, I was kind of surprised in that game last night. I did a cut-in to the Saint Mary’s game, and I guess Randy’s worried about making it, in part based on last year. But I’m not seeing them at risk at all. They’re going to be a single-digit seed and playing in the top half of a bracket. They were just too good all year long. So my concern for Saint Mary’s (last year wasn’t the first time they have been snubbed with a good season), is that they have four losses and three of them to arguably the No. 1 team in the country, certainly a No. 1 seed. So I’m not going to hold that against them, and I don’t think the committee will either.

Now, Cal is a different story, in part because of the way they closed the season. Less than stellar, right? They lost at least two straight, maybe more. Tonight [against Oregon State] can only hurt them, right? And it’s just a stay alive game. They lost five out of six down the stretch and all were on the road, but what was in my head that I couldn’t quite recall is that game at Utah a week ago where they got hammered pretty good. They’re going to play Utah again, if they win, so that won’t really help them either. They have to get to the final just to be in the conversation. They just don’t have enough good wins.

Q. I’m wondering how you assess a team like Kentucky that’s kind of been two teams: They have a good version and then they have a not-so-good version, a lot of times in the same game. How is a team like that scored?

It’s probably not as uncommon as we think, the Jekyll and Hyde deal in college basketball. We are still talking about college-aged kids, and I think we know from our own parenting experiences that they tend to be unpredictable. So maybe the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Now in Kentucky’s case this year, I think that they’re kind of playing against their own shadow in some respects. Because most people expect them to be a one-seed, to be the 800-pound gorilla in the SEC, and to always be a Final Four favorite. So this year when they’re just what I would call “regular good,” people seem to think that something’s wrong. They’re going to be at worst a three-seed. They’re going to be favored at least into the second weekend. After that, it’s always 50/50 games. I don’t really think they’re that hard to assess, if you just look at it outside the prism of what Kentucky is supposed to do, versus most people who would take a two or a three-seed in a given seeding.

Q. As a follow-up, I wonder how you assess the SEC. How many teams are in? Is Vandy in?

I think Vandy is in. They could be in a situation where they have to go again to the First Four where they played other times, and there have certainly been a lot of SEC representation at the First Four over the years. But when I look at it, I don’t think there really is a bubble in the SEC at this point. I think the five that are going, obviously UK and Florida at the top, South Carolina, Arkansas, and now Vandy, and short of a complete run by an underdog in a dramatic fashion at the tournament, those are the five that we’re going to be talking about a week from now.

Q. Wanted to ask about Iowa State’s outlook heading into the Big-12 tournament. I see you have them at a 6 right now, and I wonder how much that can be altered based on just going up against Oklahoma State, or maybe going deep and winning the tournament?

I have to say, I seem to have been overvaluing Iowa State most of the season, vis-a-vis the other brackets out there, but I see a team that’s pretty dangerous. I’m not sure they can win the Big-12 tournament, but anybody that can win at Kansas is at least in the conversation for a live dark horse here. They have got really good wins, they have played well away from home, they have played well lately, and the quarterfinals of the Big-12 tournament are going to be outrageous with tournament teams. They’re playing an Oklahoma State team; that’s a 50/50 game, if they were to win. They would probably need to beat Kansas after that to move up, but I don’t see them moving down, really. I suppose they could drop to a 7, but I don’t think they have to worry about being in that 8, 9 range.

Q. Regarding the Big-12 in general, it appears that Kansas State might be the only team on bubble alert. What would they have to do? Would one win be enough, is it possible for them to nudge them out or not?

I think it could be. I think I’m not in love with their profile either from a non-conference schedule standpoint or a league record standpoint. But they do have some nice wins, and getting Baylor on a neutral court is essential to them at this point, almost a play-in game for them tomorrow night. And we’ll be up late watching, and there will be a lot of teams rooting against them.

Q. One of the interesting things about covering a Mid-Major school is that we have way too long to speculate. What do you think about FGCU, and what sort of a seeding do you think the Eagles are looking at and, again, the way too early thing, who are some teams you think they might be matched up against?

I have them as a 14. And they have been holding pretty steady there. What could happen, unlikely, but what could happen is some of the conference leaders ahead of them like a Bucknell or a Vermont or a Princeton, let’s say, if two or three of them were to lose, then FGCU would have a chance to filter on up to the 13 line. I think that’s a bit of a reach, and far too many things would have to happen. But it is within the range of possibility compared to what I’ve seen over the years. I don’t think they will slide backward from a 14, because there’s really nobody out there, there are not enough teams to contest them to drop them down. So I see them as a 14, and when I look at the bracket of potential number 3’s, the natural thing that could happen is that both Florida and Florida State will be in Orlando. Now they played Florida, but not Florida State. So, if I had to put out there what would be an obvious natural pairing, it would be FSU in Orlando in a 3-14 game. After that, it’s kind of a crapshoot.

Q. Just a little bit of a follow-up to that. Does the NCAA committee put any stock at all into style points, something the fans might want to see as far as seedings go?

They really don’t. And part of that is because it’s just not criteria for selection or seeding. And secondly, with all the bracketing rules that are in place about where teams can and can’t go, and who they can and can’t face in what round, it’s hard enough to follow all those rules and just slot the 68 teams without breaking any of them, to do that kind of match- making or gimmicky pairings for style of play or storylines. Everybody says, “oh, they paired this coach against his former assistant,” and all that stuff. The truth is, the tournament has 67 games in it. You’re going to have storylines no matter what. They’re unavoidable.

Q. You have Florida pretty solid as a 4 seed. Is there any chance of them slipping or what do they have to do in the SEC tournament to maintain the top 4 seed?

I looked, and most seem to have them split between 3 and 4. So, I guess I might be in a small minority that has them as a 4. And I guess that’s in part because I’m trying to factor in a little bit of the current roster, which is short-handed. And to me, that’s worth a half a seed line to a seed line, and if they were to be upset to a lower seed, and if they get to the final, lose to Kentucky, I don’t think they will be worse than a 4. If they lose to somebody else, I suppose they could slide to a 5. But overall their numbers and profile are still pretty strong.

Q. Could they slide to a 5 if they lose their first game?

Yes, I think so. And they could also stay the same. Remember, no result happens in a vacuum. What are all the other 4s and 5s doing, right? I’ve had years, where, in doing an update on a Monday, all four No. 1 seeds lost in a given weekend, so nothing changed, right? It’s kind of like if everybody stands still, nobody loses the race.

Q. Syracuse just lost to Miami here moments ago. Want to get your thoughts on how that could affect them, if at all, and just the overall strengths and weaknesses of Syracuse’s case.

Well, I’m going to do an update, obviously, of the bubble picture when this conference call is concluded. But I suspect that Syracuse will slide down but stay in the field as one of the Last Four in.

I also suspect that there will be great sentiment and punditry for the rest of the day and the rest of the week on them being out. I don’t see that, and I’ll tell you why. If you compare their profile today versus exactly a year ago today when they lost in the exact same game, to Pitt if I’m not mistaken, and that was a one-possession game at the end, everybody knocked them out of the field. We were wrong and we were wrong in a big way, because not only were they in the tournament, they weren’t even in the First Four. This year they had a better league record, and they have more top-50 wins. I think they’re reasonably safe because I don’t see how you can go 10-8 in this year’s ACC, with the committee emphasis on power conferences and top-50 wins, and leave them out. Now, I think they were a better basketball team last year, but on paper you could make the argument they’re actually a little better this year.

Q. Do you believe Wake Forest is a lock to get in after yesterday’s win? If not, what else do they need to do to secure a spot in the field?

Well, lock is a pretty strong word for Last Four in status, and the kind of uneven season that they have had. But they are finishing strong. I think they did what they had to do last week, beating Louisville and going on the road and winning at Virginia Tech. Then it was a matter of avoiding the dreaded bad loss yesterday, right? A game that can only hurt them. I do not think they have to win today to make the tournament, but that might be a little bit of viewing it in a vacuum, because if they’re just in by a spot or two, and we have some upset winners, one or two elsewhere later in the weekend, the bubble could shrink. And it usually does shrink by one or two spots a year coming down the stretch. So, I would put their chances at about 60/40 in favor, but I wouldn’t necessarily be printing tickets yet.

Q. What ACC team do you believe is the most poised to make a Final Four run?

You have to go with North Carolina, because they’re arguably the most talented team in the country. But you don’t need a college basketball analyst to give you that answer. I think teams that could make a run that aren’t at the top that have just shown flashes of being Final Four good, I would put Florida State in that category. I’m not sold on Duke right now, but I’ve eaten crow on them in the past. I’m not sold on Virginia right now; I just don’t think they score it easily enough. I would say the second best team in terms of a deep tournament run in my eyes is Florida State.

Q. Going back to the Gators, what do you see as the likelihood of Florida getting sent to Orlando to open things up?

Extremely good, because there just aren’t a lot of teams for which Orlando would be the obvious landing spot. And they’re the only two (Florida and Florida State), the only two teams in the board, really, that can be a 1 through 4 seed, which is what you need to take your spot. I think they’re both going to be there as what I call “pod leaders.”

Q. Even if they were to be bounced early from the conference tournament this week?

If they slide to a 5 then all bets are off, because then they can’t control where they go. They would be linked to wherever the other 4s are, right?  Once you slide to a 4 anywhere, you’re automatically tying a 5, a 12, and a 13 to that same site. So you lose your ability to do Google maps once you’re not a top 4 anymore.

Q. Wanted to clarify something, the First Four or the Last Four in I should say, does that put the First Four in Dayton into play? As a follow-up on that, how much weight do you think 10 ACC wins is going to have in the mind of the committee with the Syracuse team now that they’re done?

I think it’s going to have a lot of weight. And that’s why I think they’re going to make it. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were Last Four in, right? That automatically equates to First Four, Dayton, the tournament’s term. But I would have said the same last year, and they slotted just above that.

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Angela Yang

I am a Senior Publicist in ESPN Communications based in New York, focusing on affiliate and digital PR. I am a proud University of Georgia alum, graduating with a double major in Public Relations and Sociology. Prior to joining ESPN, I worked in entertainment publicity at NBCUniversal, FOX and Turner in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, I am a die-hard Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs fan.
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