“I’m just sitting around eating bonbons and watching soap operas,” ESPN’s Joe Lunardi told us late in the afternoon on the first day of a month known for madness.
Watch any basketball game or log in to ESPN.com this time of year, and you’ll know he’s kidding. As farmers begin groundwork in Iowa, the creator of Bracketology has his own field of 68 to tend to.
The seed portfolios change on a daily basis, and Lunardi’s updates keep pace. He briefs college basketball fans with a daily newsletter. The full bracket at ESPN’s site gets an update about twice a week. Those edits become more frequent as large and small conferences lock in their automatic bids.
Lunardi will see the results of his harvest on March 13, when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Selection Committee releases the official pairings.
The questions and answers below are mildly edited or condensed where needed for clarity.
- An NCAA Tournament outlook for the Upper Midwest
- Life inside the Bunker with Joe Lunardi
- The competitive side of getting Bracketology right
PlayIA: I’ll ask the big question about Iowa and Iowa State: Do you think they have any work left to do for an at-large bid? And if you feel like they’re comfortably in, what do you see as their seed ceilings and their seed floors?
Lundardi: They’re both comfortably in — for different reasons — but they’re both comfortably in.
Iowa State because their quality wins are off the chart. And Iowa because their metrics are off the chart. Obviously, there’s a little more gray area than that in both cases, but that’s the short version.
With floors and ceilings, I don’t believe either can get a protected seed on the top four lines, if that’s what we’re looking for. They’re 7-seeds now. They could be 5s or 6s.
And the goal should be to at least hold serve and avoid the 8-9 games right? Nobody wants that because it oftentimes results in playing the 1-seed early. And that generally results in going home after the first weekend.
Look, 52 of the teams do go home after the first weekend, so it’s no sin. But you want your best chance to advance into the Sweet 16 with a second-round matchup that’s doable.
I think they both have opportunities to do that, in different ways, given the path and the composition of their respective conference tournaments. But I think floors and ceilings are about the same for each.
I guess worst-case scenario would be for Iowa State because they have a losing record in the league and have probably been overachieving all year. I don’t want to take anything away from what they’ve done. But obviously, this was not the expectation. Could they fall to a 10? Yes. Could they fall all the way to Dayton [home of the “First Four” play-in games]? No.
PlayIA: The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament is about to begin. Does that look like a one-bid league to you this year?
Lunardi: Well, I certainly think there’s a chance for Loyola to still get an at-large. I could make a very good case for them — in or out — because it’s that close. I tend not to hit them too hard negatively for losing to UNI the way they did the other day.
[Loyola took Northern Iowa to overtime on the road Saturday but fell short in a game that decided the regular-season MVC title.]
But the reality is, Loyola has been leaking a little bit of oil down the stretch. If they don’t win the automatic bid, they’re going to lose to a team that’s behind them in the NET, and that’s going to hurt them.
So whether they were just in or just out at this point is probably moot, because if they take another loss in the conference tournament, that would almost certainly knock them out. The at-large conversation becomes all that much more critical.
This is a long way of saying, yeah, the league is probably now evolved to a point where it’s 70 to 80% to be one bid.
PlayIA: Next season, the Valley is going to add Murray State, Belmont and UIC, though. Do you think that will elevate the Valley into a more consistent multi-bid league at all?
Lunardi: Well, you’re also losing the team that has been the best team in the league in recent years [Loyola-Chicago]. I don’t know that it’s a net gain, as much as it is treading water.
The MVC’s multi-bid status was largely the product of Creighton and Wichita State in many cases. Those programs can’t be and haven’t been comparably replaced.
So, the Valley is going to be on the fringe of multi-bid status and get a second bid, maybe every three or four years going forward. I don’t think it’s going to regularly be a multi-bid like, let’s say, the West Coast Conference or the Atlantic 10.
PlayIA: Another conference realignment question: People are focused a lot on the football ramifications, but from a basketball standpoint, what do the additions of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF do for the Big 12 going forward?
Lunardi: In terms of bids, in the long run, it will probably be pretty much a wash.
They should be able to secure a comparable number of bids for the incoming four, as they lose with the outgoing two [Texas and Oklahoma]. Right? Oftentimes, less is more. In this case, more might be more.
I do think it will hurt them from a metric standpoint. If you take a look at the major conferences, generally speaking, the larger ones have more bad teams at the bottom as opposed to great teams at the top.
The worst numbers in the Big 12 this year are still borderline quad one games. That’s not the case at the bottom of the ACC, or the bottom of the Big 10 for instance, or the bottom of the Pac-12.
It makes sense if you think about it because there’s kind of a mathematical cap on how high you can go. But there’s almost no floor on how bad you can be. Division I is so big, and it goes down into the 350s. In a power conference, you’re never going to have teams down in the 350s, but there’s room to get into the 200s. That happens from time to time.
The bigger the league you are, the more that can happen because there’s a greater gap between the top of the standings and the bottom.
PlayIA: Are you officially calling in from the Bracket Bunker right now?
Lunardi [playfully]: I am indeed. Undisclosed location because, you know, we’ve got to keep those Kentucky fans away. They show up with pitchforks if I don’t make them a 1-seed.
Somebody told me once the Bunker is like Air Force One. Air Force One is whatever plane the president’s on. The Bunker is wherever I’m at for the next two weeks. At the moment that is Ocean City, New Jersey. Come the weekend, it’ll be at all different places — Philly, Vegas, DC, Bristol, Connecticut — anyplace else they send me.
PlayIA: What are these final few weeks like for you?
Lunardi: You certainly have the feeling of being on call every minute — every waking minute, anyway.
I try to keep a focus on always being ready to answer questions from the network’s on-air commentators and the off-air production graphics folks. They need real-time information to fuel their game coverage in their studio shows.
That information doesn’t just drop out of the sky. I am tracking it in real-time. Every result is being paid attention to and added to a master 1-to-68 seed list so that I can be giving fresh content to the network and ESPN.com on an ongoing basis.
As intensely as it builds, then it’s like you flip the switch and it’s over. And that’s great, too.
PlayIA: How competitive are you as a Bracketologist? Do you kick yourself when you don’t match up with the Selection Committee?
Lunardi: I would admit — honorably — to being competitive. But I’ve also mellowed a bit. At the end of the day, if I miss a team or two, I take two or three weeks after selections and take a deep breath.
It’s been many years since I’ve been what I would say is way off. “Way off” meaning: Twice in 25 years, I’ve missed three teams, which in bracket terms is kind of a disaster. And I think it’s in part because the committee has become more predictable. Not me.
I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists. The committee wants to do a good job — if only because human nature prefers praise to criticism. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I really hope I screw up today.”
What fans don’t realize is, they also have jobs on their campuses or in their league. So they’re not doing this every night the way I am. Of course I’m going to have strong opinions and be really informed. I’d better, or else what am I doing?
PlayIA: How much weight do you think the committee gives the “brand” of a program?
Lunardi: I think it matters. It can’t help but matter.
When you go into a convenience store to grab a soda, you’re more likely to buy Coke than, you know, “Joe’s Cola,” right? It’s just the way the world works. I think they try really hard to keep it out of the process. But it is human nature to have internal biases.
I do think the pendulum has swung in the last two or three years a little bit away from the power conferences. The last team in last year was Wichita State instead of Louisville. [It was actually Drake.] The tournament before that, [one of] the last teams in was Belmont instead of Notre Dame.
Is that enough of a sample to say that the tide has turned? Typically well over 30 at-large bids out of 36 go to the power conferences every year. No, I’m not willing to say that we’ve turned a corner, but I think we’ve stopped a slide that I would view as being in the wrong direction.