ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi spoke with media on Tuesday 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, just how good do you think the Oregon Ducks are, and what would they have to do to grab a number one overall seed?
I think they are very, very good. I do not think they can grab a number one seed. I’m beginning to think that there’s a fairly rampant RPI inflation in the PAC‑12 this year, if you will. Not beginning to think that, but I think it’s pretty apparent all of the way through the conference.
That’s not to diminish the Ducks in any way. You know, they’ve been the best team and they are worthy of their spot as a two, but I just don’t see them compiling enough support to bump one of the teams ahead of them, particularly when I have them as the last of the number twos. I think they are more likely to slide down than they are to move up.
Q. My follow‑up question is about their rival team, Oregon State Beavers. Right now they are in your last four in. What are they going to have to do to make the tournament for the first time in 26 years?
I have them as the very last team out. And I would say to you, if Selection Sunday were tonight, I would say that’s going be my miss, because they sure looked pretty good on tape. And it might be that I haven’t completely gotten over Monmouth’s loss last night, and that the Beavers will eventually play their way back in. But we’re going to know this. I mean, if they win a game at the PAC‑12, I think they will move back in, and I think that will validate their season, and they’ll be in the field.
Q. If you look, none of the three Iowa teams that will be in the tournament really are going to have the kind of seeding that will get them in Des Moines, but what are the chances just with whatever, expenses or whatever, that you could get. And, obviously, you can’t get Iowa State, but what are the chances as that Iowa or UNI could end up in Des Moines?
I think it’s more likely for UNI, actually, because, as you said, unless Iowa makes a big‑time run in the Big Ten Tournament, they are not likely to get high enough on the seed list to kind of be in that preferred geographic position. UNI, on the other hand, as long as they are not ‑‑ if they can get up to the 12 line, then they can play a five in Des Moines. They typically wouldn’t be permitted to play a four or a three in Des Moines, because one through four get, quote, unquote, protection from a home crowd disadvantage. So, chance for an Iowa team in Des Moines? Yes. But not likely.
Q. When you’re doing your brackets, though, there are so many variables, you get all of the teams. How hard is it to just pick where a team could end up? I mean, explain that. Again, there’s so many variables.
Well, I would say this. The wear of a team, other than at the very top of the bracket or at the very bottom, is pretty much a crack shoot. Because, you know, once the committee deviates from what somebody like me has, let’s say it’s on team number seven in the board, you know, if they send that team to Oklahoma City, instead of St. Louis, let’s say, well, then, the dominos shift from that point forward, and there isn’t any undoing of the dominos, because, you know, it’s a zero‑some game. Slots become available or not available, and, you know, that’s why I’m glad I’m not a travel agent.
Q.Providence and Butler play a quarterfinal game on Thursday in the Big East. Can either one miss the tournament with a loss?
I don’t believe so, no, not anymore. It would have been Butler a little more at risk, but I think they’re both in. I guess it’s possible that the loser could get some, you know, nervous time thinking about possibly going to the first four in Dayton. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I think I have the ‑‑ Butler as an eight, and Buffalo as a nine at this point. You know, if Buffalo wins, maybe they flip ‑‑ not Buffalo ‑‑ Butler wins, maybe they flip, but I don’t think either will move significantly unless one of them really makes a run and beat Xavier or Villanova.
Q. I think we all say that right now Michigan State is one of the four best teams just the way they played in the last month or so. But it is a year‑long competition. Michigan State wins the Big Ten Tournament, can they truly not be a one seed?
No. They would absolutely be a one seed, because we have Virginia and Carolina on the top line at this point and one of them has to lose.
There’s going to be a spot open, it’s just a question of who and when. The only thing that would give me any pause at all would be that 3:00 time for the Big Ten final leading into the selection show, which is why I think, really, Michigan State just has to reach the final and wait for somebody ahead of them to lose.
Q. What do you think St. Bonaventure has to do to get in? Specifically, can they afford a loss in the 8‑10 semis to take VCU?
I believe they could afford that loss. I think the way they finish has made quite a case for them. They probably, to feel safe, need to beat Davidson, if seeding holds, and they should win that game. Davidson is really good at home, but pretty average away. And, you know, to me, the VCU game would be an opportunity to end any discussion of being in the first four. Because, you know, all of us around the Atlantic 10 are just dying for that opportunity to go back to Dayton.
Q. Just following up on the comment you made earlier about Monmouth and the fact you were unsure if you were over that loss yet. What do you put their chances at now, given that loss and where they stand on ‑‑ I know you have them in right now, but how tenuous, I guess, is that spot?
I would say their odds are about 35 to 40 percent to make it. Typically a team in their position right now will get passed by someone, or more than someone, over the course of the next four or five days. It’s just a horrible position to be in, right? Because not only did they lose, but now they have got to sit around, and there’s nothing they can do to help their cause except listen to people like me on TV espousing their merits or not espousing their merit.
And, you know, I’ve been on both sides of that. And I, having slept on it now, and run all of the new numbers today in the light of day, I think their position right now will get passed by someone or more than someone over the course of the next four or five days. It’s a horrible position to be in, right, because not only did they lose, but now I’ve got to sit around, and there’s nothing they can do to help their cause except listen to people like me on TV espousing their merit or not espousing their merit, and I’ve been on both sides of that.
I think their position is a little weaker than I thought when I was loudly proclaiming them on the air last night.
You know, they have a real chance, but it’s not a comfortable chance at all.
Q. What would you say their best attribute is at this point? What do they have to lean on at this point?
Well, the neutral court wins over teams in the field, Notre Dame and USC, and they have to hope that the committee says, hey, this is a team that challenged itself, that went on the road, that was extraordinary away from home, that got beat in a nip‑and‑tuck final against another good team, and that shouldn’t undo a whole season’s worth of work. And that’s a legitimate argument.
But the team I bumped for them, Oregon State, has five top‑50 wins, and Monmouth has two. Three of Oregon State’s five are top‑25 wins, and Monmouth has zero in that group.
Now, I would argue that Oregon State getting all its good wins at home is a significant negative, but the gap between the two is not as wide as Monmouth needs it to be. If Oregon State wins in the PAC‑12 tournament a game or two, if Gonzaga wins tonight and steals a spot, then St. Mary’s stays in or Tulsa, there’s all these teams, they’re not all going to lose every game that they need to more than likely. Like Monmouth needs four or five coin flips now to go their way in a row.
Q. You mentioned that Iowa would need to make a big‑time run in the Big Ten Tournament to get up to a No. 4 seed. How far do you think they need to get to get to that point?
You mean to get to Des Moines?
Q. Yes, right.
Generally, except in the rarest of circumstances, you get a preferred site like that if you’re a 3 seed or better. You can get it as a 4, but I think other teams would steal it. Even though they’re not as close as Iowa, it’s still their closest possible site. So I would say 3 seed or better to go to Des Moines.
Q. Would they need to probably win the Big Ten Tournament to get to that point?
Not necessarily, in part for the same logic that applied earlier in the Michigan State comments. If they’re playing in the final, is the committee going to have a contingency bracket to take them out of Des Moines if they’ve already slotted them there and they lose the final to a 1 or 2 seed by four points in the last two minutes?
I don’t think so. I think if they can get there in the initial bracketing on Saturday night, early Sunday morning, they’ll probably hold it.
Q. With the RPI and the great work that you and Pom and other people do, can you talk about the seemingly useless nature of polls now and how they’ve become less and less relevant over the years?
Yeah, I think I’ve been saying that for 20 years, but it’s not something that I even really look at, so maybe that’s the biggest indictment of all. Like I know who the top three, four, five teams are because there is some historic correlation between those teams and the 1 and 2 lines, but after that, like being ranked like 18th versus getting votes at 28, there’s no correlation at all between that and selection or seeding. Heck, two years ago SMU was 23rd, beat the national champion UConn twice and didn’t get in. I think that tells you all you need to know.
Q. It’s not specifically about the teams that are going in, but I’ve always felt that when they talk about the last four teams in, that they should all be bubble teams because they’re the teams that didn’t do their job. I was wondering what your thoughts were.
Well, they are bubble teams.
Q. No, but like two of the teams of the last four that play in the first games on Tuesday and Wednesday, that they should all be at‑large teams because they didn’t do their job, whereas if you were Fairleigh Dickinson or something ‑‑
That’s a different question. You’re saying all eight should be bubble teams?
Q. I think so. I’ve always felt that way because if they’re the last at‑larges, then they kind of didn’t do their job, did they?
Well, I completely agree with you, but I’m telling you that I have a better chance of getting a date with Scarlett Johansson than that has of happening because this is the classic of the big boys versus the little boys, and they’ve split the pie here. They’ve played Solomon with those rounds in Dayton to give a little bit to the at‑larges and a little bit to the one‑bid winners or I should say not penalize all of one group and not all of the other group.
I think the chance that there will be eight at larges playing for four spots instead of four for two spots, which is what we really have, is highly unlikely.
Q. How many teams out of the American get in this year?
I don’t know that yet because there’s not a league in the country that’s really more of a mess, and it started with SMU’s situation. Temple wins the league outright, sweeps Cincinnati and sweeps UConn. I don’t think most people think that Temple is better than Cincinnati and UConn, but how do you make the argument that they’re not, right? So I think it’s possible that that Cincinnati‑UConn game is a play‑in, particularly for UConn, having lost twice to Cincinnati, and I’m getting a lot of, how we should say, energy from people in Tulsa and Houston that they should be in, and they’re not all going, and what we know from the last two years is the committee has not smiled kindly on the American.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the Pitt‑Syracuse game. A lot of people are saying that that’s a play‑in game for the NCAA Tournament, that the winner goes and the loser doesn’t. How accurate is that?
I think it’s reasonably accurate if form holds for everyone else who’s near them on the seed list. But of course we know that form never holds or we wouldn’t be having a conference call about bracketology. I think it’s more of a play‑in for Syracuse. I think they’re in a weaker position having lost to Pitt twice. I think ‑‑ even though head‑to‑head is not a criteria, I just think that logic says if Pitt beats Syracuse three times and Syracuse gets in, then Pitt is getting in. So I’d be a little more worried if I was on the Syracuse side of things, even though they’ve done a little bit more in the non‑conference than Pitt has.
I mean, they’re both 9‑9. They’ve both been average down the stretch, and here you’ve got a neutral court game with the committee watching. To me, that’s about as clean a play‑in as you’re going to get without having it officially be one.
Q. A Pitt loss, sounds like they would still have an opportunity to make the tournament?
They would have an opportunity, yes, but they’d be in the waiting and hoping position.
Q. I was wondering about Villanova. They’re a team that has a history of getting into the tournament. They go in like Tarzan, go out like Jane. What do you think their chances are this year of making a deep tournament run?
Well, you’re probably asking the wrong guy that question, so let me take my St. Joe’s hat and put it over to the side, because I live in a world of people who are ‑‑ it’s in their DNA to wait for these Villanova losses, and what I would say, in Jay Wright’s time at Villanova, as I ran these numbers kind of anticipating this conversation this season, he’s been seeded to play 29 games, and he’s played 26 games. So his bracketology score is almost perfect, meaning for all this talk of underachieving, historically it’s simply not true. Now, has it occurred the last two years? Yes. Does that jive with 12 tournament appearances over a decade and a half? No.
And I would say this: I don’t think this is his best team. I don’t think his Final Four team was his best team. I think the ’06 team that was a 1 seed with Foye and Lowry and Ray was their best team, and they lost to a 2 seed Florida that was grossly underseeded and proved it by winning the national championship that year and the year after.
So you know, it’s all about match‑ups, and it’s all about playing your best basketball that day. They played arguably their worst game of the year last year since North Carolina State and were still in it with a minute to go. I have to think that the more times they knock on this door, they’re going to break back through and go to the Sweet 16, just like they did a couple of times when they were a double‑digit seed and nobody expected them to. I think it’s mostly luck at this point, and I do believe in luck kind of evening out.
Q. Do you yourself put them as a No. 1 seed?
If they win the Big East Tournament, they’re absolutely going to be a No. 1 seed. You can’t deny what they’ve done as a body of work, same as last year. They won 33 games last year. Does that outweigh losing one? I mean, I guess it does, but not in terms of seeding.
Q. I know there are several teams that are especially being discussed right now, Wichita State is a great example. I’m interested in the broader question of one of the questions that a team like Wichita State proposes is what should the committee do when RPI as a traditional look at the résumé says one thing, but one of the more advanced analytics say completely different things, but many of them have Wichita State as a top 16 seed? The committee has said in recent years they do look at Ken Pom and other things. I’m wondering both what you think they should do presented with a team like that and with those stats, and also what you think of course they will do?
I think they should take the 36 best teams that I think and save all of this conversation, because I can tell you that it’s much easier being a committee of one than being a committee of 10, because I never have to get anyone to agree with me, which I think is the fantasy for an old married guy.
Realistically with Wichita State, I’m seeing this disparity of thought, and it makes no sense to me, because I think Wichita State is absolutely one of the 36 best available teams, and I don’t think it’s close. I’m kind of an RPI disciple, at least originally. 10, 12, 15 years ago when it was almost entirely RPI based, I guess you could have made an argument and have them miss, but we do know so much more, and we also have the power of observation, and while I’m generally not one to subscribe to the, quote‑unquote, eye test versus data, when we have 35 games’ worth of data and somebody goes, well, they should be in because they have two lottery picks, I don’t mean they, Wichita State, just in general. I would say, well, if they have two lottery picks why didn’t they win more games? But I think in this case there are legitimate mitigating circumstances for Wichita State, and we also have quite a history of this group as a whole being extremely successful. It’s not like they’ve been a bubble team with this group.
So for me, I actually think they’re a single‑digit seed. I don’t think they’ll get one, but I think there’s going to be a lot of talk, and I think there’s going to be a lot of surprise when it shows up and they’re reasonably, comfortably in, and I think that will be a good thing for the committee and for the sport.
Q. Question about Iowa State at the Big 12 tournament. It seems as if, and correct me if I’m wrong, a loss to Oklahoma, a 2 seed Oklahoma, probably wouldn’t affect them adversity, but it seems if they were to be able to roll through Oklahoma, West Virginia and then of course Kansas, in other words it seems like there’s a lot of play there on the positive side for Iowa State.
I would agree. They’re not likely to slide much because of the power of the Big 12 and what they’ve done. But they have way more to gain than they do to lose, I agree.
Q. What type of games could be made along each of those steps? Is it possible just to win over Oklahoma and then bowing out against West Virginia? Could it bump them up one line?
Yeah, I think this could help. I have them just behind Purdue, Texas A&M, Duke and Maryland, like what are those teams doing; are they winning, also, or are they losing that creates a vacuum?
Q. Providence obviously hosts; they can’t play there. I understand just a few years ago they stopped the restriction on playing on the same day. Do you think they still look at that a little or none?
Not at all. Not at all. And I’ve got to tell you, it was a major constraint and a royal pain in the you‑know‑what.