In the coming days, as they do every March, millions of Americans will fill out an NCAA tournament bracket — using almost as many strategies. Joe Lunardi has been doing the same thing almost on a daily basis for decades now. Lunardi is ESPN’s Bracketologist, and one of the first whose field predictions have been studied with equal fervor by fans, coaches, conferences, and television programmers.
In addition to his daily bracket updates, Lunardi is the author of the new book “Bracketology: March Madness, College Basketball, and the Creation of a National Obsession.”
What’s a day in your life like in March?
In the week or two leading up to Selection Sunday, it’s definitely chaotic. I’d like to think it’s controlled chaos. And, you know, having now done this for so many years, I try to balance the parts that are exhilarating: being called on TV at a moment’s notice, having a school’s fans instantly want some analysis on their team’s chances, that kind of thing, with what’s exhausting. We live in a 24/7 news cycle. And, you know, as we record this, it’s a Friday afternoon. And tomorrow morning, Saturday is the last day of the regular season, and I’m doing the 8 a.m. Sport Center, and the midnight College Basketball Tonight, and who knows what in between. So that’s a really, really, really long day. And then I tell myself, it’s a really long day of watching and talking about basketball, which I think certainly puts me in the category of someone who never had to grow up and get a real job.
There’s something like 350 Division I teams, and in a normal year, each of those teams will be playing something like 30 games. So how many games do you watch in a season?
I probably don’t watch as many start to finish as a lot of people would assume. And of course, you know, I tell my wife, I only have to watch a handful here and there. But the truth of the matter is, on busy schedule days, not necessarily a Monday night where there might be two or three ranked teams playing and you can just kind of leave it on one channel. I’m tracking games more than I’m actually sitting and watching games, because the job kind of entails, as each two-hour window on a Saturday goes to final scores, all right, what did that latest set of results do in terms of potential impact on you know, the number one seeds, the teams that are on the bubble, those looking for an automatic qualifier out of their respective conferences, so I wouldn’t call it leisure. Leisure for me is more like when the actual tournament starts. And I’m done for the year in forecasting what the bracket’s going to look like. And I get to just sit and enjoy games, like everybody else. People think Selection Sunday is my favorite day of the year. It’s actually Selection Monday, because then I can exhale.
For people who aren’t college basketball maniacs, how would you describe your job? And how did you start doing it?
Well, the job is, you know, part and parcel of the process that’s used to put the tournament together. So the basic math is simple and you alluded to it. At the beginning of the season, there are 357 Division I men’s basketball-playing schools. Most, the vast, vast, vast majority are eligible to compete for that year’s National Championship.
A tournament that in the current format contains 68 teams. And in this year, case, 31 of the 68 because the Ivy League has chosen not to play this year in the pandemic. 31 conferences determine their champion and those 31 are automatically in the field. So they’re called oddly enough, automatic qualifiers or in shorthand AQ. That leaves 37 other spots available for the remaining 300 or so to teams, and a 10-person committee is appointed by the NCAA to evaluate the remaining wildcard teams if you will, and pick the 37 best. And then combine the 37 with the 31, ranked them one to 68 and put them in a single-elimination bracket.
So my job, in its strictest sense, is to be a one-person committee and replicate their process to the closest possible extent, following the principles and procedures that the NCAA has published for such things. Unlike what a lot of people think, I’m not making up rules that are convenient for me, I am following their rules, because that gives me the best chance to come as close to their ultimate bracket as possible. So that’s my job: to be the one-person committee and then convey that forecasting to college basketball fans all over the country.
Now being as closely affiliated with ESPN as I’ve been fortunate to be, you know, there’s TV, there’s i- game, there’s halftimes, there’s between games, there’s pregame shows, there’s nightly wrap-up shows, there’s espn.com, there’s ESPN Radio, you know, I’ve done live hits on my phone, walking the dog around the block if a game goes final that somebody thinks matters. And then the hidden part of it is, and it’s very notable at this time of the year, because almost every game that’s telecast on our air is framing that game in terms of its potential implications on the tournament field.
And, you know, we’ll tune in and you know, here’s the matchup between number six and number 10, in the Big 12 conference, and according to Joe Lunardi, these teams are battling for this seed or that seed or that position or this bye, and so forth. And, and that requires me to kind of be on top of the whole day’s schedule before it happens. And make sure that everyone who’s in the production arm of the network, whether they’re on air or off, could be a director in a truck, or a graphics person in front of a screen in Connecticut, has that information so we can have consistent information and messaging that’s out on all our channels at all times. It’s a walk in the park.
How did you become the guy?
Well, a lot of people don’t know this. I was, you know, the starting center on my college team 6-11 power forward, a bruiser in the middle. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that’s a lie. I’m5-5 on a good day. I can’t go to my left. And I can barely touch the bottom of the net. So you might say to yourself, how does that guy get such a big platform and all this?
That’s a guy I can identify with.
Yes. Well, you know, I think I think my greatest popularity, Ian, stems from, you know, being the guy who can’t jump. So I grew up in and around Philadelphia, I went to St. Joe’s, the Jesuit university in Philadelphia and as an undergrad, I was the beat writer for men’s basketball or football for years, which meant I didn’t just get to cover St. Joe’s but because St. Joe’s is in the Big Five with Villanova, Temple, Penn and LaSalle, and at that time, all the schools were playing the majority of their games in one building, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra, just a phenomenal gym for fan experience.
Yeah, that’s the mecca of the sport.
Yeah, I was front and center to great coaches and great players. And then all the visiting teams that would come into play the five surely school so I, I didn’t know it at the time that I was majoring in college basketball. I thought I was majoring in public administration and was going to work for the government. Thank goodness for public servants everywhere that that never happened. And then after college, I became a sportswriter because it was what I really wanted to do. And it was what was in my blood. And you know, there was no internet, there was barely ESPN, there were not digital platforms for content of all stripes. I was just you know the proverbial ink-stained wretch writing, you know, game stories on deadline, but with a fascination for the tournament, in a given year, one or more locals was always going to the tournament sometimes getting quite a run in the tournament, and I just think that March Madness is in my blood.
This year, the tournament’s all going to be held in Indianapolis. So that’s cutting down on a lot of the travel that normally factors into how the bracket is put together. And also because of COVID, many teams haven’t played as many games as they normally would. So how is that impacting your projection process? And how you expect that the selection committee will put the thing together?
The most honest answer is that we don’t know how it’s gonna impact what the committee does. They may decide to treat the different number of games and the uneven schedules that had been played in the various leagues and conferences and regions of the country. And try and kind of fill in the blank and make their best guess on what would have happened, and adjust their selections and seeding accordingly. My gut feeling and the way I’ve operated all year is, and this will sound ironic, we’re not as committee members or as you know, replicate committee members, we’re not in the speculation business.
We’re in the what happened, what was what were the scores, what were the results business. And you know, every year the committee in mid-February gives us a little tease, where it ranks the top four seed lines and top 16 teams in the country at that moment in time, as kind of a whet your appetite, if you will. And the committee chair this year made it very clear that they were not going to speculate, that he views the job as evaluating what did happen, not what might have happened or what didn’t happen for COVID or any other reason. And for me, that’s the only sensible way to go about it. Because otherwise, you’re drawing arbitrary lines that are going to vary from school to school and team to team and conference to conference.
Does that make the process as fair as it might be ordinarily? Probably not. Do we have a right to expect as fair a process as we have ordinarily? I would say, definitely not. I think it’s close to a minor miracle that we’ve gotten this far. With 357 or so teams traveling all over the country, and most have still gotten in not just the majority of their season, but a large majority of their season. You know, over 4000 Division I men’s basketball games have been played to this point. Typically, it would be around 5000 by now. I think an 80% or better success rate in the middle of a once in a century pandemic strikes me as pretty good. And if it results in a tournament that we all miss so much last year, I’m choosing not to view the cup as half full but as overflowingly good. And I hope most fans feel the same way.
In recent years, maybe in the last decade or so, the committee has, as you say, tried to be more transparent with decision making, how wins are ranked in terms of competition, team strength of schedule, that kind of thing. There’s more information available to the average fan going into Selection Sunday than there was years ago. Does that make your job harder or easier?
I think it makes it easier. You know, it certainly makes the information more available to more people. And if Bracketology has any meaningful legacy, and I mean, let’s be honest, I’m working in the toy department of life. You know, I am not suggesting that in any way I’m contributing anything to the wellbeing of mankind. OK, I’m not naive. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important to a lot of people. You know, entertainment is a pretty thriving industry. And the first letter of ESPN still stands for entertainment. So I understand that I’m in that sector, if you will. But if we’ve done anything meaningful it is to bring that transparency into being because once it became clear that people like little Joey Brackets were able to kind of get inside the heads of the committee and figure out the process and make the methods and the data and the procedures public, there was no longer any reason for the NCAA to keep it private. And they only made themselves look better by being transparent.
Having said that, you know, having data or understanding the rules of the road in terms of picking teams, does that mean that everyone can do it? Well, not everyone can look at the same set of stock tips, for instance, and be a millionaire. There is a method to this March Madness, if you will. And, and I’d like to think that some of the experience that I’ve gained over the years is, is really, really, really helpful. If people want to play along with their own board game at home, like they say on TV, I’m fine with that. Because any interest in Bracketology, at any level, his interest in the sport, and interest in the sport is good for people whose livelihoods are enmeshed with it. So I say thank you, not too bad.
Now, if you’re a college basketball fan of a specific team, and that team has had some bad losses, and they find themselves listed as on the bubble, maybe last four in, maybe first four out….my question to you is, do you ever get lobbied by teams, coaches, administrators, or fan bases when a team might be good enough to just get in or just be left out?
What time is it? It hasn’t happened in the last 20 minutes, because I’ve been on the phone with you. But I guarantee you, as my phone shakes and texts come in, and tweets and whatnot, that there are people, some with big megaphones, and some just regular old fans in the stands, who would like to help me discern the relative merits and quality of their squads. And I view that as a healthy part and a fun part of the job. I mean, look, 357 teams, 68 spots, if my math is correct, that means at any given point in time, I am not going to be very popular in 289 places. And there isn’t anything that can be done about that, except to increase the field. And that’s above my paygrade. So this is the reality. And if for two or three weeks, or even two or three months a year, I have to fight off the slings and arrows of outrageous fan bases, if you will, I view that as a badge of honor.
Can you think of any times that stick out from the time you’ve been paying attention to the tournament where the committee just really blew it in some major way in your mind?
Yeah, I mean, look, I miss on average, and, you know, in 25 years or so of this, I miss about a team and a half a year. And it wouldn’t be human when that happens to think, well, I must be right, ergo they must be wrong. But you know, I’ve learned over time to take a breath. After Selection Sunday, and even after the tournament itself, in most cases, I try not to think about it. You know, if I miss a team in a week and a half or two, like, nobody’s gonna die because I was wrong. Other than me dying inside 1000 deaths. Again, we’re talking about basketball teams here. I’ll step back. And almost invariably, I can say to myself, hey, I can see what they were thinking there. And I can see what I was thinking there. And it really was a 50-50 choice in most cases.
There have been times where maybe I didn’t read the tea leaves correctly. And I should have not made the error that I made. So you know, that might happen once or twice every five years. And frankly, like you implied, there are times when I think they just blew it. And I think both are reasonable things to happen. They’re human, too. And, you know, the idea of having 10 members is that maybe you eliminate some outlier bad choices, but it’s still gonna sneak through from time to time.
And there are times when I think, yeah, and I have a list in my head of four or five misses over the years that I put on them and not me. But to but to go around kind of exclaiming that they screwed up, I just think is, yeah, I don’t know. It just feels like whining to me. I think people are just as happy when it’s over that I go away for a year and stop, you know, telling them who’s right and who’s wrong and what the committee is or isn’t going to do. Unless it’s just such an overt ,iss, and there’s only been two or three of them, where I’ll write or broadcast or opine in a very public manner. And, in a couple of those cases, after the fact, come spring or summer, if I run across a committee member, they might say, yeah, I think we kicked that call. Just like a referee will say, you know, he was safe. I went back and looked, he was saying he wasn’t out. And you have to respect the honesty and I’d like to think that they respect me for doing this as honestly as possible. And you just move on.
How accurate, typically, is your bracket once the games start? I mean, does your power of prediction ever extend into the tournament itself?
Rarely. Yeah, do I win? You know, do I succeed in office pools maybe little bit above average? Sure. I mean, Good Lord, I better for the amount of hours I spend on this stuff. But, you know, what makes the NCAA tournament the greatest championship of its kind is what? It’s the unpredictability. If the best teams won all the time, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular. It wouldn’t be the the week miniseries that we’ve all come to love so much.
You know, these aren’t best of seven series amongst professionals, in which over those seven 48-minute games, generally speaking, the team with the most talent prevails. In the NCAA tournament, we’re talking one 40-minute game, being played by college aged kids who, by the way, are getting generally younger, because of the exodus of the older players. Of course they’re going to be unpredictable. When you and I were 18 and 19, we did pretty unpredictable things. And, you know, flunked a test when maybe we shouldn’t have. And of course, they’re going to have that happen. One hot shooter, one funky call, one tricky bounce, one kid wakes up, you know, and breaks up with his girlfriend, I mean, who knows what’s going on behind the scenes, and that’s in a non-pandemic environment. I’m willing to give them all a lot of slack and mulligans most years, but certainly this year, which is a nice way of saying, I expect to be wrong yet again.
Gonzaga and Michigan are obviously behemoths this year. Is there a team you have in mind as a sleeper that you know maybe hasn’t gotten so much attention in this particular bracket, but could make a run?
Well, we know they’re out there. History tells us that only once one time, for all the attention paid to the number one seeds, only one time, have all four number ones made it to the Final Four. So by extension, that means the odds are pretty doggone good that there are teams that we’re not thinking of that are going to make it and you know if we could pick those teams in advance, just like if we could pick stocks, we probably not need these jobs. But I look around and I you know, I see a team like UConn for instance, whose best player missed almost two months but who’s back and flying under the radar and I think is good enough to win some games. Our darling Cinderella from a couple three years ago Loyola Chicago is going to be back in the tournament. Sister Jean is now 101 years old.
And still filing scouting reports for the Ramblers. And good heavens, I think we should all be smart enough not to pick against the Lord. And, you know, I think Boise State, if they get in, has got some terrific players and is under the radar. So yeah, there are sleepers out there. I would encourage people to look at how well or which teams perform better away from home. You know, this is going to be a strange, stranger than usual year. Not only are there never home games in the tournament, but I mean now we’re in you know, kind of sterile neutral settings with limited fans; there’ll be some atmosphere, but it’s not going to be certainly what we’re accustomed to. And you know, who has thrived at that? I would want to know that. If I had to bet a mortgage payment on the NCAA tournament, and let’s just be thankful that I don’t.
Your book ends with some ideas about how the tournament might be tweaked a little bit, I think it’s fair to say you think that the field size is about the right size and shape, but you would like to see some of the bubble teams face off in that initial first four setting that we’ve gotten accustomed to in Dayton in a normal year. What would you like to see going forward if it were up to you?
Well, the first thing I would like to see is that they disband the committee and let you and I do it.
That could be dangerous. We’re gonna have a lot of America East teams in there.
But I think for a pizza and a couple six packs, we could get it done in a weekend and throw in the NIT, no extra charge.
I mean, the debate that never ends are what? Usually between the really good mid-majors who don’t get their automatic bid, right? Like Loyola, which went to the Final Four in 2018, almost lost its conference quarterfinal and wouldn’t have gotten it. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that that’s pretty ridiculous. I would like to see more of those teams get a shot.
Or like Monmouth in the MAAC all those years that they got so close.
And I would like I would like them to have the opportunity on a neutral court to play what I call not the mid-majors but the middling majors, you know, the ones that have kind of bumped along at. 500, and have some great wins, have some head-scratching losses, but are flawed. So instead of having a knucklehead like me on TV telling us who’s good or bad, or who deserves to go and who doesn’t, let’s just play them off. Because I think that would be great television, and great sports theater.
I think it might eventually end Bracketology as we know it, but you know, not to be selfish, but I’m 60 I’m not going to do this forever. Let’s have some fun with this. So let’s have the four games at Dayton and let’s pick another place for four more games and make it 72 teams that have the last eight in and the next eight out, play it off and give everybody who has an auto bid a bye into the main bracket. And by the way, let’s play the other four games at the Palestra where it belongs.
And I’m sure your seat will be waiting for you. Joe Lunardi is ESPN’s Bracketologist. Joe, thank you so much for taking all this time. I know it’s a busy month for you. Enjoy the games.
You too. Thanks for having me.