The NCAA Tournament selection committee will reveal its current top 16 overall seeds on February 18th at 12:30 p.m., ET on CBS. Awful Announcing thought this would be a great time to check with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The 62-year-old has been in the business of predicting the championship bracket for over two decades. He is the preeminent authority on assessing whether your favorite college basketball team is in or out.
We caught up with Lunardi to discuss his role in March Madness.
Awful Announcing: How influential do you think your projections are with the committee?
Joe Lunardi: “I’ve always resisted the thought they have any influence at all. I got the sense in the early years that they would almost go against type. Like ‘here is this nerd who never played basketball in front of the camera criticizing the committee. What does he know?’ But over the years as I became more established and I got to meet the committee, I would kind of pick their brain…
“A lot of the process was still very secret (back) then. But now, I will run into a committee member and sometimes even take a call or two. Not exchanging any secrets because they’re sequestered once they go in to do their thing. But I do get the sense that at least some of them pay attention, in part because I’m doing it sooner than they are. I’m doing it from the opening night of the season. So, there are patterns and trends that develop that maybe are of value to them.”
Has a coach ever called you to complain?
“Not today. [Laughs] It’s a regular thing. I usually have to explain to them that I don’t have a vote. There are 12 people in the room. They vote. I’ve never voted. (Coaches) will say ‘But they listen to you.’ I think once they go in the room on the Wednesday before Selection Sunday, I think they’re done listening to outsiders.”
Can you recall a strange moment with a coach?
“I’m not going to name names, but I was at my old job at (Saint Joseph’s University). I was a VP and I was meeting with the president. (Suddenly,) I’m getting these texts and calls from a high-major Division I coach. I know the guy and I’m thinking it must be something really bad. I step out and take the call. He says ‘I need to know what to tell the guys. We have practice at 4. What do we have to do to make the tournament? ‘ I’m like ‘Wait a minute. You’re .500. You have to win every game. Unless you’re calling to ask how to beat a zone, I can’t help you. In fact, I can’t help you with that.’
“What happens is that their livelihoods depend on this. They can’t talk to the actual committee, so it’s like I’m Dr. Phil.”
Any other unusual phone calls?
“I’m in my office one year at St. Joe’s. The phone rings, It’s Friday afternoon. You’re goofing off, waiting for the weekend. I hear ‘Please hold for the governor.’ I’m like, right. Some of my friends are punking me. I pick up the phone. It was the governor of a midwestern state in the Big Ten. He didn’t like that his team was not in my bracket. I pictured him and his buddies not working on Friday afternoon, maybe starting the weekend happy hour a little early. I said ‘Governor, what’s the second-biggest story today in your state? Budget crisis? Public education? Health? Something? You’re worried about the strength of schedule of ol’ State U?’ And they didn’t make it.”
With conference realignment and possible expansion, many people are concerned about the future of the tournament. Are you?
“Yes, because I do think expansion will happen. I think modest expansion is both productive and necessary. By modest expansion, I’m thinking 72 or 80. … For the purists, I do not think this is the end of the world. But what I will tell you is that the talk of 96 is a colossally bad idea…
“They’re going to expand and they’re going to punish the low majors and mid-majors by making them all play in play-in games. So that the 13th-place Big Ten team can play the 12th-place SEC team in primetime. That’s not how I would do it. I would take the bubble teams and now the expanded bubble teams and make them play. A, it would make those games more compelling. B, it would reward the teams that actually won something in their own league.”
What is the biggest surprise and omission by the committee?
“Air Force got in in 2006. We all just went ‘huh?’ My dad was a pilot in the Air Force. I like Air Force. Air Force was not a tournament team that year. In 2016, Saint Bonaventure didn’t get in. There was a ranking system back then called the RPI. Their RPI was like No.29. It was unheard of for a team with that number to not get in. …That was the worst miss they’ve had in my time.”
Are you annoyed by copycat bracketologists?
“The more the merrier. I’ve met most of the higher-profile guys. We kind of have a little brotherhood. My job is different in a couple of big respects. The last bracket I do is a small piece of the content that the network requires. We’re a month away, and you can’t turn on a game tonight without bracketology content being referenced, whether it’s on a crawl on the bottom of the screen or in-game graphics. It’s the storyline of the last four to six weeks of the season, and I’m feeding the whole network every day.”
How often do update your bracket?
“Twice a week until March. Then it’s every day. And during conference tournaments, it’s whenever the games end. I could get a call any night. Here’s SportsCenter SVP we’re coming on after Kansas-Baylor. What are the scenarios if the game goes A or B? We’re going to instantly put your seeds up there. That’s what’s different on my end.”
Of the preseason Top 25 teams which one is in the biggest trouble?
“Oh my God, Kentucky. Kentucky, the team I picked to win the national championship in November. I have a three-year streak of getting the team right before the season starts. And now they might not even make the tournament.”
Who are your four No.1 seeds?
“Alabama, Purdue, Houston, and Kansas.”
How’s your health these days?
“I had prostate cancer surgery in 2016. Thank the good lord, I’m completely clean. It was unbelievably scary. Not because prostate cancer outcomes aren’t positive. They usually are, but I had recently lost an older brother to pancreatic cancer. That was grim from the get-go. We were all still grieving. So the word was scary. ESPN was great. I was able to do some stuff from home. By championship week, I was back up in Bristol. I’m fine now.”
How tired do you get in March?
“People say my favorite day is Selection Sunday. They’re off a day. My favorite day is Selection Monday because that’s when I can exhale and sleep.”