Must be impossible for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee to do its job in this pandemic season? Nope, not buying it all, says the guy who invented bracketology.
“I mean, every year, they’re comparing apples and oranges, right?” ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said over the phone this week.
The idea that it’s different this season because teams play vastly different numbers of games, with conference schedules unbalanced, and fewer nonconference matchups?
“Perhaps the apples and oranges are more starkly different,” Lunardi said. “But in a normal year, comparing Drake to Maryland is really comparing a baseball player to a softball player. It looks like the same game, but it really isn’t.”
Lunardi slamming the mid-majors? He isn’t. He definitely isn’t saying Drake can never beat Maryland. It’s just the full schedule comparisons he’s talking about. The leagues aren’t the same.
“So those kinds of value judgments for a committee member or those of us trying to replicate that — the dynamic is the same,” Lunardi said. “The underlying circumstances are hopefully once in a career.”
He’s been surprised that his task hasn’t been crazier.
“I’ve been thinking about it since the summer,” Lunardi, the pride of Drexel Hill, said of how to pick this field. “My dad used to say, when all else fails, there’s always common sense. This year, we don’t want to divide the schedule strength by the barometric pressure and the star player’s hangnail.”
Are there games against NCAA teams? How did you do? Maybe there are fewer of those games, but start there. (Lunardi has Villanova as a 2 seed currently.)
“If we brought in a non-basketball person for this process, explained the process — the goal [choosing at-large teams] is to pick the 36 best available teams of 300,” Lunardi said. “The best way is to see how you did against the others.”
Don’t, however, start with an eye test, even this season, Lunardi said. It’s a minority opinion, he added, but what is an eye test? You saw all their games? You saw them twice?
“I saw them for 30 minutes [on a screen] in an airport — they have two or three NBA players …”
“I don’t want to cast aspersions on the eye-test crowd,” Lunardi said, not pointing out that he works with some of them on ESPN. “They played, coached, scouted. They’re knowledgeable. That doesn’t mean they’re knowledgeable on comparisons.”
A Phillies metaphor.
“Von Hayes passed the eye test but was an underachiever,” Lunardi said. “John Kruk was frumpy and didn’t look the part but put way more runs on the scoreboard for the Phillies.”
A guiding principle of his, especially for Power 5 schools: Winning should matter most, within reason.
“I don’t care if you’re playing in the NBA Pacific Division, if you are five games under .500, you don’t deserve to play in the championship tournament,” Lunardi said.
An amen to that. By the way, the NET rankings now used by the selection committee, Lunardi approves of them.
“If I open up the NET right now, I know the top teams are Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan … well, they’re everybody’s top seeds, so maybe it’s a pretty good system,” Lunardi said. “With the understanding that every system has outliers.”
Right now, Lunardi said, Colgate is that outlier, ranked 13th. Have to study that closer. Since the Patriot League got a late start and the 7-1 Raiders have only played league games — “they just don’t have the at-bats,” Lunardi said.
He notes a year when Vermont and Wisconsin-Green Bay both were in the top 15 of the old RPI rankings after the formula was switched to emphasize road games a little more.
“OK, they’re good,” Lunardi remembers of his analysis. “But they’re not that good.”
“My hope is that they don’t overthink it, that they don’t change their methodology,” Lunardi said of the selection committee. “It has improved and become more consistent.”
This season, Lunardi said, the bubble seems smaller, which makes his job a little easier. “Is it because teams haven’t had a chance to play their way toward it?’'
The biggest argument in the past week, he said, was when he didn’t have St. John’s in his field after the Johnnies beat Villanova in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Lunardi kept moving them up, but not in. Then they lost to Butler, which dropped them back a bit, since Butler was below .500 in the league going into that game. Still every chance for St. John’s to get in the field, Lunardi noted, but he can’t just ignore the 7-7 start.
What about the chatter that some teams already firmly in the field may opt out of their conference tournaments, worried about the COVID-19 ramifications of an extra travel stop? (This is high-level chatter. I’ve heard it from a coach or two.)
“I think we’ve seen enough in the last 11 months not to rule anything out,” Lunardi said. “Having said that, might we have a few suspicious absences for COVID protocols that might cause you to wonder? I would hope not. The committee can put the word out, that would be looked upon unfavorably.”
He means in terms of seeding. The committee can’t send a school to some distant first-round outpost since the whole tournament will be around Indianapolis. (That makes Lunardi’s job easier this year. He doesn’t have to worry about who has earned the right to stay closer to home.)
Also, Lunardi pointed out, it’s not like schools outside of say the top 20 can know for sure they’ve done enough to be in the field. The conference tournament is a chance to be evaluated fairly.
Last question for the bracketologist who has re-upped with ESPN for another three seasons … how about La Salle? As of Wednesday, Lunardi had St. Louis and Richmond among his first four teams out, which means losses to La Salle are what has each just out.
“I can’t imagine they’re going to get the Presidential Suite at the Atlantic 10 tournament,” Lunardi said of the Explorers, but here the man showed he keeps common sense handy: “What’s unusual is that it’s the same team biting the top dogs, not that the top dogs have been bitten.”