Leave it to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to bring some joy (and a little angst) to basketball fans after March Madness became March Sadness with the cancellation of the men’s NCAA tournament.
Few people are more aligned with the tournament than Lunardi, the Philadelphia-born hoopaholic who brought the word “bracketology” to the American lexicon.
It was 25 years ago that Lunardi, who lives in Drexel Hill, began predicting for ESPN which teams would gain entrance to the NCAA tournament.
He would set up his brackets, determine the matchups, and then wait until Selection Sunday when the actual teams were picked, to see how many he got right.
His accuracy in picking the tournament contenders has gained Lunardi such a huge national following that, for hoops fans, his participation is as significant to the month of March as is the first day of spring.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA announced on March 12 that all winter and spring championships had been canceled. The announcement came just days before Selection Sunday, on March 15, when the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament field would have been selected. This marks the first time since the tournament’s inception in 1939 that it has not be played.
Lunardi, who works all year preparing for Selection Sunday, clearly understood why the tournament had to be canceled, but it didn’t wipe away the disappointment he felt about it.
So he decided to select his 68-team field anyway and put the teams in their various brackets, projecting the field the way he thought the NCAA tournament-selection committee would have.
Because — hey — a true bracketologist doesn’t give up that easily.
Others obviously took notice.
Lunardi said about a dozen basketball writers have called to ask if they could use his bracket as if it were the real deal and select the winners of the NCAA tournament. One of them was The Inquirer’s Mike Jensen, who selected Dayton as his champion.
Once he picked his bracket, Lunardi thought: Why quit now?
That’s why NCAA tournament fans will now find him on Twitter, “covering” the games as though they were actually being played (in the order he had predicted), offering “in-game updates” via Twitter in alleged “real time,” and, finally, picking a winner based on nothing but his imagination.
“I thought there would be a lot of people interested" in the stunt, said Lunardi, a St. Joseph’s University graduate and the radio analyst for his alma mater’s Hawks men’s basketball games.
As with his bracketology predictions, Lunardi was right on the money. Picking each game and writing a few fake sentences about it has drawn plenty of interest among his nearly 243,000 Twitter followers.
“I write 240 characters and I post it,” he said.
He decided to continue picking each game and writing about them for one simple reason.
“I think it adds to the enjoyment of people who had something taken away,” Lunardi said. “Add me to the list of people having something taken away.”
His fake sentences are, hilariously, generating quite a bit of feedback. Not surprisingly, the fans of teams that Lunardi selects to “lose” aren’t very happy and let him know about it.
“So, you know, perhaps I need to remind people that of the 68 teams in the tournament, 67 of them aren’t going to win,” he said. “This is fun.”
Try telling that to fans of teams that Lunardi has bounced out of his fictitious “tournament.” One team in particular, the Belmont College Bruins, knocked Temple out of last year’s NCAA tournament. So, during Lunardi’s fake in-game report this year, he had No. 14 seeded Belmont being blown out at halftime by No. 3 seeded Duke in the opening game for both teams.
After seeing that post on Twitter, Belmont coach Casey Alexander sent Lunardi a one-word tweet — “Bull” — displaying his displeasure with the outcome of the “game.”
“We really jumped the shark, I think, when the Belmont coach tweeted back at me," Lunardi chuckled.
Lunardi eventually picked Duke to win 97-61 and then defended his decision.
“They [Belmont] were playing Duke in Greensboro, and I don’t think I was out on a the limb in moving Duke to the next round,” he said.
Lunardi gets creative with his imagined games. He gave an in-game Twitter update of a four-overtime thriller between top-seeded Baylor and No. 8 seeded St. Mary’s, in which St. Mary’s ties the score late in the fourth extra period.
One reader couldn’t stand the suspense.
“I’m sweating, and it’s not real!” said @FrostMoon on Twitter.
Finally, Lunardi picked the upset, with St. Mary’s ousting Baylor.
In fairness, there have been tweets of support for Lunardi.
A Richmond fan, @steve_Duckett on Twitter, wrote: “”I’ll admit to being very excited about this! Thanks Joe for this very clever and fun distraction. Good GOD do I miss sports. Go Spiders!
Another Twitter follower wrote how he can’t stand the wait between Lunardi’s “games,” and hangs on every prediction. “No @ESPNLunardi until Thursday has me in withdrawal” wrote @gavosworld.
The NCAA championship had been scheduled for Monday, April 6, so Lunardi’s fake championship will “air” that day as well. Meantime, he’s already preparing for next year’s tournament. Because as much as he has enjoyed this fun endeavor in the time of coronavirus, he hopes his days of picking imaginary NCAA games are over.
“My expertise, in a way, ends the minute the tournament starts,” he said. "I’m like the groundhog, I see my shadow and go away.”
This year there was no shadow, no tournament, so he didn’t go away.
“The engagement in this has been extraordinary,” he said about his predictions. “For every person who says, ‘Please stop, you are an idiot,’ there are 10 saying, ‘We want more.’”