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ESPN’s Joe Lunardi talks Bracketology and March Madness

The NCAA Tournament Select Committee will reveal its current top 16 overall seeds on Feb. 18 at 12:30 p.m., ET on CBS. Awful Annunciing thought this would be a great time to check in with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The 62-year-old has been involved in predicting the league group for more than two decades. He’s the preeminent authority on whether your favorite college basketball team is in or out.

We caught up with Lunardi to discuss his role in March Madness.

Terrible announcements: How influential do you think your projections are on the committee?

Joe Lunardi: “I’ve always resisted the thought that they have any influence. I had a feeling in the early years that they would almost go against the type. Like, ‘here’s this nerd who’s never played basketball on camera criticizing the committee. What does he know about him?’ But over the years, as I became more established and got to meet with the committee, I picked their brains…

“Much of the trial was still very secret (at the time). But now I will run into a committee member and sometimes even answer a phone call or two. They don’t exchange secrets because they are kidnapped once they go in to do their thing. But I have a feeling that at least some of them are paying attention, in part because I’m doing it before them. I’ve been doing this since the opening night of the season. So, there are patterns and trends that develop that maybe have value for them.

Has a coach ever called you to complain?

“Not today. [Laughs] It’s a normal thing. I usually have to explain to them that I don’t have the right to 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 we enter the room on the Wednesday before casting Sunday, I think they’re done listening to strangers.

Do you remember a strange moment with a coach?

“I won’t name names, but I was at my old job at (Saint Joseph’s University). I was a vice president and was meeting with the president. I’m (suddenly) getting these texts and calls from a major Division I coach. I know the guy and I’m thinking it must be something really bad. I go out and take the call. He says ‘I need to know what to say to the boys. We have training for 4. What do we have to do to make the tournament? “I’m like” he Wait a minute. Six .500. You have to win every game. Unless you’re calling to ask how to get past an area, I can’t help you. In fact, I can’t help you with that.’

“What happens is that their livelihood depends on it. 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. Are you kidding, waiting for the weekend. I hear “Please wait for the governor.” I’m like, right. Some of my friends make fun of me. I pick up the phone. He was the governor of a Midwestern state in the Big Ten. He didn’t like that his team wasn’t in my bracket. I pictured him and his friends not working Friday afternoons, maybe starting weekend happy hour a little earlier. I said ‘Governor, what’s the second most important story in your state today? Budget crisis? Public education? Health? Something? Are you worried about the strength of the old U-state program?’ And they didn’t make it.”

With the conference realigning and possible expansion, many people are concerned about the future of the tournament. Six?

“Yes, because I think the expansion will happen. I think a modest expansion is productive and necessary. For modest expansion, I’m thinking 72 or 80. … For purists, I don’t think this is the end of the world. But what I will tell you is that talking about 96 is a very bad idea…

“They will expand and punish the low majors and mid-majors by making them all play-ins. So that the 13th-ranked Big Ten team can face the 12th-ranked SEC team in prime time. That’s not how I would do it. I would take bubble teams and now expanded bubble teams and play them. R, it would make those games more addictive. B, would reward the teams that have actually won something in their league”.

What is the committee’s biggest surprise and omission?

“The Air Force entered in 2006. We all said ‘huh?’ My father was an Air Force pilot. I like the Air Force. Air Force was not a tournament team that year. In 2016, San Bonaventura did not enter. At the time, there was a rating system called the RPI. Their RPI was like number 29. It was unheard of for a team with that number not to enter. … It was the worst miss they had in my time.

Are you annoyed by copycat bracketologists?

“The more, the merrier. I’ve met most of the high-profile guys. We kind of have a little brotherhood. My work is different in a couple of big ways. The last parenthesis I make is a small portion of the content I the network requires. It’s a month away and you can’t activate a game tonight without parentology content being referenced, whether it’s a scan at the bottom of the screen or the graphics in the game. It’s the plot of the last four or six weeks of the season, and I’m feeding the whole network every day.

How often do you update your bracket?

“Twice a week until March. Then it’s every day. And during conference tournaments, that’s whenever the games are over. I could get a call every night. Here’s SportsCenter SVP coming up after Kansas-Baylor. What are the scenarios if the game goes A or B? We will immediately put your seeds up there. This is what is different about me.

Of the top 25 teams in the preseason, which one is struggling the most?

“Oh my God, Kentucky. Kentucky, the team I picked to win the national championship in November. I have a three-year streak to get the team before the season starts. And now they may not even participate in the tournament.”

Who are your four number 1 seeds?

“Alabama, Purdue, Houston and Kansas.”

How is your health these days?

“I had surgery for prostate cancer in 2016. Thank the good Lord I’m totally clean. It was incredibly scary. Not because the prostate cancer results aren’t positive. I usually am, but I had recently lost an older brother to pancreatic cancer. He’s been sad from the start. We were all still grieving. So the word was scary. ESPN was great. I was able to do a few things from home. Within the week of the championship, I was back in Bristol. I’m fine now.”

How tired are you in March?

“People say my favorite day is casting Sunday. I’m out one day. My favorite day is Selection Monday because that’s when I can exhale and sleep.”

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