NCAA bracketology: How to lose to a cocker spaniel

Joe Lunardi, a St. Joseph's staffer and broadcaster, is the inventor of "bracketology," or predicting the NCAA tournament pairings.
Joe Lunardi, a St. Joseph's staffer and broadcaster, is the inventor of "bracketology," or predicting the NCAA tournament pairings.
Posted: March 07, 2011

Joe Lunardi is assistant vice president for marketing and communications at St. Joseph's University. He also is the radio analyst for St. Joseph's men's basketball games. But that's not why his name has been popping up during virtually every ESPN telecast the last couple of weeks. Lunardi is the inventor and foremost practitioner of bracketology. If you haven't heard of bracketology, you probably fill out your NCAA tournament office pool using favorite nicknames. Lunardi predicts the NCAA tournament field in advance for ESPN. You can find his constantly updated predictions on ESPN.com and Lunardi himself all over ESPN's airwaves this week. Last week, Lunardi spoke with Inquirer staff writer Mike Jensen.

 Question: So what are the origins of the word bracketology?

Lunardi: Well, rumor has it that I was first called a bracketologist by a sportswriter in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Bracketologist spawned bracketology, which spawned a cottage industry.

Q: Who owns the name?

Lunardi: No one owns it. Basically, under my contractual arrangement with ESPN, if it's used on their air, they have rights to it. My own concern has been that I not be shut out of it. Thankfully, that has never occurred. It's now part of the public domain.

Q: Explain bracketology to people.

Lunardi: Bracketology is the art and science of forecasting in advance who will play in the NCAA tournament. It's kind of March Madness before the Madness. And apparently the college basketball public finds that information almost insatiable. If you go back, I started putting projections online for ESPN.com in the mid-'90s. It became its own site under the ESPN umbrella in 2002. The first Monday of January in '02 when it made its debut, it got a quarter of a million hits in an hour and a half - this being 10 weeks before the tournament. We kind of looked at ourselves and said, "Maybe we're on to something here."

Q: How many hits does it get now?

Lunardi: I've heard [roughly] a million hits a week for 10 or 12 weeks.

Q: What's the biggest misconception about how the field is selected?

Lunardi: I think the average fan believes that there is matchmaking going on. Hey, let's have this coach against his former player. Or this guy play the school where he got fired two years ago. I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that doesn't happen because there are so many bracketing rules that have to be followed, separating certain teams - it's almost impossible to script story lines. The reality is, there will be 67 games this year; you can't help having story lines with that many games. And the TV rights are sold, most games are sold out. From a business standpoint, they don't need to script the tournament.

Q: As of last week, you had 11 Big East teams in the field. Of the 11, 10 were at least a No. 7 seed and Marquette was a 10. What are the odds all 11 get in after they've finished beating each other up in their tournament?

Lunardi: I think the odds are better than 50-50. It was an absolutely perfect storm this year. There was a separation within the Big East this year. Almost without exception, those 11 have lost only to each other within the league. And the ACC is way down, the SEC West is abysmal, the PAC-10 is so-so, The most traditional strong mid-major leagues are not that strong, and there are extra spots this year.

Q: You teach an online bracketology class at St. Joe's. How many people are in it?

Lunardi: I have 31 students this year. We have class at 10 o'clock at night, online. I've got a guy in the Navy who is on a ship in Spain. I have a high school coach in Anchorage, Alaska. That is the breadth of this. It costs $99 for eight weeks. We do a whole mock selection the last class.

Q: Not that everyone rushes to sign up.

Lunardi: My wife said she'd pay $99 to not take [the] class.

Q: Which fans tend to express themselves in the most interesting ways when they feel their squad is being slighted?

Lunardi: I would say, whoever the last team out is, I'm not likely to run for governor in that state. I've gotten e-mail barrages, chants in arenas, signs like: "Joe, please put us in your bracket." I used to have this running thing going with Maryland and Virginia fans in particular, I'm not sure why. One year, the lieutenant governor of Iowa called and said they were sitting around at lunch wondering why Iowa or Iowa State - I forget which - wasn't in.

Q: When will we see Bracketology the movie?

Lunardi: I do pinch myself every year. Even though the workload is truly crushing, people would kill for this. I'm just a fan who understands the tournament process maybe to a greater degree than anyone else.

Q: Do you always win the pool?

Lunardi: In my house, the dog picks a pool every year. He picks all the dogs [mascots] and against the cats. If UConn wins the tournament, I lose to a cocker spaniel, and have.

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