Editor’s note: This week Chris Dortch speaks with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi to get his take on the Southeastern Conference’s prospects for the NCAA Tournament. Dortch caught up with “Joey Brackets” as he was headed to Indianapolis to take part in the NCAA’s mock bracket exercise for the media.
Chris Dortch: Before we get into talking about the SEC and its NCAA Tournament prospects, talk about how you developed such a fascination with the NCAA Tournament and how its teams are selected and bracketed. How did “Bracketology” come into being?
I met this guy Chris Dortch. And we decided back in the mid ’90s that since we had this wonderful product called Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and we wanted to expand the business, that we should try to create additional products. The only thing better than a little bit of steak is a lot of steak.
So Blue Ribbon’s [NCAA] tournament guide was born in 1995. Doing that book correctly required some forecasting of the tournament field in advance. Otherwise it would cost even more to produce. We had to hire and assign more leagues and teams and writers to write teams we may not have needed because they didn’t get in the tournament. Bracketology was born not to make a bracketologist out of Joe Lunardi, it was born to try to do a better book for Blue Ribbon.
Over time we developed a relationship with ESPN.com, which was then in its infancy. And we essentially traded our projects for exposure to help sell our tournament guide. As the Internet exploded, Bracketology went along with it. In 1995, if you wanted to know about frontcourt rotation of, say, Utah State, you basically got one paragraph in USA Today. Whereas now you could read 10,000 words about Utah State by bedtime.
We filled that gap at Blue Ribbon, and over time, our projects on the Internet became as popular, if not more so than the [Blue Ribbon] yearbook. That led to the book and bracketologist going their separate ways. But Blue Ribbon is still the bible, and Joey Brackets is doing OK, too.
CD: Could this be the year the SEC finally gets six bids again?
I seem to be a little higher on the SEC than some. And part of that is just math. It’s not a very good year in a lot of places. Let’s be honest, the ACC is borderline bad. That’s not said with any prejudice.
By its own standards, they have one, and now maybe two elite teams as North Carolina surges. Florida State had a chance and now they’re hurting. Then you’ve got I don’t know what. Virginia Tech, America’s bubble team, might squeak in. Boston College has done a nice job recovering this year, but they are 0-2 in the Ivy League. [Maryland’s] Gary Williams is lobbying by saying conferences like ours always get X amount of teams in the tournament. Sounds like a coach to me who knows his team isn’t going to be one of them.
There are some down years in traditional strongholds, and that includes some key mid-majors. Butler’s on the fence. Gonzaga’s looking up at the fence, and there’s three more spots to fill than last year. The committee is not just going to take 61. They’re going to have to find 68.
When you look at the SEC East, you’ve got pretty much four locks in Kentucky, Florida Vanderbilt, Tennessee. Tennessee in another year might be a bubble team, but they’ve got too many good wins.
CD: Talk about Alabama’s chances of making the field. The Crimson Tide started this season slowly, but has used a strong defense to become the surprise leader in the Western Division.
If Alabama runs away and hides in the West, which it looks like it’s going to, it’s not unthinkable that it will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, and could have the best overall record in the league.
I just find it hard to believe that the regular-season champion isn’t going to get in regardless of their [RPI] number. I think they finish with Georgia [in Tuscaloosa on March 5]. That could be the game of the year in the league from a bubble perspective.
Today both Georgia and Alabama are on the good side of the bubble. I do not think it’s as terrible a year in the SEC as one might read elsewhere. Florida is really good. Vandy is close to being very good. Tennessee, if they want to, can beat anybody. Kentucky is certainly not short of talent.
What’s hard to see if there’s a Final Four team in the bunch. On paper there is not. But on paper, last year Butler wasn’t a rim shot away from a national championship.
CD: What do you make of Tennessee’s NCAA resume? The Vols have had some great wins, but several puzzling defeats as well.
It’s as weird a resume as I’ve seen in a while. I’m not at practice every day, though, so I don’t know what it means for kids to not have their coach around for a month. But I saw their game in Pittsburgh and have seen them on TV a bunch of times. I was around them when they played in the Virgin Islands [in 2009-10] and they have a lot of the same guys back.
I think a lot of it’s Scotty Hopson, at least from a basketball standpoint. He’s not always, to use a football analogy, an every down back. Seems like he takes plays off, but when he doesn’t, he’s got first team All-American ability. Maybe they go as he goes.
That’s an I’m-800-miles-away view though.
They’re going to get a seed that isn’t quite as good as their talent because of the inconsistency, which means they’re going to be really dangerous for somebody.
They got on a pretty good roll last year, and by rights, maybe they should have been playing in Indianapolis [in the Final Four].
CD: Kentucky’s young team has lost five SEC road games, but it has some impressive victories on its resume [Notre Dame, Louisville]. It’s a given the Wildcats are in the field. It’s all about seeding for them now, isn’t it?
Yes, but they’re sliding. They’re a game over .500 in the league. From a distance observation, which is actually the better way to do this because you’re less prone to make day-to-day judgments, it seems like last year, coach [John] Calipari was underselling them. And this year he’s maybe overselling them, and I don’t think that has anything to do with appealing to the media. That has to do with appealing to his guys as a motivational thing, and a sales thing.
Let’s be honest, we’re talking about one of the master salesmen of his generation. If he were selling snow shovels in the desert, he’d still live on the nicest house on the block.
Last year he was trying to keep them grounded because he knew they were a great team, crazy good. This year they’re just regular good. If last year’s group had stayed together four years, you’re talking about a dynasty.
CD: Florida is playing as well as it has since the consecutive national championship seasons of 2006-07. Do you think the Gators’ beefier non-conference schedule was a key to improving its NCAA profile? Can a team with Florida’s experience make a deep trip into March?
I don’t know if it’s helped them psychologically. But it’s clearly helped their profile, and it’s going to improve their seed by one or two lines. To me, that’s pretty significant. That may be the difference between being a Sweet 16 team and not making it out of the first weekend. They may be playing a 12 [seed in the first round] and a 4-5 [in the second round], as opposed to playing a 7-10 and then playing a two.
They haven’t had a lot of tournament success lately, because they haven’t been in as much. The Sweet 16 would be a worthy and realistic goal for them.
CD: Finally, where can people get more in-depth versions of Bracketology? You’re actually teaching a class in the art of Bracketology now, aren’t you?
ESPN.com and ESPN Insider. That’s where it all lives. And yes, I am a professor of Bracketology. Hard to believe. It’ an on-line class. I have 31 students, all of whom are enjoying the easiest class they’ve ever had. If they can count to 68, they get an A. It’s been really great. We’ll take them through a mock selection exercise, like the NCAA is doing this week for the media.
CD: And soon there will be a new generation of bracketologists to take over your job, right?
Let’s hope not.