Ten questions for Joe Lunardi

Ten questions for Joe Lunardi

By day, he works in communications for St. Joseph's University. By night, he's the king of "Bracketology," predicting the NCAA tournament field down to matchups and sites each week for ESPN.com. The 1981 St. Joseph's alum has been at it for nearly 10 years, and he's developed a strong following and earned fame from college basketball fans around the nation. Lunardi, who does color commentary for St. Joseph's men's basketball team, will keep updating his brackets until the tournament field is set in March.

Q: Is it safe to call you a cult hero for college hoops junkies?

A: Definitely cult. Hero would be up to the members of the cult, I suppose. It's becoming more than a cult. It's clearly becoming more mainstream in the past year.

Q: How did you get into this bracketology business?

A: For a long time, I edited something called the "Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook," which is an exhaustive preseason magazine  400 pages, all type and stats. In 1995, we added an 80-page postseason supplement where on Sunday night we'd go soup to nuts on all 64 teams. Hypothetically speaking, it was for those who needed a few minutes to look at things before they pariticipate in some bracket contest, not that they exist. In doing that, it became important to know about seeding and selection procedure before Selection Sunday. So necessity was the mother of invention, and I started to predict brackets. We started running them on ESPN.com in exchange for a link to our book. Then one got bigger than the other and I'm no longer affiliated with Blue Ribbon.

Q: How do you put together your bracket each week?

A: The most important thing is to have a benevolent wife and family. From noon Sunday to noon Monday for a 10-week period, I don't sleep, eat or interact with any people. It's me, the laptop and the Internet. I follow step by step every principle and procedure that the committee does. I replicate the data they have available. It's a matter of interpreting their performances. That's the science of it. The art is reading between the lines of what the committee has done over the years and applying that to this set of teams this year. For example, here's Florida at 17-0 but with a nonconference schedule ranked 242, but ranked second in polls. Will they go by polls or RPI, bang them too much for the nonconference schedule? That's the trick, applying past practices to get future outcomes.

Q: How much hoops do you watch?

A: I watch games because I'm a fan. You could do this reasonably well without ever seeing a game. That wouldn't be much fun for me. I'm not a numbers guy. I'm the color commentator for St. Joseph's, so I get to see a lot of good games in great places. Having a free password to "ESPN Fullcourt" and seeing any game I want is handy when you're trying to determine who's better: UTEP or Utah State? Two years ago, the committee got it wrong.

Q: What's the interaction with fans been like?

A: It's been great. I get all kinds of feedback. Many begin with "Dear Joe, have you ever seen a basketball game?" Or "How could you leave my team out?" or just "Where's Oklahoma?" I write back and say "It's just south of Nebraska and north of Texas. When they beat a good team, I'll consider them for a bracket." The funny thing is people seem to think the bracketology influences the actual process. I know for a fact it does not because I've talked to committee members. Sometimes they're entertained by it, but their job is their job and my job is my job. The fact there are people out there scrutinizing the process has led to it being more accountable. There are few headscratchers anymore. Nobody wakes up like in 2000 and goes "Western Michigan, where'd that come from?"

Q: How much demand is there?

A: Certainly, when we made bracketology its own page and section at ESPN.com, that was in 2002, it got a quarter-million hits in the first 90 minutes, and that was 10 weeks before the tournament. It now gets 10 million hits over the season. People have a huge interest. I'll get e-mails in the summer that say "Joe, my school lost so and so, will they be an at-large team?" My memory bank is like a hard drive getting wiped clean. I don't do it in the summer. I have real job and family. I try to break 90 on the golf course and go the beach. I don't break things down with a slide rule. I don't have a pocket protector. I don't even wear many shirts with pockets.

Q: Where do you have Illinois right now?

A: I have Illinois as a three seed, with a slight dip. But they're ninth on my S-curve, which is for seeding one through 65. So they're the highest of the threes, and it won't take much to move up. A close loss to a good team on the road doesn't hurt that much. Losing at Northwestern would be a different story. I have them at Auburn Hills, but I did learn from an Illinois fan that Dayton is closer than Auburn Hills, so he wanted them to go there. I'll have to check a map for that one.

Q: What do you think of the Illini?

A: I think they're really good. One of the ways I judge that is we calculate what we call an adjusted scoring margin, which basically puts a team's scoring margin in the context of its schedule. Winning percentage without strength of schedule is kind of an empty state. Duke being 20-0 and Central Connecticut being 20-0 is dramatically different. If Duke is winning by 20 and Western Illinois is winning by 20, that doesn't mean Western Illinois is as good at Duke. Illinois is winning by 15.4 points a game, but their adjusted scoring margin is 17.4, and you always want to be better than your actual. They're outplaying their competition by two points more than what that competition should be outscored by.

Q: You've got seven Big Ten teams in the field. Will that many really make it?

A: I think it's up to Michigan. The other six are solid, and short of a train wreck they should make it. It doesn't liook like anybody could move up. I thought it was possible for Minnesota, but I'm not going there now. Northwestern could be the next one, but realistically people don't think they'll make it. I think Michigan will hang and make it.

Q: What's your day job?

A: I am the assistant vice president for communications at St. Joseph's, my alma mater. And it's nonsports. I work in the president's office. It's a real job. I do color commentary for kicks. That's so in my real job I don't have to pay a color commentator. And now the St. Joseph's Sports Network, by complete accident, has this cult figure who has student sections waving at him. At George Washington they said "Put us in your bracket." They didn't like their seed, so they were chanting my name. I thought "Wow, beer does strange things."