Saturday, January 11, 2014
When Joe Lunardi watches the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team Wednesday night in the Mullins Center, he’ll be watching a team he expects to be in the NCAA tournament.
Lunardi is the radio color analyst for Saint Joseph’s and the Hawks play the Minutemen at 7 p.m. But it’s Lunardi’s role as ESPN’s bracketologist that’s made him famous. Since 2002, Lunardi regularly releases over the course of the season a projected NCAA tournament bracket predicting how the selection committee might fill and seed the 68-team field. It’s a concept that’s been adopted by other publications and websites, but he’s the originator of the concept.
In his most recent bracket, which was released Jan. 2, Lunardi picked the Minutemen as a No. 5-seed playing the No. 12-seed, which is the winner of the play-in game between Xavier and Stanford.
UMass hasn’t been to the tournament since 1998, but has been close a few times since. Lunardi said the Minutemen have put together the right combination of schedule and performance in nonconference play.
“They’ve absolutely done the schedule right, but not only do I think they scheduled brilliantly, but even better, they’ve performed brilliantly,” said Lunardi, who is the assistant vice president for marketing communications at St. Joe’s. “When you play as well as they have, almost any schedule is going to turn into a good outcome.”
Lunardi said things would have to go very badly in A-10 play for UMass not to hear its name called on selection Sunday.
“At this point, projecting just the numbers part of it — power rating, strength of schedule, likely spot in the league, etc. — it would take, I don’t want to say a catastrophe, but a major drop off or a series of injuries to keep UMass out of the tournament,” said Lunardi, who planned to spend much of Wednesday at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., prior to the game. “If they pull 13-3 or something like that in the league, we could be looking at a legitimate top four seed for them. Then you’re not just talking about getting in, but a realistic chance to play into the second weekend. I think the only way they can be dragged down is if they do it to themselves with bad losses. I’m talking the bottom third of the league. We all know who the bad losses are. They just need to avoid them.”
Lunardi wasn’t ready to call UMass the favorite in the A-10 just yet. He thought, though, that the schedule played well for the Minutemen.
“I’m not convinced yet that Saint Louis isn’t the best team in the league. I haven’t seen them enough. They haven’t played a great schedule,” said Lunardi. “I remember last year thinking that Saint Louis could win the regular season because they play four of the five really good teams at home. You have to put the same thing in UMass’ favor this year. UMass should have enough to at least get within a game or tie for the regular season. Winning it would be optimal, not just because winning is better than losing, but because then Saint Louis and VCU would play each other in the semifinals and the most you’d have to play is one of them.”
MORE BRACKETS — UMass is universally included in every bracket projection right now. Here’s a look at where four other sites have the Minutemen.
NBC (Updated Monday) — UMass is a No. 5 playing the winner of the No. 12 play-in between Oklahoma and California in Raleigh. The winner would face the winner of Duke and Green Bay.
Sports Illustrated (updated Monday) — UMass is a No. 6 seed facing Minnesota. The winner gets Iowa State or Louisiana-Lafayette.
CBS Sports (Updated Monday) — UMass is a No. 5 facing the play-in winner of Memphis and Texas in Buffalo. The winner would get Cincinnati or Manhattan.
The Sporting News (Updated Monday) — TSN doesn’t create an actual bracket just seeds 68 teams. UMass is a No. 5 seed.
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage