The Lunardi Problem

There's nothing wrong with some NCAA Tournament speculation. But a little Bracketology goes a very long way.
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In the delightful Liz-Lemon-gets-married episode of 30 Rock, a secondary storyline centered upon Jack Donaghy's realization that he’s half the man he used to be. He confesses to Jenna that he is no longer a Master of the Universe; he, a man who could count among his many accomplishments, “coin[ing] the phrase, ‘You Wish, Pal’” in the 1980s. Later, Donaghy stares forlornly at a gold plaque on his wall commemorating his linguistic feat. 

It was a classic 30 Rock throwaway, but good enough to roll around in my head for days after. “You Wish, Pal” is such a perfectly banal bit o’snark that it sounds universal, although it never achieved anything near critical rhetorical mass. As far as “meaningless phraseology that becomes ubiquitous and pointlessly enters the national dialogue,” does that phrase have anything on “You Go Girl,” “Don’t Go There,” or—most vexingly and of the moment—“Bracketology?” You wish.

***

Marquette’s first Big East road game of this season came at Pitt. It was a big game for Marquette fans (I'm one) and Pitt fans and a certain type of masochistic gambler and Big East completist, but otherwise it was not. Otherwise it was just another middling early-season contest on a college basketball calendar filled with them. The announcing team of Beth Mowins and Tim Welsh were ideal for a January tilt on ESPNU—blandly competent, but mercifully free of schtick, gimmickry and canned anecdotes. They were fine, until college basketball's resident defective oracle showed up.

“Guess who’s in the house?" Mowins crowed at one break in the action. "Our Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi. He’s everywhere!”

And the St. Joseph's administrator and ESPN's resident NCAA Tournament seer really is everywhere, especially at this time of year. In this case, it was more precise to say that Joe Lunardi was in the Petersen Events Center, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at noon, on Saturday January 12, 2013, for a basketball game being aired on a secondary network owned by the large sports media corporation that pays him to be the resident Bracketologist. He was maybe there for his own pleasure. It was maybe a coincidence. But the minute ESPNU's broadcasters mentioned his name, it was clear. It was clear that Lunardi was going to fart all over the broadcast, stankin’ and speculatin' on the airwaves at the expense of the actual game being played on the court.

And it came to pass, and we got—as the game went on—such (admittedly paraphrased) Lunardi-an analyses such as:

“It’s never too early to talk about number-one seeds.” (Yes, it is.)

And, “Obviously, you’ve got the top two, both unbeaten, Duke and Michigan...” (Both would lose within 26 hours)

This was annoying, but mostly for how familiar it is. When last Lundardi's ebullient, grinning shadow darkened a Marquette game, late last season, it was the same intra-office knob-polishing ensued.

“Year-in, year-out, you want to know who is going to the Big Dance, you go to ESPN.com and see who Joe Lunardi’s picked." (And then a beat for frantic mirth, or some basketball) “He has a Ph.D. in Bracketology!” (And another) “How does he do it!” (And some fist-bumps, presumably.)

We could all, now, take a deep breath, and for one moment, pause to recognize that Bracketology isn’t actually a thing. It’s just a parlor game, fun for spitballing at the sports bar, but not a field of actual study. There are not degrees awarded; it's not like someone can take a class in the study of Bracketology, right? Oh.

I stand corrected. 

This, too, is Joe Lunardi's fault.

***

It was St. Thomas Aquinas who said, “Wonder is the Desire of Knowledge...But when in doubt default to KenPom.

The thirst for a deeper understanding of the human condition, as represented in a $5 office pool, must be why the fine Jesuit community at St. Joseph’s University offers an online certification in the “Fundamentals of Bracketology,” which concerns the "art and science" (the art!) of forecasting which teams will be selected for a given year's NCAA men's basketball championship. The professor, naturally, is Joe Lunardi, who is also the school's vice president for marketing communications. He oversees institutional marketing and branding, program advertising, web content, and other integrated communications initiatives. He correctly forecast all 65 teams for the 2008 NCAA Tournament and has averaged no more than one missed team for the past eight seasons. You can call him "Joey Brackets." And for the fully reasonable price of $99, he will give students a firm understanding of the principles of "Bracketology" as applied to Division I college basketball and the NCAA® men's basketball championship and includes a history of the NCAA Tournament ("March Madness®").

There will be: course study of the team selection and seeding process, and the analysis undertaken by individual schools/conferences to position themselves for NCAA championship participation. The course will also explore the most common misconceptions "behind the bracket" as portrayed by the print/electronic media. Common misconceptions like say calling Rutgers and Villanova “bubble teams,” after two weeks of Big East conference play? Something along those lines?

The good news is that there won't be much in the way of math—the mathematical forecasting thing (and the giving away such information for free thing) is for your Ken Pomeroys and Ratings Percentage Index. This is not that. Here, there is the sort of erudition that can only be gathered at courtside of a random Marquette/Pitt game. Here there is a final exam in which students complete a mock bracket, and participate in a mock selection committee meeting, moderated by Joe, and construct their own NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket. Sure, there will be a lot of studying. Maybe some all-nighters. But when it's over, hoops scholars will earn a Certificate of Completion from Saint Joseph's University and a copy of the final bracket signed by Joe himself. Seating is limited.

***

Okay, so ESPN's resident bracketologist makes my skin crawl. Why? Is it charging $100 for a master class in his signature mix of “art and science,” which could probably be more accurately described as a combination of “watch college basketball” and “educated guesswork?” Actually, that doesn’t bother me. If someone wants to pony up a C-note for eight-weeks of nonsense, that’s their business. This is America, man. For a mere $49.99, your author—some call him “Paddy Buckets”—will personally call you, on your own phone, with his personal NCAA Tourney bracket based on his patented “catch parts of some games and then look some shit up on the internet” methodology. Let the market decide.

Does it bug me that Lunardi makes a big fuss about his success rate picking the teams that get into the NCAA tournament, even though it’s not that hard? There are 31 automatic bids, easily another 30 that can be plucked from the various rankings, another 30 that enjoy overwhelming odds of getting in, and maybe three or four remaining wild cards. In essence, Joey Buckets is spotted 64 teams with four slots to fill. In 2012, he missed onein 2011 he missed three, but in 2008, as we’ve been told, he nailed the entire field. It's up to you what the statute of forcastication is and whether access to it is worth your hard-earned dollars. 

As for the simulacrum of Lunardi’s seeding expertise...well, there's that. But once St. Patrick’s Day—doubling as Selection Sunday this year, in what may be a hazardous development for America's livers—rolls around, nobody cares. Noooooo. Bodddddddy. Selection Sunday is fantastic because there is so much to talk about—Final Four predictions, toughest region, best first-round match-ups, upset specials, pool-filling strategies, biggest snubs, MOP potential, foxiest cheerleaders and illest mascots, and so on.

Not on this long list: the accuracy with which Joe Lunardi, or any other Bracketologist, forecasted tournament seeding. Actual seedings will matter—fans will complain, sometimes they will be right—but theoretical seedings not at all. It would be like if kids on Christmas morning sat around ignoring their toys and discussing which presents had been wrapped most efficiently.

“No, we do not offer wagers on where teams will be seeded in the NCAA Tourney," Scott Ghertner of MGM Resorts International told me. "[And I] don’t imagine other non-MGM Resorts Sportsbooks do either.” In terms of potential return-on-investment, students holding a Joey Brackets diploma might as well have a classics degree. Once the tournament starts, of course, Lunardi himself is on his way back to obscurity, and his high-volume inanities, however accurate they were or weren't, are something to take out with the recycling the next day.

***

There's nothing wrong with Lunardi's gimmickry, given the right context and timing. Two weeks into conference play, it's easy to ignore Bracketology in favor of just watching the season unfold. Late in the season, with various possibilities now mostly unfolded, I'll check on Lunardi—along with all the other prognosticators, like this one here, or here, or here, or over here—to see where they have Marquette (and everyone else) pegged. This wasting of time on hypotheticals is on me; dropping thick slices of phony-bologna Lunardi-an speculation into actual game broadcasts is on ESPN though. And it's silly.

Of course, of course most sports fans would love to quit ESPN, but it’s damn near impossible when it comes to college basketball. ESPN is where the games are. When Monday Night Football invited mooks like Sylvester Stallone and Jim Belushi into the booth some years ago—when they gave Dennis Miller a job talking about football on live television—these were clumsy plays for non-football viewers. Fans bitched and the experiment went by the wayside. Lunardi and his signature pseudoscience, though, are considered to add some value to the game-watching process. He's as permanent as he is fatuous.

Lunardi, in the goofy pseudo-field he invented, is an expert—a Ph.D., as we’re reminded every time he enlightens us with insights about VCU being a “virtual lock on my board” while the Rams attempt to go 2-0 in conference play. This is the kind of banter that fills the hours at ESPN, the kind that has zero to do with what the teams he was bigfooting were doing right in front of him. As terrible as much of ESPN's programming is, it's also easy to avoid—I skip Skip, I don't want a First Take, I avoid Greenie and Gunt in the Morning, I have no take on Tebow or The Decision. But, through Lunardi, all that unwanted and under-reasoned conjecture invades what's supposed to be a safe space from it. At least when Jim Belushi shows up in the booth, you know that he's a clown. Lunardi, goofy though he is, is given some casual respectability, treated as a folksy oracle (with a Ph.D.!). He’s worse than Glenn Beck, he’s David Brooks. Please do not get David Brooks in my basketball.

***

Saturday evening found Marquette on ESPN 2 doing battle with Villanova at the Pavilion, Villanova's smaller, louder on-campus arena. It was a mildly important game for Marquette to stay tied atop the Big East, but it was huge for Villanova because they were “one of the last four out” of the NCAA tournament as the game tipped. There was an on-screen graphic of this stone cold fact. The second time it appeared, Mike Patrick had the decency to add, "according to our resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi." The game was being played in Philadelphia, which is Lunardi's hometown and… and, oh no. No, not again.

"This is the most important 15 minutes of Villanova’s season," Lunardi told Patrick and color commentator Len Elmore, when they invited him to join them on air. "Until the next game."

“We didn’t use to update these things every half hour,” Lunardi says to general guffaws. But hey, since we do, the two spent an entire segment talking about Miami’s beatdown by Wake Forest; Marquette/Villanova, which was the game all three were attending, was at that point a one-point game.

After a dubious charge call, Patrick interrupted the conversation to point out that there have been a number of them and they’ve all gone to the defense. Important, relevant, curious, and so a natural segue for Patrick to return to what didn't matter. "Speaking of bad losses"—nobody was—"Let’s get back to Miami and Wake Forest."

And the topline prattling continued, broken up briefly by a hard Marquette foul that pushed momentum Villanova’s way. Elmore asked Lunardi’s theoretical take on the Duke/Miami game, which would air on ESPN. In a week’s time.

Then Patrick, for reasons unknown, asked for Lunardi’s thoughts on the Fighting Illini's chances. Did Lunardi say, “If they collect one more scalp...” Yep. Did he say, “Well, this is Bracket Busters weekend...” Yes he did, although no it’s not, and that’s a made up alliteration anyhow. Did he say that if he were “doing it”—officially seeding teams, which he’s not—standbys like Kentucky and Kansas would get a second look because of the “human element.” I think you know the answer.

Mercifully, a commercial break ended Lunardi’s time. But not before Elmore chimed in with “P.H.D...Bracketology...My Doc-tah.”

***

I am maybe too upset by all this. This is maybe Mountains Out of Joehills. Fair enough, but here’s the kicker: Lunardi, resident Bracketologist, isn’t any fucking good at his job. 

To amend an earlier statement—there actually is a small group that cares about the accuracy of Lunardi’s predictions. These are your non-televised bracketologists, for whom this sort of prognostication is a hobby. According to The Bracket Project, a website that “measures how closely each Bracketologist got to matching the work of the selection committee,” but doesn’t have anything “to do with who is the best at picking winners in the NCAA tournament,” Lunardi is an average student at best, certainly not a postdoctorate by any means.

The Bracket Project has two rankings of its “final exam grades." The more thorough one is for prognosticators that have participated for at least three years. Joe Lunardi comes in 36th out of 65. That's barely above the mean, right behind Schmolik 64 and two slots ahead of Bluejay Banter Bracketology. It's unlikely that either of those predictors could get $100 for a course in their methodology and an autographed bracket, but neither deserves it any less than Lunardi.

This won't change anything, of course. Lunardi has been branded thicker than an Omega Psi Phi pledge, and the doomsday hype machine in Bristol doesn't have an off switch. He's just another network personality to deal with, and he's free to leverage that notoriety however he wishes. But does this mean we need to give credence to—or pay attention to, or not actively, grumblingly mute—Lunardi when he bum-rushes the mic and starts spitting oracular pronouncements? You Wish, Pal. 


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