The college basketball season would not be the same without one of the hardest working analysts in the business. While the rest of the sport’s analyst give you their takes on which are the best teams in the country, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi puts his feelings aside and tells us which teams will actually represent their respective conference in the NCAA Tournament.
This time of year, Lunardi incessantly updates his Bracketology, both infuriating and exciting the masses of college basketball fans waiting to see who their team will play in March Madness.
Despite his busy schedule, Joe was kind enough to spare us a few minutes to break down some of the biggest questions heading into the 2020 Tournament.
Without further ado.
The Spun: So, your current No. 1 seeds are Baylor, San Diego State, Kansas and Gonzaga. Which of the four are you most concerned about come tournament time?
JL: I think both of the West Coast teams would drop if they lose a game or two – particularly San Diego State because there still seems to be a public doubt about them. I don’t subscribe to that thinking, because you know, what a lot of people don’t realize is when I’m putting brackets out there I’m doing what I think the committee will do, not my own opinion. There’s a boatload of people who do college basketball and beyond who are more than happy to give their opinion of who they think should be where. I’m in kind of a unique spot where I need to kind of get into the committee’s head and forecast what they’re going to do as accurately as possible. When they gave us their top 16 a week and a half ago, they had San Diego behind Gonzaga as the fourth overall, but neither has lost since, so I’m reluctant to move San Diego State even though I want to.
The Spun: So how many teams do you think are still in contention for a No. 1 seed?
JL: Well, Duke certainly is. They’re No. 5 overall so if they win the ACC and the others lose, Duke will be the No. 1 seed in the East – which will give the bracket a more traditional look. Having San Diego State or Gonzaga as the No. 1 seed in the East would be unprecedented really. There’s never been a West coast conference team to be at the top of the East region. Some of that is just the obvious, there are a lot more teams in the East. There are a lot more schools East of the Mississippi [River] that would be in contention for that spot – particularly from the power conferences.
The Spun: Do you think that a West Coast team would be at a disadvantage having to go across the country to play?
JL: That’s a fair question, but no more so than all of the Eastern teams that have gone to the West – except maybe because it’s happened so many time over the years. Maybe there’s some kind of a built-up normalcy [to having East coast teams travel rather than a West coast team travel as the No. 1 seed]. To me, if San Diego State is a No. 1 seed, whether it’s in California, New York or Siberia, what’s going to really be different is that it’s a school that doesn’t have any history with that. So they’ll be dealing with all of that newness that comes along with it. I don’t think where the games are going to be played will ultimately matter in that.
The Spun: So for you, who are the most difficult teams to evaluate at this point? Is it San Diego State?
JL: Yeah, think because of the unfamiliarity [with San Diego State]. You know, we’ve been down this road before with Gonzaga many times, and I think it’s almost a default to slot them next after Kansas and Baylor – who have separated by any metric you want to fall in love with. They’re standing out as the two best resumes in the country, if you will. And there is really very little now that could change that at this point short of a four or five-game losing streak by one of them. Other teams difficult to evaluate – first on the list for me would be Purdue. When they’re good, they’re off-the-charts good. They’re “beat top-10 teams by 30” good. And then, when they stink, they’re not even an NIT team. They’re just awful. A lot of that is the home-and-road differential, but even more than that they’re just really scattered and uneven in their performances. Even if they were to get in [to the NCAA tournament], which I think is 50-50, there’s almost no seed they could get which would surprise me. They could be anything from a No. 7 seed to the play-in and I could see the committee’s rational and agree with it.
The Spun: I’ll show a little bias here and throw in a Penn State question. Do you think this Nittany Lions team is for real?
JL: Yes! Any team can lose any team in the tournament, I mean just ask Virginia and UMBC. But there’s a lot to like about Penn State. Starting with the fact that there have a guy that can win you the game at the end of the game. Most NCAA Tournament games are 50-50 propositions and a number of them are what I call “four-minute games.” You know, you get to that last media timeout under four minutes in the second half and say it’s 68-66 and then ask who win the majority of those games? I would posit that it’s the team with the best player that can get baskets and score points down the stretch. Whether it’s a point guard who can set somebody up or in the case of Penn State with Lamar Stevens, who just is a man out there and gets baskets and rebounds that they need in the biggest spot. So that’s one reason to recommend them. Another is they’ve been, especially recently, really good away from home. In a league where home teams are winning about 75-percent of the time – a little under that. So to get any road wins in the Big Ten is a big deal and Penn State has had four-in-a-row and they’re not all over Northwestern and Nebraska. The road win against Purdue was silly. You know, every other team in that league is really, really good at home. That’s why they’re all in the hunt for a bid, because they’re getting Quad 1 wins at home, like a Rutgers, for instance, who wins all their games at home but can’t win on the road. Who would you rather put your money on in the tournament, the team that can win on the road – which is where the tournament is played, or the team that can’t?
The Spun: So, the Nittany Lions are too reliant on the three-ball at this point to make a run for it? They’ve been hot from beyond the arc, but that can run dry at times.
JL: Of course they are, but who isn’t? You know that’s just the way the game is being played now. There was a time when [Penn State head coach] Pat Chambers coached with Jay Wright at Villanova, and you know, Villanova has been reasonably successful in recent years shooting, you know, 40-percent of their shots from the three-point line. The math of it, if you listen to the analytics people is pretty compelling and maybe they’re just good shooters. Could they have an off night? Sure. But you could have the wrong defensive game plan against [Marquette star guard] Markus Howard and lose. Maybe you think you have the best way to double [Dayton guard Obi Toppin] and it doesn’t work and he passes out of the double-team and you get blitzed. Or maybe you don’t have the right game plan against Syracuse’s zone, anything can go wrong in 40 minutes. That’s why the tournament is so unpredictable. The sample sizes of each contest are relatively small, whereas the best teams make the Finals in the NBA because they play multiple rounds of best-of-seven and the cream is going to rise with the larger the sample.
The Spun: So, given the unpredictability of this tournament, which team are you most confident in making a run to the Final Four?
JL: I would say, the teams that are at or near the top of the bracket when they all have their A-game, I think the best A-game of the bunch is provably Kansas. Their A-game is at both ends of the floor. Baylor is really hard to score against and they’re good on offense, but they’re not “special.” Kansas has two guys who can go get you a basket – without any help. Obviously, on the inside with [Udoka Azubuike] you have to throw it to him, but I mean, most teams could find a way to do that. So I would say Kansas. But they’re not a runaway elite team. Virginia, by many metrics, was a very elite team last year as was Villanova the year before. Or like the Kentucky team that was 38-0 going into the Final Four. There’s no team this year like that. And that seems to suggest we’re going to have crazy or that we’ll have all four No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four – which has only happened once, in the history of the expanded field.
The Spun: Okay, so who’s your pick to have a Cinderella experience and make a run in this tournament?
JL: Well, you know it’s going to happen. We’re going to have a team or two in the Final Four that no one is talking about. Now, it might not be a Loyola-Chicago-type team, but it’s going to be a fourth-place team from a power conference that gets hot. Now, does Dayton qualify as a sleeper? I mean they’re No. 5 or No. 6 in the country right now. Because the Atlantic-10 hasn’t had a team in the Final Four since UMass in 1996, you might say that you would view them as a Cinderella because their name is “Dayton.” They’re certainly good enough. I think Penn State is certainly good enough. There was a period of time where I thought Butler might be that team, but they’re having a tough time scoring right now. If there’s a Big East team, I don’t consider Seton Hall a sleeper team this year, but they’re good enough. Creighton is really underrated in my mind and they’re really moving up fast. A little bit of a tale of two teams, back in November when they were pulling off all of those upsets and shocking us, Juwan Howard at Michigan. Then they had all of those injuries, but now the team is back together and they’re really thumping people again. Could Juwan Howard and the Fab Five get back to the Final Four?
The Spun: Alright let’s take it to the negative side. Which of the top seeds do you see having an early exit from the tournament and flaming out this year?
JL: Probably San Diego State because they’re unproven. I don’t think Gonzaga is going to be spooked by begin a No. 1 seed – they’ve been there. And everywhere they go, particularly in their league, people camp out and wait for them to come to town and they’ve won like – and I’m exaggerating – 800-straight games, it’s amazing. So I don’t see them being scared and I don’t see Baylor or Kansas being scared. Does somebody have an off night and it doesn’t go the way they expect? Yeah, but to me flame out is losing in the first weekend. If you lose in the Sweet 16, even if you lose to a No. 4 seed – some people might consider that a big upset – but really we’re dealing with the top 10 or 15 teams in the country at that point. San Diego State would absolutely take making the Sweet 16. They weren’t even picked to win their league, Utah State was. They’re good too, legitimately good. But they’re unproven. Now they have some very good wins, but we haven’t seem them against the very top teams. The highest-rated team they’ve played is Creighton and I mean, they killed ’em in a neutral game in Las Vegas, but you know, it’s not Kansas.
The Spun: One of the biggest surprises this year in college basketball is the Big Ten. Do you think the conference is over, under or properly-rated heading into the tournament?
JL: I would say properly-rated. I think that to be a really deep league, in terms of a super-high number of bids, you’ve got to have a small bottom so that there aren’t teams dragging the metrics of the league down. Then you need to have depth in the middle so there are enough quality win opportunities and that has been the perfect storm for them this year. Having said that, I don’t think the national champion is coming from the Big Ten and that will make it a full 20 years – you know since Michigan State – that [the Big Ten has failed to win the tournament]. Generally, the Big Ten is getting six or seven team into the tournament, but it could be another disappointing end to the season. Quantity is not always quality in terms of Final Four good.
The Spun: As far as Michigan State goes, the expectations appear to be off of the Spartans heading into the tournament – as opposed to previous years.
JL: Yeah, I don’t see that. I just don’t see where the burst is going to come from. Maybe [Cassius Winston] isn’t right. Like, he had an enormous personal tragedy on the biggest stage. Maybe he gets a second wind, and I hope for his sake he does, because talk about story lines, but yeah, I’m not seeing it this year.
Sorry, Big Ten programs, it looks like Joe isn’t a believer this year. You can read more of our interviews with athletes and media stars here.