Earlier today, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi spoke with media about his latest bracket predictions heading into Championship Week and what teams need to do to close out the season. Lunardi has been projecting the NCAA Tournament field for ESPN.com since its inception. Each year, Lunardi breaks down the Tournament hopefuls, analysis, and a constantly changing bracket of potential seedings.
Q. Joe, I wanted to go over last night’s win for Minnesota versus Iowa. Seems like every game the Gophers are back and forth on the bubble line. Can you state where they are at this point, what they need to do to get in there.
I moved them back in after last night into the last-four-in group. Obviously it’s a tenuous position when you’re still below .500 in the league. This is going to be a year where sub .500 teams make it, almost certainly from the Big 12, possibly from the Big Ten as well.
It would sure be a lot easier to feel good about Minnesota’s chances if they could find a way to win these last two games and go into the conference tournament at 9-9 instead of 8-10. I think 9-9 would get them into the tournament almost regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. 8-10 is going to put them in a pretty nervous position sitting there with a lot of other teams that look just like them.
Q. You have Florida as the No. 1 seed right now. With three games left, is there anything they can do in your mind where they don’t stay there?
Absolutely they could fall because in a couple instances, at least one or two, they’d be playing teams that could only hurt them, right? LSU at home is a game they should win. What’s the other one, at South Carolina before Kentucky?
Kentucky at home.
Their first game at the SEC tournament is not going to be a great opponent. If they were to lose two or three of those non-Kentucky games, they could absolutely slide mostly because the coattails of the SEC aren’t going to be strong enough to carry them unless they pretty much win every game except Kentucky and/or the SEC final.
Q. Can you talk about the Hawks and their chances of getting in.
I think Saint Joe’s at this point, obviously St. Louis is the best team in the Atlantic-10 by a wide margin, but Saint Joe’s is what now, 16-3, since losing to Villanova way back in early December. They have the three home losses, but all three of those teams are now in the top 10, Villanova, Creighton and St. Louis.
I think if they get a split of these two upcoming road games against St. Bonaventure away and against George Washington away, then win the last regular-season game at home against LaSalle who they’ve already beaten handily at LaSalle, I think Saint Joe’s will be in the tournament regardless of what happens in Brooklyn.
Q. Talking about the Gophers again, if they finish with the tenuous 8-10 conference record, what do they need to do in the Big Ten tournament to lock up a bid?
Well, certainly if they lost their first game at that point I think they’d be cooked. They would have to win at least one and then maybe two. The reason I say ‘maybe’ is, A, we don’t know what’s happening to the other marginal teams around them, Providence, Tennessee, St. John’s, Missouri, Georgetown, whatever grouping is still alive at that point among the last few in or the last few out. The other is, nobody has stolen any bids anywhere yet in a league. There’s usually one or two of them a year. That can eliminate an at-large slot for more than one team. Right now the bracket projections are as if there aren’t any stealing of bids.
So you can generally with, what, a couple, three weeks to go here look at my seed list and pretty much count on one or two of those teams disappearing simply because of events that haven’t yet happened, but we know they’re pretty likely to happen.
Q. What is the magic number for Nebraska? How much work do you think they have to do to get in?
It’s funny, I don’t have their schedule in front of me. I’m getting a lot of, Why is Nebraska out and why do I have Minnesota in? It’s mostly because all of Nebraska’s good work is within the league, and Minnesota has beaten a couple of other bubble teams, Richmond and I think Florida State, outside the league.
And Nebraska, other than the win at Michigan State, which was obviously a good win over a little bit of a depleted Michigan State team at that point, all their other good wins have been at home.
They need to go a minimum of 2-2 here down the stretch. The schedule is clearly in a place where they can do that, I think. They should beat Northwestern at home. If they can split with Illinois and Indiana, that gets them to 10-8 minimally, not counting the game against Wisconsin, counting that as a loss. It’s not guaranteed to be a loss, they’ve beaten teams that good already. Depending on who they would draw, 10-8 plus one more I think would almost certainly do it for Nebraska, given how the rest of the bubble looks at this point.
Q. If that happens, what are the odds of Nebraska being in the Dayton play-in game?
No way to really put an accurate number on that. My guess is that they would be above it simply because they would be finishing stronger than most of the other teams that would be under consideration for those last four at-larges. No disrespect, I think I’m pretty good at this, but there’s just too many moving parts to give an intelligent answer.
Q. Inaudible [question regarding Gonzaga]
I didn’t hear the whole question, but I think I got the gist of it.
I think Gonzaga’s position, whether they go to Spokane, is now completely almost out of their control because once you get past the first four or five seeds in any region, where you go is dependent upon the top four seeds in that region.
Here is why I say that. If you’re Gonzaga, you’re a 7 let’s say, you can only go where the four 2s are. Once a 2 is set, the 7, 10 and 15 domino along with them, if you follow.
Gonzaga, if they were the number one 7 seed on the board would get geographic preference of those four No. 2 seed positions. It’s extremely unlikely that any of the 2 seeds are going to be in Spokane if you look at the teams that are competing for those spots, especially now that San Diego State has gone down a little bit. They were a candidate for Spokane.
Generally speaking, the more western subregionals and the most distant ones, including Spokane, go to No. 4 seeds unless there’s an obvious West Coast team that would slot in one of those positions. So that means 4/5, 12/13 would be all together at a Spokane spot. Gonzaga isn’t going to be a 4 or 5, they’re not going to be a 12 or a 13. At this point I think it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be there.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about Iowa. They’re sliding a little bit right now. What is the highest you can envision them being seeded and what would be the lowest you could see them dropping?
If they were to win out from this point, win the Big Ten tournament title, they’d probably be a 3 or a 4. That’s probably not realistic. It’s also probably not realistic that they lose out.
So I would say they’re going to end up right about where they are now, which is a 5 or a 6. I would set the over/under at 5 and a half and I would bet the under and say they were going to be a 6.
Q. Do you consider last night’s loss for Clemson at Wake Forest the death knell for their chances or could they win these last three home games, ACC tournament wins and squeak in?
I don’t think any team’s really a death knell quite yet. There’s always a team or two that does what you’re saying. I remember two or three years ago, it was North Carolina State that had been left for dead in the ACC, won a couple games late, got three more wins, got to the final of the ACC tournament, got in as an 11, made the Sweet 16.
Could Clemson be that team? Probably not. But there’s going to be a team that does it. I’m sure they’re saying to themselves, Why not us? All their remaining games are at home, if I’m not mistaken, so that helps.
But, I mean, they have no margin for error because their non-conference schedule was so bad. We’re not talking that they would squeeze in. They would have to blatantly earn it by, I’d say, winning four or five more games as a minimum, including these three, and a couple more in the conference tournament.
Q. With one more good regular-season game on the schedule for the Lobos, possibly one or two in the Mountain West tournament, what’s the best-case scenario for them? Do you see a possibility where they and San Diego State could swap seeds as to who’s higher?
I do see that scenario. The people in San Diego don’t, at least if my Twitter and email is to be believed.
I think New Mexico’s high side is probably a 5 if it completes its best-case scenario. Maybe worst case they’re in an 8/9 game. I do think if they were to win out here and beat San Diego, make it two-out-of-three, they’d be more like a 5 or a 6, and San Diego State would be more like a 6 or a 7.
Q. The SEC is 8-40 against ranked teams. How much of a drag, how much of a historically bad conference is it?
Well, it’s certainly not at the level that the PAC-12 was a couple of years ago when the outright regular-season champion, I believe it was Washington, was 13-3 and didn’t get an at-large bid because the entire league had won RPI top 25 win that year. It’s not that bad, if you want to go truly historic. But it’s not that good.
It’s going to hurt Kentucky’s seed. That’s another unpopular opinion of mine in certain social media circles. But I think it’s completely justified. Kentucky, by its own standards, has been inconsistent. It has not been dominant even in a poor SEC. It has lost, I think, every game to the three or four best teams on its schedule. To me that does not scream, you know, 2 or 3 seed. It screams more like 5 or 6 unless they beat Florida to end the regular season or in Atlanta.
Q. John Calipari said ‘Kentucky’ and ‘No. 1 seed’ in the same sentence. What is the ceiling for them? What is the best seed possible?
I think a 3. Their résumé on paper, for a good team, is average at best. Like I can name 10 to 12 teams that, if they stopped playing the sport now, Kentucky can’t pass. That’s not a knock. I picked them to win the national championship. My job is to tell you what is today.
Q. How would you handicap Georgia’s chances of getting in the tournament?
I don’t want to say it’s the tallest midget in the circus. I’ve been accused of being that more than one time in my life. But if I said, Let’s spend a lot of time talking about their best wins, it would be a fairly short conversation. The league just isn’t good enough where being third or fourth, wherever they’re going to finish, is in and of itself good enough.
So I think that they have work to do especially away from home. Their best road win was probably the first win over Missouri, I guess. Again, we’re talking lots of bad bye games on the non-conference schedule, which is sinking their RPI. Because of that they have to get all their good work done in the league, and the league isn’t good enough to make that work easy to come by. I don’t think they’re there yet. They’re not really even that close yet.
Q. Is there any way to get in beyond winning the conference tournament?
If they win every game and lose in the final, they’re going to be minimally on the board for heavy conversation. What will they be at that point, 13-5? Barring significant upsets, they will have beaten Kentucky or Florida to get to the final on a neutral floor.
Can they? They’ve won five out of six, six out of seven, something like that. I hate to be this way. I try not to inject my basketball opinions into all of this. I just don’t think they’re good enough to do that.
Q. Another SEC question. I’m wondering, aside from Florida and Kentucky, what about Tennessee which beat Virginia by 35?
That’s good, isn’t it? That’s why I still have them in. Everybody’s telling me I’m nuts. Again, that has happened before also.
You know, they’re one bad bounce and a close game away from falling almost completely out of the picture. It’s more likely now at this point that the SEC I think gets two teams than four or five. And recent history of the SEC tournament, if I’m not mistaken, is every bubble team seems to do exactly what it shouldn’t on the Friday and Saturday. Of course, it could be the opposite, right?
They’re not terrible, but there’s just nothing consistent about anything that makes you want to buy their stock.
Q. You had mentioned about San Diego and New Mexico, a 2/3 scenario. Would it matter if they lose against San Diego State, if one is in the regular season and one is in the Conference Finals? Does that matter in any way?
Only if you subscribe to what the committee just saw being more important. I actually think the regular-season sweep is more meaningful because it includes a road win. Then there’s the reality that the Mountain West final is going to take place very late in their game of seeding, et cetera. I’d want to put their early wins on the board.
I would rather win the regular season outright than win a one-game conference title matchup.
Q. Is Boise State a win-the-tournament-only scenario at this point?
Pretty much. I still have them on the board, but I have to scroll down pretty much to get to them, if you know what I mean.
Q. I noticed you have Wisconsin above both Michigan and Michigan State. Can you go through your rationale there.
Better overall wins but not a wide margin but a decent margin. I have at this point the record of these teams against others either in the field or under consideration as follows:
Wisconsin 10-3, Michigan 10-5, Michigan State 6-6.
So that’s where it falls for me. At least in the head-to-head comparison with Michigan, even though Wisconsin’s behind them in the standings, there’s a pretty significant difference in non-conference schedule strength between the two.
Again, we’ll see how it plays out, but right now Wisconsin, I think it’s a slim but significant enough edge to be the one Big Ten team that’s on the 2 line.
But this is very fluid. These teams are all going to be playing amongst each other on a neutral floor in a couple weeks and it could move around.
Q. Between Nebraska and Minnesota, are they kind of fighting for that final spot in the Big Ten? Would Nebraska want Minnesota to keep winning to keep the Gophers in the top 50 in the RPI or are they rooting for them to lose?
They absolutely want them to lose. I don’t think the extra top 50 pop on paper is important enough to discount the value of separation in the standings and the seeding and visual advantage of that because, we said it a thousand times: Teams not leagues get bids. Nebraska, are they competing with Minnesota? They’re also competing with Oregon, Richmond, Florida State, Tennessee, and the Lakers.
I think a 10-6 Nebraska, you know, a 7-11 Minnesota is the best possible scenario in terms of that head-to-head comparison.
Q. If Nebraska went 11-7, is that good enough to get them in regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament?
Probably. Probably. Then you get into the comparison not just within the league but with other bubble teams. Who did you play twice, who did you play home of the teams you played once, that kind of fine tuning of the evaluation.
But the think the primary thing at that point is they’re just going to be a hot team down the stretch with some nice wins, and I think that would be enough. I think Nebraska is a perfect candidate for Dayton.
Q. They are in that scenario?