Bracketology an unnatural sports science

Imagine attending a family gathering and someone asks what you do for a living. You hand them a business card that reads “Bracketologist.”

Until maybe 15 years ago, people would have looked at you and said, “Huh?”

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is considered the inventor of the term bracketology, which is the process of predicting the field of the NCAA Basketball Tourna­ment.

According to Wikipedia, bracketology incorporated some method of predicting what the NCAA Selection Committee will use as its Ratings Percentage Index in order to determine at-large non-conference-winning teams to complete the field of now 68 teams, and to seed the field by ranking all teams from 1 through 68.

Lunardi started as the owner and editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He was gathering statistics and information in his role as sports information director for Saint Joseph’s University before ending up with a gig as the resident bracketologist on ESPN.

It’s not surprising that he was fascinated by the brackets for the NCAA tournament.

“I like to kind of guess what the NCAA is going to do with the brackets,” said Lunardi.

Lunardi has capitalized on that mass appeal in March, where in the preseason it’s more of a cult.

“I thought we could capitalize on the need for information by the average person who fills out his brackets,” said Lunardi. “For that 8/9 game when you are trying to pick, you know, Wisconsin against California.”

It’s no exaggeration to say timing is everything.

Lunardi’s first bracket for ESPN received 250,000 hits in the first 90 minutes posted. His brackets sometimes receive millions of hits over the course of the season. Since then, he has been a fixture on ESPN’s Bracketology program and on SportsCenter, especially during the months of February and March leading up to the NCAA Tournament.

He’s clearly good at what he does—so good, in fact, that he correctly predicted all 65 teams to appear in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. He also was right on 64 of the 65 teams who made the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

But Lunardi is more than a bracketologist. He’s also assistant vice president of marketing communications at Saint Joseph’s University and does color commentary for men’s basketball for the Saint Joseph’s Hawks.

If you are so inclined, you can take his online certificate program called “Fundamentals of Bracketology.”

The course consists of eight modules and is designed to be completed within eight weeks. The materials cover such topics as an introduction to NCAA March Madness; a history of the NCAA Tournament; the selection process, seeding and bracketing, RPI, the construction of mock brackets of the NCAA selection committee; and finally, the building of your own bracket.

Successful completion of the course will earn you a Certifi­cate of Completion from Saint Joseph’s University, as well as the option of having your final exam (final bracket) signed by Lunardi.

Space is limited, and the cost is a mere $249.

As good as Lunardi is, he has had some significant misses. In 2011, he was right on 65 of 68 teams, but he missed UAB, Georgia and VCU—yes, the same VCU that knocked KU out of the tournament on its way to the Final Four.

Critics argue that projecting the tournament field isn’t as hard as you think. Conference tournament winners make up a good portion of the field, along with the top teams in each of the major conferences, leaving only a half dozen or so slots that are truly debatable.

One cynic wrote, “Does anyone actually know his (Lunardi’s) credentials, besides having a lot of time on his hands and being paid by ESPN to be an ‘expert’?”

Regardless of what you think, you’ll have to admit, it’s quite a gig.

And I can’t help but wonder if Lunardi saves the NCAA tournament selection committee a lot of time. After all, can’t they take his last bracket and move a few teams around so it looks like they did all the work? Just sayin’.…

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