- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Joe Lunardi gets mail. Lots of mail. Some of it isn’t very nice.

“Let me find one,” he says over the phone from Bristol, Conn. Lunardi is one of several ESPN college basketball experts but the only head “bracketologist.” He is getting ready for a halftime TV appearance. This is his time of year.

“Here we go,” he says and then reads from his computer screen. “I realize you’re a complete idiot. …”

Lunardi’s offense was picking just two teams from the Pac-10 to make the NCAA tournament.

“In college sports, fans tend to be a little more passionate,” he explained.

Especially now.

March Madness began in February. How can you tell? It’s when the RPI means more than the GNP, when a strange, mystical bubble materializes, a bubble on which the Maryland basketball team floats. It’s when Joe Lunardi, who studies the game as closely as anyone, gets insulted for making predictions that turn out to be pretty much correct.

All this leads up to another phenomenon, the day when teams are picked and seeded for the tournament. “Selection Sunday” is nearly as anticipated as the tournament, that is, “the Big Dance,” itself.

“For a lot of people,” Lunardi said, “Selection Sunday is the Super Bowl.”

It’s March 14 this year, but you probably knew that.

Right now, it’s all about getting into the tournament. It’s why you play. Because once you’re in, “anything can happen.”

Other than a No.16 seed beating a No.1 seed, anything does happen.

Of the 65 tournament bids, 31 go to conference champions. The remaining 34 bids go to at-large teams, picked for a variety of reasons, mostly because they’re good or at least the tournament selection committee thinks they’re good. Some teams are so good everybody knows they’re in. For these teams, the matter of seeding and region assignment looms large and weighs heavily on people’s minds.

Very heavily. Like, tons. Lunardi picked out a lengthy missive from a Mississippi State fan irate that he dropped the Bulldogs to a — please close your eyes, it’s too horrible — a No.3 seed while Duke (of course) got to lose two in a row and remain a No.1.

But never mind that. You can’t complain about seeding if you aren’t even in the darn thing. The “bubble” is where it’s all happening right now. Maryland is smack on the bubble. The Terps must win their last two games to be considered for an at-large berth. They and other teams like Oklahoma, Missouri and Alabama are sweating out the season’s home stretch.

ESPN is staying on top of the bubble. It brought Purdue coach Gene Keady into the studio last week to talk about what it’s like being a bubble team (“Focus, prepare for the next team, play 40 minutes through without letting up.”). Keady wasn’t sweating, but his hair was. No, wait, it always looks like that.

Being on the bubble is a tenuous place because bubbles “burst.” But being a bubble team can be a good thing if you’ve had a so-so season. The idea here is to play yourself “on” the bubble. Then you want to play yourself “off” the bubble by becoming a tournament “lock.” But you don’t want to play yourself off in the other direction.

The most angst-filled situation is being on the bubble when the NCAA tournament selection committee meets to pick the at-large teams, seed the field and generally upset a lot of people. You will know some of the bubble teams because the TV cameras will be there to show us their joy or misery on Super, uh, Selection Sunday.

By the way, Joe Lunardi, Mr. Bracketologist (or is that Dr. Bracketologist?), do you know where the term, “on the bubble” comes from?

“Uh, no.” (He was not asked whether he cared).

Although there is no definitive proof, it appears it originated from auto racing, specifically the Indianapolis 500. Slower drivers attempting to qualify for the race are “on the bubble” as they wait and watch what other drivers do. In fact, the final day of qualifying is known as “Bubble Day.”

So, Joe, what do you think of that?

“OK.”

As his title indicates, Lunardi provides updated versions of how he thinks the NCAA tournament brackets will look. He also replicates and updates the RPI — the Ratings Performance Index, a formula for determining the relative strength of each of the 326 Division I basketball teams. Many fans watch the RPI closer than their 401(k)s, over which they have the same amount of control. That is, none.

Devised in 1981, the RPI takes a team’s winning percentage, its opponents’ winning percentage and its opponents’ opponents winning percentage and puts it into a formula. While Lunardi and others, such as Jerry Palm on his Web site, CollegeRPI.com, reproduce the RPI almost exactly, the real deal, the genuine article comes from the NCAA and is tended to diligently, if not lovingly, by stat man Gary Johnson.

Those other RPIs are pretty close, Johnson said. But they are not exact. The reason, he said, is “they don’t have ‘Factor 4.’”

Factor 4? Sounds like something from one of those cheesy outer-space movies from the 1950s. But no, this is serious. Factor 4 is a series of “bonuses and penalties,” Johnson said. He could reveal nothing else. People can blow the cover of CIA operatives, but no way Gary Johnson spills the beans on Factor 4.

This is Johnson’s 20th year as caretaker of the RPI. When he first started he actually had to call newspapers and TV stations to get the scores to plug into the computer. Now he punches a key on his laptop. He said his predecessor, Dave Cawood, used to sit in his car and look for radio stations broadcasting the scores.

The RPI is the subject of spirited discussion and the object of much controversy. Articles with titles like “The Rating Percentage Myth,” research projects and statistical analyses are devoted to the RPI. Many people have become obsessed with the RPI.

“It’s become a monster,” Johnson said.

“When it started 20 years ago, it was no big deal. Now we have all this. It’s sole purpose way back when was to be an aid for the committee. Nothing more, nothing less. The RPI is a factor, but teams are picked by humans.”

Unlike, say, with the BCS. But that’s another story.

What with Web sites and all the attention, Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood, who is in his fifth and final year on the tournament selection committee, was asked whether the RPI has taken on a greater importance than before.

“The perception is an emphatic yes,” he said. “When you have a greater number of teams to consider, the perception is that the RPI takes on greater weight. In reality, the answer is no. We use so many things. We dissect teams in so many ways. Sometimes a leading scorer or a leading rebounder is out for a key game. So many things like that are factors. The RPI is just one tool.”

Lunardi said, “To a lot of people, it’s become a be-all and an end-all. I don’t agree with that. By and large I think the tournament committee uses it properly. … If you’ve got six or eight teams for two spots, the RPI can help you pick.”

Proof of Lunardi’s point: Oklahoma finished 33rd in the RPI in 1994 but lost five of its last six to finish 15-12, including 6-8 in the Big 8. The Sooners became the highest team in the index not to make the tournament. Conversely, Minnesota was 66th in 1995 at 19-11 and New Mexico was 74th in 1999 at 23-8, and they became the lowest ranked teams to get in.

Still, in its report on “bubble” teams, ESPN listed not the team’s records but their RPIs and referenced “InsideRPI” on its Web site.

“I would liken it to — if you go into a restaurant, the RPI is the menu of dishes available,” Lunardi said. “But if you want the ingredients, you’ve got to read the label.”

Something known as the “Nitty Gritty Report” lists the ingredients, all sorts of stuff like how teams did in their last 10 games. The tournament selection committee uses the Nitty Gritty Report. So does Lunardi, who goes even further. He has added to it his own invention, the “LunaRPI,” which counts only road and neutral games.

Former Arizona State AD Charles Harris, who served on the committee during most of the 1990s, said the RPI “works for fans who say, ‘We’re a 17, so we’re in.’ Or, “We’re a 54, but we ought to be a 52.’ I’ll tell you what I used the RPI for. On Saturday afternoon, when I’m trying to fill five or six slots. I would look at the RPI to see if I missed somebody.”

But the RPI continues to be brandished as a weapon, a means of persuasion. It’s almost similar to Heisman campaigns during football season, and fans aren’t the only ones crunching the numbers. Lunardi said coaches and athletic directors call him for scheduling advice, the better to boost their RPIs. Livengood said his fax machine and e-mail account are now in overdrive handling the information pouring in.

He wouldn’t exactly call it lobbying. Actually, he used the word, “politicking.”

“They try to show you in every way possible why their schools match up favorably,” he said. “Do we listen? I think we need to hear all this because we should. We’d be remiss if we didn’t know everything we needed to know. But I’m not sure any committee member would come out and say so-and-so did a great job of politicking.”

That would really be Madness.

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