What is there about filling out sheets each March that brings such pleasure to so many people? And just to clarify — not income tax forms — March Madness brackets.
The weeks leading up to the NCAA Basketball Tournament are filled with their own syntax in the discussion of who's in and who's out: bubble teams, Last Four In, First Four Out and Bracketology. And one name seems to pop up everywhere: Joe Lunardi, a self-described nerd forecasting the teams in the tournament and their seeding. And he is usually right.
For those not familiar with the tournament selection process, the current field of 68 teams is a combination of automatic bids earned by conference champions and at-large bids chosen each year by a selection committee representing college basketball.
While college football may be the sport that generates the lion's share of revenue for schools, basketball programs may spark the most overall passion. Expanding the number of teams in the tournament and including more balanced regions increased overall interest by 1980.
Another factor, Lunardi explain in his book "Bracketology: March Madness, College Basketball, and the Creation of a National Obsession," which was co-written by David Smale, was the launch of ESPN's 24-hour sports network in the fall of 1979. College basketball was an ideal answer to ESPN's hunger for programming. With 357 Division I programs and games played almost every day, nearly everyone is either an alumni or supports their local teams.
Lunardi, an editor for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, had the idea in 1994 during the early internet days to work four solid days straight over the Selection Weekend to produce a NCAA Tournament edition and mail it to subscribers. Mostly born of necessity to streamline the analysis process, Lunardi studied the selection process and began making predictions. To promote the yearbook, his projections were picked up by ESPN's new website and went viral in 2002.
While the obsession with March Madness benefited Lunardi's name-recognition factor, his continually updated predictions throughout the season has impacted the selection process as well. His analyses added more transparency to the selection process and eventually led to the committee justifying why Team X made the tournament instead Team Y despite less overall wins.
Part of Lunardi's success in forecasting is not relying on his own basketball knowledge and preferences but predicting instead how the members of the selection committee will make their final at-large choices. It is a process of using the statistical formulas they use combined with past criteria and his own analysis.
Success in predicting the field does not carry over to success in filling out that bracket. He admits, with some embarrassment, his Cocker Spaniel beat him one year in their family pool.
The book devotes a section by coaches, selection committee members and broadcasters about their opinions of his work. Though generally complimentary of his accuracy, good-natured manner and passion, there are those who note his predictions throughout the season can be distracting to players.
Lunardi ends with his concerns about the future of college basketball and a few suggestions for the NCAA. His background gives him a fondness for mid-major college programs and perhaps a clearer view of how the power conferences are squeezing out these programs through resources, scheduling and inclusion that could soon eliminate many of the David-and-Goliath upsets producing some of the tournament's most memorable moments. His observations about conference realignment can be seen in recent news about the SEC's expansion.
As current as the pandemic, this book can be a nice companion to the sports fan seeking to take a closer look at the NCAA Tournament with a guide who is both in love with basketball while self-deprecating about himself.
Ken Satterfield is a circulation assistant with the Missouri River Regional Library.