By LARRY VAUGHT
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi shared his insights Wednesday on a national conference call about the upcoming NCAA Tournament and touched on several items of interest to SEC basketball fans:
Question: Joe, we talked, I think, in January about South Carolina’s kind of unique resume. They were beginning to build at that point. Here they are now with 11 SEC wins as they head to the SEC Tournament. Anything short of winning the tournament, do the Gamecocks have a shot at an at‑large bid? And what do you think Clemson needs to do in the ACC Tournament to secure their spot?
Lunardi: Anything short of winning, I think they will come up short. Are there scenarios where we could get them more in the conversation with a couple wins, the right path, et cetera? I just don’t think they’ve won enough of the right games to be realistically in the conversation at this point. The committee has gotten wiser over the years at looking at these unbalanced schedules in leagues, and the 11‑7 just isn’t going to carry the weight that it may have kind of blindly carried or rolled out a bit of a red carpet for them in the past. I think, when we talked during the season, the example of Nebraska last year at 13‑5 not only not getting into the NCAA Tournament, they didn’t even get into the top half of an NIT bracket. So I’m not optimistic about South Carolina at this point.
Question: Joe, right now you have both North Carolina and Duke headed to Columbia for the opening round in South Carolina. I think people around here obviously are excited about a player like Zion Williams. How likely do you see that will happen this weekend?
Lunardi: I think one of them will be there for sure. If Virginia is the No. 1 overall seed ‑‑ remember, new procedure in effect. They actually get to pick where they want to go. And Columbia is actually a little closer, by 30, 40 miles, according to Rand McNally. I don’t think Rand is on the committee but is a big factor in this. Columbia’s about that much closer. I keep putting them in Columbus, Ohio, and that’s not because I have inside information on what they would pick. It’s just my gut is telling me that they won’t want to be where all the Carolina and Duke fans are, that they’ll happily take a pass that gets them to D.C. for the second weekend without ever going too far south. But I guess the bottom line is I believe there will be two ACC teams in Columbia unless Tennessee gets back to the top line because they would prefer that also and they would like to be at an SEC site, where they have some familiarity, which is a great way of saying I have no idea.
Question: How well over the years do you think the committee has done in balancing the strengths of each ‑‑ you know, the regions against each other, and how plausible is it that the committee might try to thwart a team such as LSU this year to try to prevent them from advancing to the grand stage?
Lunardi: I think they do a way better job at balancing the top of the region than people give them credit for, and I’m generally not in the position of giving them credit for the things that we’re supposed to be critiquing. But the true seed balancing system that they use from the seedless generally prevents regions from being way out of balance. Invariably, Jerry, someone will look at big name teams all in one region and go, oh, that region is loaded, but then if I go back or anybody goes back and looks at the true seed numbers of how they split them up, oftentimes, those regions are weaker or not as stacked as the naked eye would suggest. Then let’s take into account the other issue, which is once you get past those first few games of the ‑‑ you know, against the 15s and the 16s, who while they do win occasionally, which is pretty rare, pretty much every game after that is a 50‑50 game. So trying to say, all right, we don’t want an LSU at the Final Four, well, number one, they won’t seed them in a way to punish them. There are other committees at the NCAA that will get their chance at that if it comes to pass. And, two, stuff happens, and it would just as likely work against them as work for them due to the randomness of the tournament.
Question: Just wondering what you think Alabama and Florida need to do this week at the SEC Tournament in order to get bids. Just how much ‑‑ one win, two wins, or how far they are?
Lunardi: I think in Florida’s case they can get there with one win, provided there aren’t too many more St. Mary’s happening. In Alabama’s case, I think they need two wins to realistically back in the serious conversation.