March 12, 2021
On March 11, 2020, the world — and the sports world — came to a screeching halt. The echo of Rudy Gobert famously touching every microphone and recorder, flippantly dismissing the threat of the COVID-19 virus, resonates.
Two days later, Joe Lunardi was on a train back to Drexel Hill, Delaware County, from the ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut, not knowing anything after the NCAA Tournament had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic —the first time the tournament had been cancelled since its inception in 1939.
A year later, March 11, 2021, Lunardi found himself driving home from Ocean City, N.J., to get a COVID-19 vaccination in preparation for the NCAA Tournament.
For the last 25 years every March, America has become familiar with Lunardi’s face and trusted knowledge of college basketball. It’s a time when everyone from the dishwasher to the woman working a toll booth take a deep dive into “March Madness,” NCAA's mens college basketball tournament that everyone suddenly becomes an expert in when most barely know the ball is round.
No one is more immersed than Lunardi, a 1982 St. Joseph’s University graduate and long-time employee of the school who still maintains his role as Hawks’ color analyst on their radio broadcasts and has since December 1990.
“I’m excited and also very reflective, because I’ve been saying on the air to anyone who will listen, that we work in life’s toy department,” Lunardi said. “Nobody died last year because we didn’t have a basketball tournament. And, we can’t bring anybody back by having a basketball tournament. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be happy about it and take some pride as a people in beginning to come out the other side.
“To me, the fact that we had a season and roughly 4,000 games played, when typically, there would be 5,000 games, and have ‘March Madness’ be the first thing to go last year, makes a lot of people reflective because of that. I’m thankful.”
This weekend Lunardi will be everywhere. ESPN has helped build Joe a bracket bunker with a sun room, which is perfect for lighting, in his Ocean City home. He’ll pour over everyone from the nation’s No. 1 team, undefeated Gonzaga, to North Carolina A&T and Winthrop.
There are two locals that will definitely be in, Colonial Athletic Conference tournament champion Drexel, making its first March Madness appearance since 1996, and perennial national powerhouse Villanova, despite its upset loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament on Thursday.
Lunardi’s path as the nation’s preeminent bracketologist began with his association with the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, “the Bible of college basketball” in the late-1980s.
While still working at St. Joe’s as a one-person media relations team in 1987, Lunardi began sending out clips to various preseason college basketball publications in the hopes of getting summer work. In 1988, he eventually got plucked to cover the Ivy League by Chris Wallace, who ran Blue Ribbon out of his garage in Buckhannon, West Virginia.
After a few years, Wallace, now a long-time executive with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzles, began his path to the NBA as a scout, giving Lunardi a more advanced role on the editorial side as Managing Editor in 1991. By 1994, Lunardi led a group of buyers with Chris Dortch to buy a controlling interest in Blue Ribbon in 1994.
“The big moment, if you will, came in 1995 by launching the Blue Ribbon Tournament Guide, in addition to the 400-page preseason guide,” Lunardi said. “The tournament guide was really a labor of love at the very beginning. We would go into my office at St. Joe’s and print that thing on a Sunday night and ship it Monday. It was 80 pages.”
Lunardi knew he arrived when in that first year, CBS opened the NCAA Tournament on Thursday and there was Jim Nantz at the studio desk with a copy of Lunardi’s book sitting next to him.
“I look up, and I’m like, ‘Holy Crap,’” Joe recalled, laughing. “The problem was, we weren’t making any money. We were paying to preview 100 teams to fit 64 teams, because we didn’t know who was going to be in the tournament.
“That’s what led me to making educated guesses on who was going to be in the tournament. I had to learn the process to cut down on the workload and the expense of the book. It originally had nothing to do with bracketology. I’m not that smart (laughs).”
Lunardi started making projections on legal pads for 64 teams. In 1996, in the beginning of ESPN.com, Lunardi made a deal to put the 64-team projections out for a few weeks in February and March in exchange for Blue Ribbon’s 800-number to order the book.
“There’s no such thing as an 800 number anymore,” Joe said. “It didn’t take long for the projections on ESPN to become bigger than the book.”
Eventually, Lunardi moved on exclusively to ESPN and sold his controlling interest in Blue Ribbon to Dortch.
Now, his smiling face is omnipresent.
This year, Lunardi is challenged with making sense of this season. Traditional college basketball blue bloods like Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky may not make the tournament. Duke may not make it for the first time in 25 years, since 1995, and Kentucky probably will not make it for the first time since 2013.
On the other side of that is Gonzaga, which can become the first undefeated national champion since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 in beating Michigan, 86-68, for the national title on March 29, 1976 in the Philadelphia Spectrum.
“It’s been a crazy season on and off the court,” Lunardi said. “For the most part, if you take a step back and look at the whole sport, the level of play has been extremely high, with one of the greatest regular seasons of the modern era in Gonzaga.
“We’ve seen this done almost entirely without fans, with kids living alone in dorm rooms and hotels, having their meals brought to them and getting swabs stuck up their noses every time they walk into an arena. Here we are in March talking about Drexel and not Duke, Kentucky and Louisville.
“That’s what makes it great. Unlike almost every other sport, where the favorites predominate, because they have the best players, in college basketball one 40-minute game is played with 70 possessions. In an NBA playoff series, over seven, 48-minute games, where there are 700 possessions, the 700 outcomes are going to be more accurate and 70 is more random.
“It’s why UMBC can upset Virginia and why the Minnesota Timberwolves can’t beat the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Lunardi likes Drexel as a No. 15 seed, while Villanova will probably be a No. 5, but could drop to a No. 6, hurt considerably by the loss Big East co-MVP senior point guard Collin Gillespie (with Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili and Villanova teammate Jeremiah Robinson-Earl). Gillespie’s season ended last week with a torn ligament injury in his left knee.
Villanova was the No. 3-seed range before the Gillespie injury and the Georgetown loss.
The four No. 1 seeds will Gonzaga, Michigan, Illinois and Baylor.
Teams that could be worth watching, according to Lunardi, are Western Kentucky and the Hilltoppers’ 6-11 center Charles Bassey, Michigan State, which could be a double-digit seed, and Big South champion Winthrop and the Eagles’ 23-1 record, which has the nation’s second-best winning percentage behind Gonzaga.
In the end, Lunardi will not waver from what he originally said before the season: He likes Baylor over Gonzaga in the finals.
The Zags are currently betting favorites, according to Unibet, at +250. Baylor is not far behind at +275. You can see all the current NCAA title odds tight here.
“This is what we know historically about the tournament, when the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, there has only been one time when all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four (2008, when Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA made it),” Lunardi said. “That tells you being the No. 1 is no guarantee for anything. If the four No. 1 always made it, no one would ever watch.
“I love Gonzaga. I love the way they play. They basically say to you we have more skill than you. We know we have more skill than you. We’re going to play faster to give that skill the greatest opportunity and if you can keep up great. We’re going to go get 90 — see if you can catch us. Having said that, I publicly picked in November before the season started for Baylor to beat Gonzaga in the championship game. I think Baylor can keep up enough to let their defense grind Gonzaga’s gears a bit. I could see it.”
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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.