Surveying the city with Joe Lunardi

Before the Temple-Maryland game Saturday morning at the Palestra, I spent a few minutes chatting with Joe Lunardi about postseason scenarios for the city’s teams and leagues.

It is getting to be that time of year where the bracketologist and St. Joe’s radio analyst is quite busy. In his most recent bracket, Lunardi has Temple in the field as an at-large, Penn in the play-in game [on a league standings technicality], and La Salle among the Next Four Out.

So we had plenty to discuss. Enjoy.

What does Temple have to do to lock down an at-large NCAA Tournament bid?

The top of the Atlantic 10 is so muddled that we still need to see some separation with Temple, Xavier, Dayton and Saint Louis. It doesn’t help that the Owls are 1-1 against that group, and they have Xavier coming in.

I just think that there needs to be separation, and Temple needs to be in that top two or three in the league to make their non-league wins stand out.

How much does it help that some of the power conferences are struggling this season? The Selection Committee has to fill the bracket somehow.

It never hurts. I’m sure every year I’m quoted by you and others as saying that the bubble is weak. It must be in the Bracketology Bible that I get paid to say that.

But the bubble is really weak. I put a team into the last four out this morning, Iowa State, which I don’t know that they’ve really done anything significant away from home. So any separation – certainly the Atlantic 10 can go three deep. I suppose that if everything breaks right in Atlantic City, they could go four deep.

I’m not predicting that. But I think ultimately, Temple is still the second-best team in the league, and will be there when it matters.

When St. Joe’s beat Creighton and Villanova last month, people started talking about whether the Hawks might be able to make the NCAA Tournament. How far off the pace are they now?

Not as far as people think, but they probably weren’t as close as people thought after those wins.

Even as a Saint Joseph’s person, I would have to admit that to the national evaluator, a home court win over a sub-.500 Big East team – which is what Villanova is – isn’t something that is going to be bragged about in the Selection Committee room.

So Creighton is their big scalp, and they’re 2-5 on the road. They’ve got opportunities coming up – certainly the game at Temple in a week is critical. They can’t afford to lose any more home games to teams in the league like they did against Charlotte.

And then they need to pick up a scalp or two on the road. They got half a scalp at Xavier this week, playing without the league’s leading scorer in Carl Jones and being competitive for about 25 minutes. But at the end of the day, that’s not good enough.

I thought coming into the year that if everything went right for the Hawks, they’d be an NIT team, and that’s what they look like to me right now. But there are still opportunities for them.

One might argue that Temple has to win that game next weekend too.

You could argue that. I just think that when you have a win over Duke on your résumé, you have a little more room to spare.

We’ve talked about how close Saint Joseph’s is. La Salle is also a bit off the NCAA Tournament pace, but they’re having one of the best years they’ve had in quite a while. How far off of at least an NIT pace, if not something a little bigger, are they?

I think if I did an S-Curve right this minute, the Hawks and the Explorers would be neck-and-neck. They were neck-and-neck last Sunday night when I did it for real.

Computer numbers-wise, the Hawks have it all over the Explorers in terms of strength of schedule. I guess you could argue that the win over Creighton at home for Saint Joseph’s was a better win than the win by La Salle at home over Xavier.

Except my eyes tell me that when Xavier is Xavier, they’re better than Creighton. They are a much better defensive team than Creighton is. But Creighton has a first-team All-America, and they’re getting a lot of attention.

I think that one of the most interesting games in the city, and in the Atlantic 10 this year, will be St. Joe’s and La Salle here on the first Saturday of February. I can’t remember the last time that they were both in postseason contention in the same season. It’s to John Giannini’s credit, given what he lost, and it’s to Phil Martelli’s credit, given how young they really are.

What does Drexel have to do to take the next step and finally make the NCAA Tournament?

If Drexel wants to be in the four-letter tournament, they have to win their league. On a national level, in terms of non-conference wins and at-large consideration, the CAA has not been very good this year.

By that do you mean they have to win the conference tournament, or can they win the regular season and lose in the tournament?

I don’t think they can get in without winning the automatic bid. The CAA just doesn’t have enough non-conference beef this year. And that’s ironic to say, after a three-bid performance last year, and of course VCU’s run all the way to the Final Four.

I try to think of important non-conference wins for the CAA, and what does it tell you that you and I are standing here, and our eyes are squinting and our brows are furrowed, and we can’t think of any.

[I later went through the list of Red Line Upsets for this season, and the CAA only accounted for five. VCU beat UAB and South Florida, Old Dominion beat East Carolina, Northeastern beat St. John’s and Old Dominion beat South Florida. Of the teams beaten, only South Florida is in the top 100 of the RPI, and they’re No. 98.]

Now, Drexel’s playing way better they were a month or two ago, and to my eyes they might actually be the best team in the CAA. But the next time a team outside the Virginia nexus wins that conference tournament in Richmond – it’s been a long time.

[UNC-Wilmington in 2006, to be precise. It hasn’t actually been that long, but the Seahawks are the only team from outside Virginia that has won the CAA Tournament since the conference’s major realignment in 2001. They did so in 2006, 2003 and 2002.]

How many Big East teams will make the NCAA Tournament

At least seven or eight Big East teams will make it - because of bulk, not quality. You’re still talking about a league that has the overwhelming No. 1 team in the country, Syracuse, and the defending national champion [Connecticut].

But you look at some of the other teams that you thought were going to be Final Four-type teams, and they’ve all got serious holes.

Pittsburgh chief among them, I’d say.

Oh my goodness, yes. And I was on the Pitt bandwagon. Louisville seems to lose a player about every 45 minutes. Villanova would have hoped to be a bubble team, or a little above, and that’s not happening – at least not yet. Connecticut can’t seem to get out of its own way sometimes.

Right now, the second-place team is Cincinnati, with only one loss in the league. Who would have thought that?

So I would say seven or eight, but it’s not going to be a vintage Big East year in the tournament unless it comes out the team wearing orange.

How far back of the NCAA Tournament group is Villanova?

I think they’ll finish between No. 9 and No. 12, although I suppose it’s possible they could finish in the bottom four. I just think there’s too much winning history on the staff, and with the returning players.

They’re coming closer, and they’re working at it, and you can see the progress. It jus hasn’t translated yet into the win column, short of the breakthrough against Seton Hall.

What will it take for the Ivy League to get two NCAA Tournament bids this season?

It’s not going to happen. For those who really study it, and I know you do, the two bids listed now are the annual quirk of the early Ivy League schedule. Penn is leading the league at 2-0, and Harvard – the presumptive candidate [to win the conference] – is just 1-0.

Harvard would move into a first-place tie if they sweep Dartmouth, and they would then take the automatic bid slot and Penn would drop out.

Harvard is a nice team. I don’t think they’re an at-large team.

Are the Crimson one of the 25 best teams in the nation, as the coaches’ poll would have us believe?

No, they are not. And I’m not saying that in any kind of bad way. I’ve seen them in person, and they are a good team. Any talk of them being anywhere near the best Ivy League team ever is silly.

They’re not as good as Cornell two years ago, they’re nowhere near as good as the Jerome Allen teams at Penn [in the 1990’s], and they’re nowhere near as good Princeton in 1998, which got a No. 5 seed.

They have an unusually athletic front court and experienced guards, but I don’t think there’s anything explosive bout them on a national level.

So if they were to lose a conference title playoff game, they’d be out of contention for the NCAA Tournament?

I think so. They were out last year in the same scenario, and I’m not sure that the team that would push them like Princeton did last year is as good as that Princeton team was.

By definition, for them to get into a playoff, they would have to have at least one bad loss, or maybe more. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think they’re either going to run [the table] and be clear, or they’re going to lose a couple of road games and win the league by two losses over a three- or four-loss team.

Penn is decent, Princeton’s coming back, Yale’s pretty good. So it’s not going to be two teams going 13-1. I just don’t see it happening.