Sunday, August 31, 2014
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A few minutes with Joe Lunardi

One of the side benefits of covering the Drexel-St. Joe's game Wednesday night was catching up with Joe Lunardi, the ESPN.com bracketologist who also does color commentary on the Hawks' radio broadcasts.

A few minutes with Joe Lunardi

Joe Lunardi working a St. Joe´s game at Hagan Arena. (Clem Murray/Staff file photo)
Joe Lunardi working a St. Joe's game at Hagan Arena. (Clem Murray/Staff file photo)

One of the side benefits to covering the Drexel-St. Joe's game Wednesday night was catching up with Joe Lunardi, the ESPN.com bracketologist who also does color commentary on the Hawks' radio broadcasts.

As often happens during our chats, we bounced around a bunch of local and national subjects. Here's a transcript of our conversation.

How good is Villanova?

I think there's two things right now. Most regulars know I'm not a huge fan of the "eye test" at the end of the year, but if you just watch them now, they are competing in a way that makes you think that this is completely real. 

They have a defensive intensity that they didn't have last year. On offense, they share the ball. And it doesn't matter when they play small, because [James] Bell and especially [JayVaughn] Pinkston are such instinctive rebounders that they clean up the mess.

Obviously, they came in here against St. Joe's and lit it up, and it was ugly for the Hawks. But against La Salle the other day, they missed, what, 19 of their first 20-some threes*, and still pulled away because they do all of the other things well. So that's the eye test part.

Then you look at their per-possession metrics, and they're off-the-chart great. They're top-10 good. So I think they're really real, and I think that they're going to be in a league that isn't going to beat them up the way the Big East has in the past. And I think that will serve them well for seeding purposes.

* - It wasn't quite that bad, but it wasn't far off that that either. The Wildcats missed 15 of their first 20 three-point attempts against the Explorers, including 13 of 16 in the first half.

They're going to play Syracuse soon. The Orange, like the Wildcats are 10-0. They're No. 2 in the both the Associated Press and coaches' Top 25 polls, No. 3 in the RPI, No. 7 in Ken Pomperoy's rankings and No. 1 in Basketball State's rankingsAre they really worthy of those lofty perches?

Also, how much will it help that Villanova has played in the Carrier Dome before - even though the stakes are a lot lower this time, because it's a non-conference game?

Generally, Villanova has played well in the Carrier Dome over the years, and I would expect that they will play well in this kind of game. Now, as is often the case against Syracuse, they're going to bait you into taking unguarded threes and hope you miss, and then squeeze you later with their zone.

Syracuse has more size, more on-paper basketball skill. I would expect that game to be in no more than a six-to-eight-point range in Syracuse's favor.

At the start of the season, I thought that of the six teams in Philadelphia, three had a decent chance of making it into the field of 68: Villanova, Saint Joseph's and La Salle. I would still say that about 'Nova and St. Joe's. You could have even sold me on an over-under of three and a half out of six, with Drexel being the half.

I still think the Dragons have a shot - you have them in your first bracket of the season - but it looks like La Salle has a lot more work to do, and maybe St. Joe's has a bit less work to do at this point.

Well, I think Drexel is actually in the next best position behind Villanova today, and going forward. Because I think it's a three-team league in the CAA this year:Towson and Delaware along with Drexel. I just think that's because Drexel is the most veteran of those groups, and there's not this 800-pound gorilla of having to play the conference tournament down in Richmond anymore. Half the teams from the old CAA that were good are gone. So I would say Drexel would be next up.

And then, I don't know if there's a next up. I don't think St. Joe's is anywhere near a tournament team on paper or on the court. I think Temple will continue to improve, but is ultimately limited offensively. And they happen to be in a league with several 800-pound gorillas, in a year when they are reloading a bit. So I don't think I'm super-optimistic about either.

I just don't think La Salle - [Tyreek] Duren isn't healthy, and I think they're having a little bit of a hangover from last year. I think what La Salle people need to remember - and I tried to say this in the offseason - is that they needed, in a 36-hour period from the middle of Friday of Selection Weekend until Sunday, about six or seven coin flips to all come up heads. They got them all, and then to their credit, they absolutely ran with it.

But if you now pulled a coin out of your pocket and flipped it seven times, and I pulled a coin out of my pocket and flipped it seven times, we're not getting 14 heads. Unless they're markedly better this year - and if anything, without [Ramon] Galloway, they're a little bit worse - you're asking for another seven straight coin flips. I just think that's unlikely.

You mentioned Temple's place in the American Athletic Conference, and it brings this question to mind. We know that bids aren't granted by league, but the strength of the American Athletic Conference and the Big East will be a factor at some point for the Owls and Villanova, respectively.

What kind of a task do those conferences face as their individual teams try to prove how good they are relative to everybody else?

Well let's start with the American, because it's really a one-year answer for them. Rutgers is leaving, Louisville is leaving. Cincinnati and UConn are just hoping the phone rings.

So is Temple, but we'll leave that out of the conversation for now.

Right. The way Temple and Fran Dunphy operate is more than likely suitable to be at-large worthy most of the time in their new league, once Louisville is out of it. I think what's ultimately happened is that Temple has weakened its best sport, basketball, to a degree, to once again feed a football beast that has been largely unloved for 30 years. That's just my opinion.

And I can think of a few hundred Temple students, if not more, who would agree with you wholeheartedly.

But that horse is out of the barn, and I've already thrown enough metaphors into this that I should probably stay away from any more.

I hope for the sake of Temple basketball, which has just an incredibly good tradition and history behind it, that this doesn't turn out to be in the long run like an upscale version of those few years when La Salle was in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and fell off the map.

Temple is not going to fall off the map, because they're starting at a higher place. But there's little to no doubt in my mind that two or three years from now, the Atlantic 10 will be a better basketball conference than the American. And it would have been even better if Temple was still in it.

Now, Villanova is in a different situation. This Big East is in for the long haul, obviously. because there's a lot of TV money behind it. And with or without expansion, it is going to be a very solid, multi-bid league. Is it going to regularly send more than half of its teams to the tournament the way the old Big East did? I highly doubt it.

But they need to get smart about non-conference scheduling. They never had to before, because there were always games against Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame on their schedule. Now they are going to have to get these Syracuse home-and-home series, because not every league game is going to be a great RPI game.

The Big East would probably argue that having so many teams in NBA arenas, and having pretty good brand name recognition, will help attract marquee opponents.

Correct. And why can't they still get games against Duke or Kansas at the Wells Fargo Center? Villanova should regularly be in the top third of that league, and the top third of that league is regularly going to be in the tournament.

Temple was picked fifth in the American preseason poll, behind Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. That might not sound like such a bad thing at first, but there's a big drop from No. 4 to No. 5. Villanova was picked fourth in the Big East preseason poll. There might be five teams in that conference for whom if all of the breaks go right, they make it. And the same goes for the American.

Knowing the teams in play here, which of the two conferences is likely to get to five bids?

The Big East by far. There's going to be separation in the American, and it's going to leave Temple and SMU and whoever else behind. In the Big East - like the old, old Big East - there's going to be a lot of teams that are 10-8 or 9-9, and it's going to come down to their non-conference schedule.

Villanova, Creighton and Georgetown are near-locks, although Georgetown has been a little bit off. Marquette actually has been more than a little bit off, and they were picked to win. But Villanova's ascendance has helped the Big East in the aggregate.

Then you've got - I can tell you right now that Butler, Xavier, Providence and St. John's are the next for. They all think they're going, because they've all called or written to me in the last 48 hours. And I've tried to nicely say, "You're not getting eight." I'm waiting to hear from Seton Hall and DePaul as soon as we're done here. They're not bad, but they can't all win enough games, because they're playing a true round-robin.

So, my last question...

Penn isn't going to make it.

Ha. I know Penn isn't going to make it. But I do want to ask about Princeton, because they have got some pretty impressive numbers at the moment. They're ranked No. 66 by Pomeroy, No. 34 by the RPI and No. 17 by Basketball State. There are some people who think the Tigers might get enough coin flips to go their way that the Ivy League might get two bids this year with Princeton and Harvard. What will it take for that to happen?

What's the best win that either Princeton or Harvard has right now?

I don't know off the top of my head.*

* - And there's really no excuse for that, because Princeton won at Penn State on Saturday. They've also won at Bucknell, which is even better by the RPI rankings. Harvard's best win isn't as obvious: Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Great Alaska Shootout.

Yeah. And while the numbers say that again, yes, it could happen, I don't know that we'll ever be any closer than we were the year of the turnaround buzzer-beater shot in the playoff game [in 2011 by Princeton's Douglas Davis to beat Harvard].

I think Harvard, by virtue of having played at Colorado and in the Great Alaska Shootout, they've got the better résumé. Princeton has some good wins, but Harvard has games against Boston College and Connecticut still to come. The Tigers don't have that kind of opportunity. 

So I'd think the way to two bids would be Princeton winning the league, perhaps in a playoff again, and Harvard getting an at-large bid.

It would be one of the coolest things in the history of Bracketology. I just think it's numerically unlikely. And this is a case where an Ivy League tournament might actually help.

Oh, you had to go there.

Blasphemy, I know.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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