Origins, bubbles, and Bracketology

On this day 25 years ago, the word “bracketologist” was used in print for quite possibly the first time. Mike Jensen dropped the neologism into a Philadelphia Inquirer article that ran on February 25, 1996.

The NCAA had just suspended Villanova star Kerry Kittles for three games for unauthorized use of a university credit card number. “You wouldn’t know anything is different if you came to watch practice for the first time,” Wildcats coach Steve Lappas was quoted as saying in that day’s Inquirer. The only difference, the coach said, was that now Kittles was “wearing a white shirt instead of a blue.”

Lappas was striking a nonchalant note, but the concern around the program was that, without Kittles on the floor, Villanova could lose what had been shaping up to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jensen speculated that the spot on the top line might now be given to Connecticut instead.

But how could anyone in 1996 game out what losing Kittles for three games might do to the Wildcats’ seeding? And what did the tournament chances look like for Philadelphia’s other programs in late February?

Jensen found a local authority.

While a lot of people think that Temple has a lot of work to do to get into the tournament, Joe Lunardi, the editor and publisher of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, isn’t among them.

“I think they’re in,” said Lunardi, who calls himself a “bracketologist.”

Lunardi uses all the criteria the committee does, including road record, record against teams in the top 25 and top 50 in the RPI, and record in the last 10 games to produce a bracket each week for ESPN’s site on the Internet….

Lunardi sees Wisconsin-Green Bay, Eastern Michigan, Santa Clara and possibly Bradley as teams that can get in even if they lose in their conference tournaments.

As for Villanova’s seed: “‘If I had to bet a mortgage payment, I’d say they’ll be a low 2,’ Lunardi said. ‘But no worse than a 3.'”

The analyses offered by Jensen and Lunardi turned out to be on the money. UConn did get the No. 1 seed. Though Joe couldn’t have known that Villanova was about to lose by 38 at Georgetown, the Wildcats did indeed drop to the No. 3 line. They ended up losing by four to No. 6 seed Louisville in the round of 32.

Temple not only got in, the Owls didn’t even break a sweat on Selection Sunday. John Chaney’s team earned a No. 7 seed and reached the round of 32. Green Bay, Santa Clara, and Bradley all received at-large bids despite having lost in their respective conference tournaments. Eastern Michigan earned an automatic bid.

One week after Jensen interviewed his local bracketologist, the new term was adapted by the Kansas City Star‘s Blair Kerkhoff to describe a profession as opposed to a professional: “This sickness of having nothing better to do than study the NCAA selecting and seeding process now has a sick name. Bracketology.”

The NCAA was still shielding actual RPI numbers from public view in 1996. Newspapers were reduced to printing disclaimers atop their reverse-engineered RPI rankings: “This list is an independent duplication of the RPI without input from the NCAA, which does not release the RPI to the public.”

In this information economy of severe scarcity and even furtive secrecy, Joe provided a service that was in high demand. By 1998, he had caught the eye of Mike DeCourcy at the Cincinnati Enquirer.

All of us are conjecturing about which teams will be included in the 64-team tournament field and how they will be seeded when the bracket is released March 8.

Bracketology. That is what Joe Lunardi calls this pursuit, to make it sound like an efficient use of his time. Lunardi is the editor and publisher of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and has become a foremost practitioner of his alleged science.

And, for him, it is a somewhat reasonable pursuit because Blue Ribbon publishes a tournament guide in the three days between the selection and opening game, with one-page stories on all 64 teams that must be edited and ready to go when the bracket is released.

“We have a somewhat vested interest in being good at forecasting who’s going to be in,” said Lunardi. He correctly predicted 63 of the 64 on the morning of selection day last March, missing only the inclusion of Southern California.

Joe’s new book with David Smale, Bracketology, tells an origin story that is both entertaining and, all things considered, of relatively recent vintage. “Full disclosure,” Joe writes. “I wasn’t even the first person to predict the bracket for the NCAA tournament. Steve Wieberg, a college columnist for USA TODAY, did it several years before I did.” (More full disclosure: Joe’s a colleague of mine at ESPN.com, and he contributed a nice quote to the back cover of my own upcoming book.)

This recency is all the more surprising since brackets and even the term “the bubble” were both established and available long before Messrs. Wieberg and Lunardi caught that lightning in their respective bottles. Brackets as a visual treatment for basketball tournaments date back to at least the 1910s, when they were employed to track entrants in the Indiana state high school championship.

(March Madness pilfered all the best ideas from Midwestern high school basketball, including, of course, the very term “March Madness,” coined by one H.V. Porter to describe the Illinois high school state tournament circa World War II. Brent Musburger repurposed it for the NCAA tournament when he worked the event for CBS starting in 1982.)

Conversely, the ubiquity of “the bubble” as a term is more difficult to explain. Its provenance is murky and, anyway, does a bubble really afford the best metaphor for college basketball teams sharing an uncertain postseason fate? It must. Usage is sovereign, and the bubble swept the field.

By 1988 at the latest, the bubble was “the ‘in’ term for where college basketball teams that may or may not have a chance to win a berth in the NCAA tournament are consigned,” according to Kevin Mackey of the Pittsburgh Press. “I’m not sure where the term originated or exactly what the significance of the word is, but it has a nice ring to it.”

The committee itself picked up the “in” term and ran with it. “There’s no minimum number of wins to get in,” committee chair Cedric Dempsey said in 1989, “and we’ll look to see how a bubble team played against one of the teams we’re comfortably putting in.”

Joe was both witness and participant, and apparently he took good notes. He knows the precise date on which ESPN.com first posted one of his mock brackets as an actual bracket visually: January 7, 2002.

For the first time, the projections were more than line-by-line text on a plain HTML page…. ESPN linked to its new creation from the front page of the site. I remember there being something like a quarter-million page views in an hour and a half. The college basketball editor at the time, Ron Buck, called me and said, “Everybody in the newsroom is going like ‘Holy you-know-what.'”

Recent history gets its due as well, up to and including the dust-up last March between Joe and Indiana head coach Archie Miller. The episode marked one of the very last water-cooler topics in our line of work before the onset of the pandemic. Coming across this passage in Bracketology brought home how the coronavirus ripped a canyon through our normal trivial memories last March 12.

Reading Miller’s comments — the coach likened Joe’s work to “Sesame Street” — imparted the sensation of remembering something that I hadn’t thought about for one second since it happened. Yet I also recalled at once that the episode had seemed important to me at the time.

“For an hour or two near the end of the aborted 2020 season,” Joe writes, “Indiana coach Archie Miller was a complete jackass. His comments toward me were out of line. That said, I can’t imagine the amount of pressure the head coach of the Hoosiers is under to make the NCAA tournament.” Nor can any of us.

Joe answers one vital question for us every year: Who’s getting in? He now has plenty company in providing that answer, of course, and bracketmatrix.com is both an invaluable resource and a prodigious feat of aggregation. But Joe got in on that ground floor, and early arrivals get to reap at least a few rewards. In Joe’s case, those rewards include a nifty industry-specific nickname. No, not “Joey Brackets.” If you’re one of the cool kids in Bristol, you greet Joe with just, “Hey, Brackets.”

In a sense, all of us who love college basketball do mock brackets. Most of us do them partially and haphazardly in our minds. (“No way that team’s a 4 seed.”) A dedicated few actually fill out complete brackets that adhere to the NCAA’s rules and guidelines. But only one of us, so far, got to emcee a promotion at the Westminster dog show and call it Barketology.

My colleague has made a name for himself, and in fact Joe lives life serene in the knowledge that at least one former POTUS knows who he is. Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, did have a tougher time placing Joe. Needless to say, that was one diverse green room that brought those two together. Truly, the book’s a great read. …

Except, that is, for its total and indeed shameful lack of content regarding ESPN.com’s Bubble Watch. What a travesty.

One final origin story. Bubble watching as a recurring feature and “Bubble Watch” as a name appear to have begun at ESPN.com with Andy Glockner in 2005. Previously there had been a Cinderella Watch which spotted mid-majors that could pose a threat come March. Andy retrofitted the feature as a deeper dive into the teams that Joe Lunardi was listing every few days as just in or just out.

The idea clearly had legs, and the very name now adorns an entire product category. Today every reputable content provider has a bubble watch to call its own. (In addition, there’s a “Bubble Watch” in Southern California that has the temerity to be about something actually important, namely, inflated real estate pricing.) People like bubble watches because they want to know if their team’s going to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The demand is there.

One often hears of this or that legendary 20th century figure in college basketball “growing the sport” or making some catalytic change that “made” March Madness. I’m not so sure. Perhaps the only truly essential genius here was and is Naismith. He invented a sport that was globally popular more or less instantly yet is still being perfected 130 years later. People love Naismith’s game, and the demand is there every day for good content about it. As Bracketology shows in an engagingly direct manner, Joe’s always answered that call with aplomb, quips, and meticulously constructed brackets.