Throughout his career at ESPN, Joe Lunardi has developed a reputation as the most reliable prognosticator of the NCAA tournament field prior to Selection Sunday. Whether he has a spy camera in each committee member’s house, has psychic powers or is just really good at his job, Lunardi is invariably on the money with his predictions.
And with the conference tournament schedule sending seedings flying all over the place, Lunardi’s prognostications get both easier and more difficult at the same time. Season-long bubble teams fall by the wayside quickly and top teams ascend to lock up their position, bracket predictions get etched in stone. But things vary so much in such a short period that it’s impossible to get everything right.
It’s easy to critique where Lunardi has each team going and say he’s wrong. If you want to do that, just check out any comments section in the history of the Internet. They’ll tell you. Trust me. But let’s for a second imagine Lunardi’s latest prediction was correct. No errors whatsoever. He pitches the Don Larsen perfect game of bracketology.
What would happen then? Here is a complete breakdown of which teams would make the Final Four in Lunardi’s latest bracket.
(Note: You can check out Joe Lunardi’s bracket here.)
East Region: No. 1 Duke Blue Devils
Heading into the ACC tournament, Duke looked like an unstoppable juggernaut. Ryan Kelly’s return had brought the Blue Devils back to life from a 9-4 semi-swoon without the senior forward, and they looked to be stabilizing their rotation at the perfect time.
Then Dez Wells had the game of his life, Maryland sent Duke packing in the quarterfinals and folks did what they always do: overreact. It led many with a strong case of recency bias to question whether the Blue Devils—the No. 1 RPI team in the country, with a 6-1 record versus RPI Top 25 teams—would even get a top seed.
Though the selection committee is prone to recency bias itself, there shouldn’t be much question about the Dukies’ overall resume.
While this is all theoretical, Lunardi has the Blue Devils as a top seed but did them no favors in their region. Florida and Ohio State are the toughest No. 2-No. 3 combination on the entire bracket, both fully capable of looking like the best team in the nation when at their best.
Duke does stand on a teetering balance beam. If one top player in their rotation goes down with injury or gets into foul trouble at the wrong time, the Blue Devils may well fall victim to an upset. And considering their semi-shocking shooting woes against Maryland—they hit only four of 25 three-point attempts—their vulnerabilities are only exacerbated when shots aren’t falling.
Those are criticisms one could theoretically project onto any team. Duke is just more star-heavy, and its depth problems are more pronounced than most top-flight teams. But that fact remains that the Blue Devils also boast the arguably the most “stars” in college basketball and have been the most consistent team in the nation, save for possibly Indiana.
Very real vulnerabilities exist, but Duke just barely beats Ohio State in the Elite Eight to advance.
South Region: No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks
It seems odd at that Kansas was once considered a danger to fall outside the Top 25, but it’s true. Following three straight losses to unranked opponents in early February, the Jayhawks were reeling. Elijah Johnson’s shooting had gone off the rails, Jeff Withey was whimpering in the middle and the team scored exactly 13 points in the first half against TCU.
Following that performance, head coach Bill Self—who was coaching the fifth-ranked team in the nation at the time, mind you—called out his team with a hyperbolic semi-rant.
"It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor," Self said (via USA Today). "Since Dr. [James] Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams and lost to the YMCA the first couple years."
Kansas lost to Oklahoma in its next game and the downward spiral seemed to be in full effect. Once the team left Norman, though, somehow the ship was instantly righted. Kansas eviscerated then-No. 10 Kansas State at home and used that game as a springboard for a seven-game winning streak in which it won by an average of 21.1 points per contest.
And other than a strange drubbing at the hands of Baylor, the Jayhawks’ dominance has continued. All but one of their last nine victories have come by 12 or more points, and their midseason woes seem to be a thing of the past.
Though Kansas is still a No. 2 seed on Lunardi’s latest look at the bracket, it has a pretty strong chance in this version of the South Region. Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 12 of its past 13 games after a midseason swoon, and boasts one of the nation’s best backcourts in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
Other than the Cardinals, the Jayhawks should be a pretty solid favorite over every other team in their theoretical region. Michigan State is a very inconsistent team shooting wise, while Arizona and Wisconsin are both solid, but they're nowhere near Final Four worthy.
West Region: No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
Every season, there is one team whose Final Four journey seems preordained by the bracket it is placed in. Most of the time, it’s a top seed getting placed with questionable tertiary teams (like Kentucky last year, though it’s hard to imagine any path stopping that team) or a No. 2 or No. 3 seed getting the “dud” of No. 1 seeds (think UCLA drawing Memphis in 2006).
If Lunardi’s bracket breakdown winds up being correct, Michigan would almost certainly become the “obvious” team. Gonzaga’s status as a virtual lock No. 1 seed has been the source of controversy due to its weak schedule, while No. 2 seed Miami is completely unproven in the tournament and hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire offensively.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines are unquestionably one of the nation’s most talented teams.
Trey Burke is a National Player of the Year candidate who creates offense better than any individual player in the country. He’s averaging 19.2 points and 6.7 assists per game while knocking down shots from all over the floor. Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics give Burke the best offensive rating of any player in the country who uses 28 percent or more of his team’s possessions—an important indicator of the young guard’s consistent efficiency.
Burke is surrounded by a varied stable of players—young and experienced—who come with a ton of on-court clout.
Tim Hardaway Jr. has improved himself every season as a player, rounding into form as an efficient scorer who can hit a clutch shot and knows how to win ballgames. Nik Stauskas has possibly the best jump shot of any freshman in the country, while fellow frosh Glenn Robinson III is a steady, smart player who is making nearly 58 percent of his shots for the season.
That being said, Michigan would be far from a certainty if it faces stiffer regional competition.
The Wolverines are only 6-6 since starting the season 20-1, thanks to a defense that’s gone from shaky but semi-efficient to sieve-like overnight. They gave up 81 points to a Penn State team that (allegedly) built its Bryce Jordan Center using bricks laid by the team’s shooters and were eliminated from the Big Ten tournament after giving up 51 points in the second half to noted offensive eyesore Wisconsin.
Luckily, the Wolverines get to play in a region where the questions are greater about other teams than about them.
Midwest Region: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers
While there was no wire-to-wire juggernaut that rampaged through the college basketball season the way Kentucky did last season, Indiana feels as close as we’re going to get in 2013. Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are two of the 10 best players in the nation, guys so good they may eliminate themselves from Player of the Year contention by splitting the “Indiana” vote.
Oladipo is one of the most impressive on-ball defenders in recent college basketball history. A tenacious, smart defender, Oladipo’s hands and feet are in constant motion and his lateral quickness boggles the minds of opposing ball-handlers. He’s also an athletic marvel on the offensive end, throwing down ferocious dunks on the regular en route to scoring 13.7 points per game while knocking down over 60 percent of his shots.
Zeller, who will likely be a lottery pick along with Oladipo, is the most all-around gifted center in college basketball. He’s a nightly 17-8 and a brilliant scorer down in the paint. A sophomore, the seven-footer has improved just about every facet of his game and will create matchup problems for whoever tries to take him on down low.
Outside of Zeller and Oladipo, Indiana has the one thing that’s always critical in March: shooters. Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford both make a shade under half of their three-point shots, and the Hoosiers rank second in the nation in three-point efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).
Perhaps the only team Indiana doesn’t want to see in its bracket is Wisconsin. The Badgers defeated the Hoosiers on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament, and they have now won 12 straight against their conference rivals.
Other than that, it’s hard to see a team this loaded not making the Final Four—especially considering the dearth of top-tier teams.