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Lessons of brackets past

1/3/2012
Guess who's on the bubble yet again? Yes, it's Seth Greenberg and the Hokies. Andrew Synowiez/US Presswire

To commemorate a significant Bracketology anniversary, I wanted to dip into origins of the project and share some lessons from brackets past. But I know you're likely more keen on the here and now, so let's start off with a few observations on the brand-new Jan. 3 bracket.

• The year's most underachieving conference isn't going to be the Pac-12, mainly because not very much was expected of that league to begin with. No, the real gnashing of teeth in March is going to come from ACC country. The North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils are obvious NCAA teams, and the Virginia Cavaliers are probably going to get there for the first time in five years, but it's then a steep drop to bubble teams like the Virginia Tech Hokies (naturally) and Florida State Seminoles (suddenly). In fact, it took a late Sunday loss by the Northern Iowa Panthers to lift a fourth ACC team (Virginia Tech) into today's bracket.

• This year's Big East is the Big Ten. The latter places seven of its 12 teams into today's field, with two others -- the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Northwestern Wildcats -- knocking on the door.

• Don't freak out because the MAAC (Iona Gaels, Fairfield Stags) and OVC (Murray State Racers, Eastern Kentucky Colonels) have two teams each in today's field. Iona and Murray have solid at-large profiles, but the quirks of early-season scheduling put Fairfield and EKU at the top of the respective conference standings. If not for that, Northern Iowa and Minnesota would be the next two teams in the field. Then again, these patterns help replicate conference tournament upsets down the line, so this bracket is fairly realistic in that respect.

Brackets past

Ten years ago this week, an ESPN.com editor named Ron Buck made a decision. You can question its wisdom one way or the other, but Ron thought it was time to give the site's fledgling NCAA tournament projections better play. So yours truly got his own web page, complete with graphics and a photo (gulp!) and all manner of bells and whistles that continue to evolve.

A few years before that, then-editors Eric Schoenfeld and Howie Schwab had given a little space on something called ESPN SportsZone to a guy who'd been scribbling brackets on a napkin going all the way back to the UCLA dynasty. When the full site went live, Mark Preisler called from the TV side and put that same little guy with the big nose on ESPN News. The network survived and, when the site got a quarter-million hits on that Monday night in January 2002, there would be no turning back.

We needed a name, of course, and the blame for that goes to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mike Jensen. In a 1999-2000 interview about potential NCAA seeding for a very good Temple team, Jensen quoted you-know-who as a bracketologist. The leap from there to "Bracketology" was a short one. So here we are. And here we stay.

Buck, Andy Glockner, Brett Edgerton and Mike Hume have been among the many brains behind the beauty -- or is it the other way around? -- and we couldn't be happier to be launching the second decade of full ESPN Bracketology coverage. If you like what you read and see, thank them. If not, blame me. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it always should be. Opinions and the passion to agree or disagree are what make this enterprise the best winter hobby of all time.

What have we learned over these 10-plus years? Shockingly, I have a thought or two (or four!) on the subject ...

• The NCAA selection and seeding process is dramatically better. Yes, there are and will continue to be annual debates about the final at-large selections and occasional seeding decisions. Since we fuel many of those arguments, it would be hypocritical to say otherwise.

However, I can't think of one true national championship contender -- at least since my first public bracket in 1995 -- to be passed over by the men's basketball committee. This inclusiveness alone makes the NCAA tournament vastly superior to anything ever conceived in college football.

• If imitation is truly the best form of flattery, I am delighted with the dozens (make that hundreds and hundreds) of bracketology and related college basketball sites proliferating throughout the sport. So many of these analysts, reporters and bloggers are top-notch -- including our own, of course -- that the days of a team or player slipping through the cracks and catching us by surprise in March are long gone. How many people really knew about Larry Bird or Indiana State in 1979? Compare that to, say, Jimmer Fredette and the Brigham Young Cougars last season, and you'll have an idea.

• No one, including the men's basketball selection committee, is a slave to the RPI (at least not anymore). There was a time when RPI was a be-all, end-all of the selection and seeding process. Today, with so much more data available -- not to mention the technology to watch literally hundreds of teams each week -- the so-called "eye test" is the dominant consideration. Now I have, can and will continue to rail against the disproportionate power of how a team "looks" versus what it actually "does," but there is no question that more viewing and analysis is a good thing for the sport and its best-on-earth championship.

• The best thing to happen to the NCAA tournament and the selection committee has been V.P. Greg Shaheen. Shaheen and his stellar team not only administer the championship superbly, but they are so much more accessible than preceding generations of national staff. Shaheen and several progressive basketball committee chairs have also realized that transparency is good, that including outsiders in things like mock selection exercises is both informative and good for business, and that it's okay to admit a mistake every once in a while (e.g., BYU, 2003).

I could go on and on, but like I said before, I know you're probably (and correctly) more interested in the current season. So, we'll help you on your way with a look at this season's first installment of Tournament Odds, one of Bracketology's latest developments that illustrates the likelihood of every team in the bracket and on the bubble of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

Happy New Year!

Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. He also teaches "Fundamentals of Bracketology" online at Saint Joseph's University. Comments may be sent to bracketology@verizon.net.