Need for Information Is Creating a Bracket
Sunday, March 4, 2007
Chris Kulenych is a high school English teacher who enjoys college basketball so much that in the wee hours of the morning he retreats to a place in his home he calls the War Room, where he analyzes games, sifts through mounds of statistics and telephones his cross-country partner, all in an attempt to project the NCAA tournament field better than anyone ever has.
"My fiancee will be in bed at 1 a.m. and be like, 'Just pick the last team for God's sake, does it really matter that much?' " said the 26-year-old Kulenych, who lives in Milford, Conn. "She knows how important it is to us, but she doesn't understand how important it is to the college basketball world."
The only bracket that truly matters is the one the NCAA tournament selection committee will unveil a week from today, but that has not stopped mock brackets from becoming, in the eyes of some, as important as the games themselves. Kulenych is among a growing number of individuals with traditional day jobs who have used the blogosphere to become something that did not exist last century: the next great bracketologist.
Those who project the best have been called nothing less than idols by a host of able wannabes. Young basketball players have Michael Jordan; aspiring bracketologists have Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm. They call ESPN's Lunardi the Godfather of Bracket and independent analyst Palm a numbers-crunching pioneer.
Any college basketball fan worth his pompom is familiar with Lunardi and Palm, who try to read the minds of the committee members and give fans a daily snapshot of where their teams are likely to be seeded if the tournament field were unveiled today. Lunardi, who also works in the public relations office at Saint Joseph's University, said the word "pioneer" is accurate, but added, "Whether I am a pioneer in anything that matters is subject to debate."
It matters to those who made 10 million visits to Lunardi's mock bracket page at ESPN.com in the two-month run-up to the tournament in some years. It matters to those who e-mail him in mid-July urging him to update his bracket for the following year's tournament, which then is only eight short months away. And it matters to the college officials who regularly drain his cellphone battery.
"Teams are calling, coaches are calling, conferences are calling, all asking, 'Where do you think we are?' " Lunardi said. "You almost feel bad because they are so desperate to know. I will have to say, well, you know I really don't have a vote."
Neither does Palm, who was a computer programmer before tending to his Web site full time in 2002. In addition to projecting the bracket, he also simulates the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement the selection committee uses to help determine berths. Palm said he has supplemented income from about 1,400 online subscriptions and television analyst appearances by doing consulting work for a "handful" of Division I schools looking to upgrade their schedules to enhance their RPI rankings.
Palm, who works from home in Indiana, said: "This whole explosion, it found me more than I sought it out. I didn't run away from it either. I guess you can say we started something of a cottage industry, huh?"
It is a phenomenon no one in the sport can ignore.
"If you are a college basketball player, you are aware of it," Maryland's Ekene Ibekwe said. For players around the country, Maryland Coach Gary Williams said following mock brackets has become a "second sport."
Seth Greenberg, the Virginia Tech coach, was more blunt, saying: "It is sick. It is nuts. But it's the culture and society we live in. Everyone wants more information; everyone wants to have an opinion; everyone wants to be the first to say, 'This guy is in, this guy is out.' But you've got to give Joe Lunardi credit: He's created kind of a cult following, because he is right most of the time."