By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
This season, there is a mock bracket on almost every cyberspace street corner, and has been since the day after last season's Final Four. One Web page called The Bracket Project compares seeds of teams in 31 different mock brackets that come in all shapes and sizes. One Web site, Bracket Racket, has the heading: "Joe Lunardi, meet your nemesis." Another, the Bracket Board, states: "If a problem comes along, you must bracket." And still another reads: Shelby's Bracket W.A.G, which stands for "Wild Ass Guess."
All you need is a bracket and a dream. "And a Web site," said 27-year-old Drew Barnette, an academic adviser at Wright State whose mock bracket is read by tens of thousands each day. Unlike some, Barnette's aspirations are only to be a "super fan."
On the other hand, David Mihm, a 24-year-old West Coast Web site designer for small businesses, views Lunardi as an "inspiration." The traffic for his Web site has doubled every year since he started posting mock brackets six years ago.
Matthew Stevens, who contributes to Mihm's tournament coverage, is an aspiring journalist at Eastern Illinois University who would like bracketology to be recognized as a "legit science."
For Doug McKinney, a 23-year-old Radford graduate, the bracket is something he works on every day. McKinney, who owns the Web site, http://www.featurepresentationonline.com, tries to think like a selection committee member and follow in the footsteps of Lunardi and Palm.
"They are pioneers," said McKinney, who lives in Silver Spring. "I definitely look up to them as idols."
Mark Gorby, a 23-year-old from Clarksburg, W.Va., is in his third season posting mock brackets online and said "everyone would like to be like Lunardi." Gorby, who is studying to be a high school teacher unless a dream bracket job arises, views himself as being in the next tier behind Lunardi and Palm, but added, "They are a little more accurate, but not a whole heck of a lot."
Others who regularly project the tournament field come from a different perspective. The pride of Jim Colton, a 33-year-old with an MBA from University of Chicago, is the mathematical rating system he derived, the Colton Index. Colton, who works at a Chicago bank, said he has had dialogue with two former selection committee members and would like nothing more than to see the committee do away with the RPI, which he considers flawed.
Colton represents the segment of the population, however small, that chooses to calibrate college basketball as much as celebrate it. One reason is that the selection process has become formulaic, according to ESPN analyst Jay Bilas.
Bilas told his network that it would be particularly interesting to take a student from MIT who has never seen a basketball game and give him the bracketing procedures, relevant statistics and what the committee has done in the past. "Put that person in a room during Championship Week," Bilas said, "and they would do just as well as the committee. They would get 64 out of 65. I think it has become that predictable."
But because of Palm and Lunardi, it also has become more understandable, at least to the public. If he has made a contribution, Lunardi said, it is that mock brackets help the complicated selection process look more transparent. He added that the committee "is not 10 people who take 20 minutes, have a pizza and a six-pack, and throw it together."
Like Palm, Lunardi has been compiling mock brackets since the mid-1990s. It was not until mid-January 2002 when ESPN put Lunardi's bracket on its Web page that he fully understood the insatiable appetite for them. Within 90 minutes of posting the bracket, the page received 250,000 hits, Lunardi said. This season, it is common for Lunardi to get 1,000 questions in the first 30 minutes of an online chat with fans.
"It really makes you wonder about the gross national product of the country," Lunardi said. "I get e-mails like, 'Dear Joe, I have a patient in here, but I just stepped forward to my laptop.' Or, 'Joe, I'm a trial lawyer and am very analytical and I don't like where you seeded this team.' I'll write back, 'I don't tell you how to do your closing argument; don't tell me where to seed Michigan State.' "
This week, Lunardi and Palm will work 18-hour days. If one could remain awake for 24 hours, Lunardi said, there would be enough to do. Palm's wife, Cheri, said it gets to the point where Palm doesn't get enough sleep.
"We usually don't talk to Jerry" on Selection Sunday, she said. "At some point he decides, 'I'm done with my bracket.' The big decision on Selection Sunday is whether we will be able to go to church."
The heavy workload is not only reserved for the most established. In the week leading up to last year's Selection Sunday, Mihm, the Web site designer, spent 60 hours researching the field and updating his bracket daily, a responsibility that this season likely will interfere with his day job.
"I've got clients lined up this year," Mihm said, "and I'm trying to tell them, 'Hey, it might be the second or third week of March before you get something from me.' "
Kulenych, the high school teacher, said it will be nearly impossible to concentrate during Championship Week, so "we show a lot of movies," he said, perhaps half-jokingly. Kulenych's partner on his Bracketology 101 Web site is Craig Gately, a San Diego-based Marine who wonders how much time he will have for the bracket next season because in August he will be deployed to Iraq.
"But if something comes up down the line, that would be great," Gately said. "There are other bracketologists out there who started out a couple years ago as well."
The one characteristic that all bracket connoisseurs share is that by next Sunday, when March Madness truly begins, their madness ends.
"Selection Sunday is our national championship day," Kulenych said. "Not that we care less about the tournament, but we do so much work leading up to it that it is a huge letdown the next day. Everyone is amped to fill their brackets out and pick upsets, but we're bummed out. Our work is done."