ESPN ‘Bracketologist’ Joe Lunardi Discusses Penn State Hoops’ Unprecedented Season
Despite losing its eight-game win streak to Illinois on Tuesday night, Penn State men’s basketball remains a top team in the nation and has a clear path to this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 9 in the country, are 20-6 overall, and have lost just two games at the Bryce Jordan Center so far this season. This dream season has helped to make Happy Valley a part of the wild universe that is college basketball, as Pat Chambers’ squad has received plenty of national attention.
The craziness that comes with college basketball is best seen in what has become known as “bracketology.” ESPN’s own Joe Lunardi is the father of this season-long art of predicting exactly where each and every team will fall in the big dance, as he releases a mock bracket every week starting in late July and leading up all the way to the tournament. In this season’s first edition — all the way back on July 24 — Lunardi had Penn State as a No. 8 seed playing Georgetown.
Many Nittany Lion fans (including myself) had taken a cynical approach towards Penn State basketball and didn’t think a tournament berth was in the cards for the Nittany Lions. Things have clearly changed though, as Lamar Stevens and Co. have drummed up plenty of community support with their winning ways, and Lunardi had them as a No. 3 seed in his most recent prediction.
Lunardi backed up his early belief of the Nittany Lions when he spoke with Onward State on Wednesday afternoon.
“I think it’s one of the best stories in college basketball this season,” he said. “I was pretty convinced this summer that Penn State was going to be a tournament team.”
Lunardi’s reason for this belief? Lamar Stevens.
“I thought he was going to be a first-team All-Big Ten player, and generally when you have that, you can win enough games in your league to go to the tournament,” Lunardi said.
However, Lunardi added that no one, including him, could’ve seen a top-10 ranking come for the Nittany Lions. While the ranking may not last after Tuesday’s loss to the Illini, Lunardi explained that it doesn’t change just how remarkable this season has been for Penn State.
“Whether this team is a No. 3 seed or a No. 4 seed, or even a six or seven, they’re going to have a real opportunity to be in the Sweet Sixteen,” Lunardi said. “If you’re a Penn State basketball fan, that’s like the Final Four. That week of hype and attention gives a team a brand. It doesn’t last forever, but it lasts a good long time.”
Aside from Stevens and several other players who have stepped into massive roles this season, plenty of the credit to this year’s season lies with Chambers. In his ninth season, the head coach has certainly been through some trying times, but he’s managed to stay the course and develop a culture of basketball fandom that is truly unprecedented at Penn State.
Lunardi, a Philadelphia native, is no stranger to the hard work that Chambers has put into Happy Valley. He even explained a moment where their paths nearly crossed before he worked at ESPN.
Lunardi used to write a postseason college basketball guide called the “Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook,” which he would print in the middle of the night immediately after Selection Sunday. He needed a printer to help him make copies before Monday morning, and the business that ended up helping him out was Chambers’ father’s company.
The pair have come a long way since then, as Lunardi has now become synonymous with March Madness predictions and Chambers is now the head coach of the No. 9 team in the country. But the bracketologist was quick to give the head coach credit for pushing through some rough years in State College.
“I’m glad that Penn State stuck it out. The path of lesser resistance is that every four of five years you don’t make the tournament, you make a coaching change,” Lunardi said. “Give Pat credit for taking this on, for busting his ass in Philly, and for getting all of this talent [to Penn State] and keeping it there. That’s almost as hard as getting guys in the first place.”
Bringing in talented players from Philadelphia has clearly been huge for Chambers, but getting them to see their careers through as Nittany Lions is also obviously a difference-maker. That was seen clearly when Lamar Stevens elected to stay in Happy Valley for his senior season. The star forward is now a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 17.5 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game.
While players such as Stevens, Mike Watkins, Jamari Wheeler, John Harrar, and several others have clearly developed roles for themselves that compliment each other perfectly, the one knock on the Nittany Lions heading into March is the fact they have no tournament experience.
Despite that, Lunardi made it clear that this doesn’t affect the confidence he has in the Nittany Lions. The tournament expert reiterated that anything can happen in March, and that is exactly what Penn State needs to prepare for.
“Give me the team that makes shots, and I don’t care how old or experienced they are,” Lunardi said. “We’re talking 40 minutes. Somehow you just have to prepare to make it your day, and that’s all it is.”
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