Bracketologist Lunardi: WKU can ‘out-seed’ Sun Belt’s poor RPI

Jonathan Lintner

The Sun Belt Conference’s lowly Ratings Percentage Index ranking doesn’t have to result in poor NCAA tournament seedings for current and future WKU teams, according to ESPN’s resident bracketologist.

Joe Lunardi said WKU can be a top-30 RPI team in the Sun Belt and rise above a conference that didn’t place a team in the ratings system’s top 100 last season.

“You can out-seed your league if you act like a team from a different league,” said Lunardi, who was was in town Friday for the radio call on St. Joseph’s 72-61 win over WKU.

The bracketologist is a St. Joseph’s alumnus and, in addition to his work at ESPN, is the university’s assistant vice president of Marketing Communications.

Lunardi offered advice — some of which Head Coach Ken McDonald put into action last season with games against Louisville, Memphis and Vanderbilt, among others — to play an especially tough non-conference slate.

“In a way, there’s almost nothing to be lost by over-scheduling in the non-conference because Western can’t get an at-large unless they really impress,” he said. “And, if they don’t really impress, then their only path is the automatic. It’s not like they’re going to get an at-large with a good league season.”

Lunardi’s trip to Bowling Green coincided with the start of new Sun Belt non-conference scheduling regulations announced in October of 2010.

As the league saw its Ratings Percentage Index and Strength of Schedule trending downward, officials from each member school agreed to raise standards for 2011-2012. They call it “The 150 Rule” in hopes that member schools will aim for an average opponent RPI of 150 or better during a given three-year period.

“We totally support the rule because it’s what we’ve been doing all along,” said Todd Stewart, WKU’s senior associate athletic director, last year.

Stewart added: “I think now the feeling is that a conference RPI of 23 won’t help anybody. We become a one-and-done conference.”

Lunardi pointed out Gonzaga, Xavier and a St. Joe’s team that in 2004 earned a No. 1 seed as examples of why the Sun Belt wouldn’t hold back a good Topper team.

During halftime of Friday’s game, Ty Rogers — the former WKU star who hit “the shot” against Drake in 2008 — came over to Lunardi and said, “I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a big fan.” Lunardi shot back with, “I’m a big fan of yours!”

“Really on a national scope, Western’s pretty much been it, and when they’ve been down, the league really goes invisible,” Lunardi later said.

The Sun Belt received two bids to the NCAA tournament in 2008 when WKU took the conference’s automatic bid and South Alabama made an at-large appearance. Each year since, the league hasn’t earned an at-large bid in addition to the automatic bid that goes to the conference tournament winner.

-2009: 12th-seeded WKU (second-round loss to Gonzaga)

-2010: 15th-seeded North Texas (first-round loss to Kansas)

-2011: 16th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock (lost play-in game)

No Sun Belt member ranked in the RPI top 100 at the end of last season, and Louisiana-Monroe finished at No. 326.

“I think 2008, unfortunately, was an anomaly, because the Sun Belt really hasn’t been in the at-large conversation the last 10 or 12 years,” Lunardi said.

But the league feels as if it could get back to 2008’s standards.

Conference officials are leaving it up to universities to self-police “The 150 rule,” which isn’t a new concept in the league. While the rule was previously implemented in the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 seasons, Sun Belt teams across the board had above-average winning percentages, RPI ratings and home attendance.

“It’s a good idea to have guidelines like that, but they’re imperfect and they’re not nearly as valuable as playing clearly good competition regardless of a number on the computer and winning sometimes,” Lunardi said. “You’re basing it pretty much on what teams have done in the past when your RPI and SOS going forward is what happens in the current and future results.

“It’s an inexact science. Sometimes teams make a very good effort to schedule, and it doesn’t work out so well.”

He added, though, that it’s not uncommon for mid-major conferences to implement these scheduling policies

“They have to try — have to,” Lunardi said.