DeSoto man carves niche as one of the country’s top bracketologists

DeSoto
resident Shelby Mast wants to be respected for the time and effort he puts into
what’s commonly known as bracketology.

That’s the art and science — also very much a cottage industry — of
predicting the basketball teams that will be placed in the NCAA Tournament
bracket and what seed they’ll be given.

But Mast, a long-time college basketball fan and self-made expert, doesn’t
take himself overly seriously.

“I’ve warned my wife about the bracketology groupies,” said Mast, 44 and a
father of three. “She doesn’t seem too concerned.”

The official blueprint to the Final Four at Arlington’s ATT Stadium
(April 5 and 7) will be unveiled March 16, aka Selection Sunday. The NCAA
selection committee, made up of college athletics administrators, will meet in
Indianapolis this week to go through a sort of dry run.

Mast, from his man-cave garage, runs the website bracketwag.com, trying to
guess what the committee will do. He’s also the bracketologist for USA
Today and the Indianapolis
Star, following in the mold of high-profile projectors such as Joe
Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com.

“It speaks loudly to the level of passion people have for their school and
their team,” Lunardi said of the popularity of bracketology. “I’m fortunate that
so many people care this much.”

Lunardi said bracketology draws the interest of both the die-hard fan and the
more casual fan who dives into college basketball during March Madness. Interest
tends to go directly north, Lunardi said, as soon as the Super Bowl is over.

Lunardi kicked off bracketology in the mid-1990s when he needed to project
the teams that would be in the tournament for a postseason publication. It took
off from there.

“This was never the plan,” said Lunardi, who will be on TV talking seeds,
last-four-in and first-four-out nearly nonstop from now into March. “There was
no plan.”

Mast was among those intrigued.

“I’m a big crossword puzzle fan, Sudoku, that kind of stuff,” Mast said. “I
look at this as kind of another puzzle. I thought, well, why don’t I give it a
shot and see how I do … it’s just kind of gone from there.”

Last season Mast correctly forecasted 67 of the 68 teams that made the NCAA
field, with 63 of them dead-on or within one spot of their seed line.

There are so many bracketologists that a website, bracketmatrix.com, tracks
and ranks them by accuracy. Mast ranks No. 14 out of 67 that have been tracked
for three years or more, Lunardi No. 35.

Mast loves the format of the NCAA Tournament and is a long-time Duke fan. He
remains friends with former Duke player Thomas Hill, who Mast attended Lancaster
High with. Mast hosts an annual marathon party at his house during the opening
days of the tournament. It’s his tradition to watch a replay of the classic 1992
Duke-Kentucky Elite Eight game on the eve of the tournament.

He’s been projecting the bracket for 10 years, starting with a fledging
website and more recently taking on the higher-profile newspaper gigs. In his
day job, he sells paper.

Mast watches as many games as possible and updates his site every morning —
as fans have become quick to wonder how a win or loss will affect teams’ chances
of making the tournament.

Entering Saturday’s play, Mast had Texas, Baylor and SMU — missing from the
tournament since 1993 — in his bracket. Lunardi had UT and the Mustangs in, but
left out the Bears, who fell to No. 21 Oklahoma on Saturday, dropping their Big
12 record to 2-8. Texas fell to unranked Kansas State, and SMU knocked off No. 7
Cincinnati on Saturday.

Bracketology requires understanding the NCAA selection committee’s principles
and mantra.

“It’s always been: who did you play, where did you play and how did you do,”
Mast said.

He uses the Ratings Percentage Index, better known as the RPI, as does the
committee, and uses the website warrennolan.com to sort through other data on
what the committee refers to as nitty-gritty reports. Stats include teams’ wins
against top-50 RPI teams, “bad” losses, road wins, home wins, strength of
schedule and more.

Lunardi said some bracketologists rely on numbers, others put more weight on
the eye test.

The key, Lunardi pointed out, is to try to determine what the committee will
do, not what the bracketologist thinks is right.

Mast won a contest by the NCAA and Turner Sports in 2012 that afforded him a
chance to simulate the selection process, He and nine other uber bracket
devotees holed up in an Atlanta hotel and put together a real-time bracket.

Mast said conspiracy theories regarding the committee setting up intriguing
matchups are unfounded because of all that has to be taken into account. Mast
recently paired Minnesota to play Louisville in his bracket — only later
realizing that it would pit Louisville coach Rick Pitino against his son
Richard’s team.

While Lunardi is probably considered foremost among bracketologists, Mast’s
profile and website clicks are starting to increase. The WAG in bracketwag.com,
by the way, refers to a wild guess.

He’ll keep making those educated guesses until Selection Sunday — when his
side business ends until the start of next season.

“There’s only so much fame you can have doing this,” Mast said. “It’s like a
mall Santa — it’s a seasonal thing. Once the tournament starts everybody forgets
about me. And that’s OK with me.”

In or out?

Baylor, Texas and SMU were the state’s most likely programs to earn at-large
bids to the NCAA tournament entering Saturday’s games (Baylor at No. 21
Oklahoma, No. 15 Texas at Kansas State, No. 7 Cincinnati at SMU). Here’s where
bracketologists Shelby Mast and Joe Lunardi projected them entering the
weekend.

BRACKETWAG.COM

No.
12 Baylor/SMU in first-round game; winner plays No. 5 Wisconsin

No.
5 Texas vs. first-round winner No. 12 Missouri/Oregon

ESPN.COM
(BRACKETOLOGY WITH JOE LUNARDI)

No.
6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 SMU

No.
5 Texas vs. No. 12 Tennessee

Baylor
out

On Twitter: @khairopoulos