ESPN Basketball Analyst and Former US college basketball coach (23 years’ experience w/Univ. of New Mexico, St. Johns University, Manhattan College)
Head Coach, Loughborough Student Riders; Assistant Coach, Leicester Riders (BBL);
MODERATOR: Hi, everybody….
As you know, we’re here to talk about basketball, specifically college basketball at both colleges and universities here in the UK and in the U.S.
A couple of housekeeping notes: In the UK this weekend the BUCS Basketball Championship Final 8 will take place at University of East London, and the Championship Finals, which are part of the BUCS Big Wednesday will take place on Wednesday, the 26th of March at the University of Surrey.
In the U.S. next week the men’s NCAA basketball tournaments tip‑off, affectionately known as March Madness. That tournament starts with a field of 68 and ultimately reaches a Final Four and a National Championship, and you can see all of those games live on ESPN Player in the UK.
Joining us today on the call are two men who know more about basketball at the university level than most people. The first is Fran Fraschilla. Fran is a basketball analyst for ESPN and a former coach. He coached college basketball in the U.S. for 23 years, including at the University of New Mexico, St. John’s University and Manhattan College, among others. His teams made eight post-season appearances in nine years and made it to three NCAA Tournaments. He provides game commentary and studio analysis for both NCAA and NBA basketball and has covered the NBA and the FIBA World Championships for ESPN.
Also today joining us is Mark Jarram, coach of the Loughborough Student Riders and the assistant coach of the BBL’s Leicester Riders. Mark is coming off a tremendous rookie season as a coach in the BBL and currently has, Mark, correct me if I am wrong on this, has the Loughborough Student Riders in third place in the BUCS Premier North standings; is that correct?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, yeah, we did finish third, and we’re about to head to London tomorrow for our quarterfinal game.
MODERATOR: To open up the call today I’ll just ask both Fran and Mark to make a few brief comments and then we’ll open it to questions for anybody on the line.
Fran, we can start with you. Could you offer a few words about what you find unique about the NCAA Tournament over the course of your career, and perhaps your thoughts on the importance of sport in the university setting?
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Yes, I will. Thank you very much for the opportunity. College basketball in the United States, it is very unique. We have a full system of professional sports in the States, as all of you know, whether it’s baseball or American football, soccer, professional basketball. But college athletics in many ways has just as prime a place in American sports as professional athletics.
The States, obviously it’s a big place. We have a lot of colleges and universities around the country. In many cases the colleges represent entire states like Ohio State University, for example, or UCLA, University of California at Los Angeles. So these college basketball teams become a point of pride for many people: The graduates of the school, people in their communities, in their geographical areas, as well, and it has become a very big part of American sports life, college basketball.
I would say as a former coach that because it does have such a primary place in American sports life, the basketball team at a particular college or university is like the front porch of the house. It’s not the most important part of the house. The overall university and the education of its students is most important. But often times the team is the part that people see first about the university, so it’s a great source of pride, exposure and attention.
It’s become part of the American sports ‑‑ college basketball is certainly woven into the fabric of the American college sports landscape.
MODERATOR: Mark, shifting gears over to you, could you follow that by talking about what you think of the importance of specifically university level basketball in the UK to the overall development of the sport here, and perhaps how you’ve seen it develop over the recent years?
MARK JARRAM: Sure. Well, again, thanks for the opportunity to talk today. The main kind of differences I see from the UK to the U.S. is just the sheer size and profile of not only the sport but kind of where the priority of basketball lies. I mean, basketball in the UK is increasing in participation rapidly. The profile of the sport is ever‑increasing, and the role that it’s playing now, basketball, in terms of especially the university level, the development of players, not only as players but also people, and I think the college level and university level is such a great age range to really have a great impact on people’s lives in preparing them for life after university.
I think that our organization, the BUCS Competition, has done a great job growing over the past couple years, the profile of university sport is growing. The media coverage is growing. But you compare it to the U.S., it’s just not on that scale.
I know Fran talked about it being the front porch of people’s houses. Well, we’re at the stage where it’s kind of the doormat almost, and we’re trying to grow into the porch. But it’s getting there. It’s definitely growing, and that’s an important place to where we want basketball to go.
And then just kind of the impact it has on people, I think, cannot go under‑addressed, both educationally and in performance. We definitely use the BUCS Competition, and it’s a good opportunity to showcase some British talent and allow it as a stepping‑stone for British players to move from university level on to the professional level, especially in the elite end of the BUCS Competition. In our Premier Competition, there’s a lot more talented British players coming through, and we’ve also got a lot more U.S. players who maybe have graduated from the college level over there, and now they’re doing Masters in the UK, which is helping to increase the profile, helping to increase the level of talent over here. And I think that’s a good thing for the competition.
Q. Just one question for Mark: You’ve obviously got experience on coaching both sides of the Atlantic, and I was wondering what you think of the quality of the basketball now compared to the U.S. and how it’s growing and whether it could get to that level of quality of American basketball in the next few years?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah. I did mention that it is rapidly growing. I think the major difference is culturally where basketball sits within ‑‑ Fran talked about how big it is over there culturally – I think that for us to improve over here in the UK, it has to have a bigger profile. It has to have more media coverage.
You look at ‑‑ maybe Fran, you can talk some of the numbers, but the amount of TV coverage and just the whole profile of the sport, it’s huge. It’s huge. Coming back to the UK, I’ve just realized how small the profile is, but the opportunity for growth is phenomenal. It’s phenomenal.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Yeah, and I would agree with Mark. As I mentioned to Mark before we started the conference, I’ve had former players play in Great Britain. I have friends who have coached in the BBL.
American, what we call soccer and you call football, and it should be called football, by the way, just like it’s growing here in the United States, it’s becoming more and more popular. I would love for basketball to grow the same way in England. That would be fun for someone who loves basketball so much like I do and someone who has so many friends around the world who are helping grow the sport of basketball that it is fun to see my British friends really try to help ‑‑ help the community embrace the sport of basketball. It’s very fun to see.
You know, Dr. Naismith was a Canadian who brought basketball to Springfield, Massachusetts. American coaches 40 years ago brought basketball to other parts of the world. Now the world has grown so much smaller because of the game of basketball. There’s so many great coaches and teachers of the game in every corner of the world, and particularly in England.
I love seeing the sport grow the way Mark is talking about it. I think it’s healthy, and it’s great to be able to share something like this with my friends across the Atlantic.
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I think if we got into some of the nitty‑gritty parts of it and kind of the comparisons, so to speak, to answer the question, I think that the facilities are obviously different levels in the U.S. compared to the UK. However they’re improving in the UK. I don’t think there’s consistently the ‑‑ that some schools, for example, our Loughborough facilities are great — but the consistency across the UK, it’s just not there to help with the development in that sense. And the level of coaching I do think needs to improve. It’s getting better, but those two main things definitely have to improve as the sport does itself and the profile does itself. Those two have to go hand in hand, as well.
Q. Mark, you’re obviously with Loughborough, obviously closely linked to Leicester. How important is that link in the development of your players, and does this link need to become sort of more widespread in British basketball?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I think it’s phenomenal. It’s a wonderful opportunity for UK British players to play professional level basketball. I mean, if you look at our roster, the makeup of our roster, we actually have seven students on the Leicester Riders roster, so we have seven students who are playing professional basketball, which is awesome, especially the exposure that they get, the learning that they can achieve from that, and then to be able to play professionally at the weekend and then during the week play in the BUCS Competition, it serves such great value.
You look at some of the players, Jamell Anderson has come in four years ago to Loughborough, and his development over the course of time because of the link with a professional club has been awesome.
Q. Yeah, and obviously, too, the coaching would help, as well, if more professional coaches get involved with the university clubs, as well. I suppose you agree with that, as well?
MARK JARRAM: I do, I do. Thankfully we are moving in that direction. I do think that the coaching is improving, the coaching development system is improving. I’ve actually just come ‑‑ before this conference call, I came from a coaches’ lunch with some of the other coaches at Loughborough. So that’s important.
I do think that the culture does need to change in terms of coaching. I love in the U.S., one of my favorite things about being over there was the coaching clinics and how accessible you are to the different coaches and how open they are to the learning and developing and helping each other. I do think in the UK we have to build that culture in order for our sport to grow, be able to attend these clinics, have clinics available for everybody to go to. It’s hugely important, and to be honest, that was one of the things that I definitely changed about my coaching is I went out to the U.S. and I was kind of a coach who was like, great, I want to become really good, how am I going to do it, I’m going to steal everything, and it kind of opened my eyes to the great coaches are some of the most open coaches, and they share everything, and they’re willing to help and they’re willing to not only to develop themselves but develop others around them. That’s key. That’s really, really key.
Q. Fran, you obviously talked about your impressions of British basketball from the U.S. perspective. What is the U.S. perspective now? Is there a growing awareness of British basketball in the U.S. or do you think…
FRAN FRASCHILLA: I do think, those of us who are actively involved in basketball are certainly aware of the continued growth of British basketball. I can remember just in recent Olympics, the idea of putting together Great Britain’s basketball team, I know a few of those players have ancestry in the UK, some of the American players who were able to ‑‑ you go back and participate for that team.
But also I’ve been at ‑‑ I can remember when Joel Freeland was a young player playing at one of our Euro camps in Treviso, Italy, and thinking, wow, this guy, this is a big dude here. This kid could be a really good player some day, and he’s turned out to be an NBA player.
Yeah, particularly the coaches in the States, to echo what Mark said, the whole idea of being able to watch basketball in the UK grow for us is very satisfying and rewarding, and the idea of seeing whether it’s young players, many times who have come to the United States from the UK to play in our universities, to see them have success and to meet coaches from the UK when I do travel overseas and go to coaching clinics overseas. It’s very rewarding for us, because as I said earlier, if you’re involved in a sport, you realize how that sport makes the world grow smaller. The ability to share ideas with coaches from other parts of the world is terrific.
In the short period of time Mark and I were talking, I didn’t realize that we had a couple of connections the way we did. We’re watching basketball in the UK with some deal of excitement because we realize that being able to share the game with coaches and players across the Atlantic is really a positive. If I were a football coach, nothing would make me feel better than to spend a year watching the great coaches say in the premier league. If I was an American who was really interested in football, I would be so excited to be able to spend time with these great, great football coaches who have success and know how to teach the game of football.
So when we get a chance on this side of the Atlantic to share our thoughts and ideas with other friends in the UK, it’s exciting because Mark made the point about sharing ideas, and that’s what sports should be about, really. It should be about sportsmanship and teamwork and those type of important ideals.
Q. You also work for ESPN covering college sport in great detail, which in the UK doesn’t happen, not only in basketball but in university sport on the whole. Do we need that type of media coverage to help the sport grow? I guess that’s a question to both of you. Do you think UK university sport needs the same level of coverage as the U.S. does?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, yeah. I think just to provide players the ultimate experience is key. Like our final league experience is not even in the same ballpark as what the U.S. players experience at their Final Four, for example. The coverage it needs does need to grow, and the question is how are we going to do that. How are we going to allow that to grow, whether it starts in the process of streaming games live. I think that would be a good start and a good direction for the UK with the Final 8, having better Twitter coverage of it, all the ‑‑ you know, how the social media world that we now live in, let’s make use of that and let’s push it out there as much as we possibly can, because I think to touch on what Fran was talking a little bit in how we can share each other for learning, we can also share each other as people, and I think that was an interesting stat.
Not too long ago…I think there are 55 British players currently playing at the Division I level in the U.S., which is tremendous. That’s really positive. But also if you go the opposite way, there’s a lot more U.S. players coming over here to play, and we’re hoping that the direction we’re moving will help them stay here and help them help us develop the sport, help us develop the profile. Maybe some of those players stay on to be coaches, to help the British coaches to develop.
So like I say, it’s not only the learning experience but also the sharing of people which is positive.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: I would just add that be careful what you wish for as far as media coverage because as you Brits know, we tend to oversaturate everything in America. Everything is sometimes larger than life. The media coverage for me is great because it provides me an opportunity to continue to do what I love, which is keeps the game of basketball on television. But we have a tendency here to do things to excess in the States, and I think by and large the media coverage for our athletes at the university level is a positive experience, but they also become, I want to say, sometimes larger than life, even at 18 or 19 years old, and so with that comes increased scrutiny, not unlike when one of your premier league players is having a rough go of it and the attention is overwhelming.
But by and large, I think that the media coverage really does help grow the sport, which I think is the most important aspect of it, and it rewards the young athletes with some recognition of a job well done, particularly when they’re able to balance their academics with their athletic endeavors and keep everything in the proper balance.
Most of the time in the States we’re able to do that very well, but sometimes our media attention for college basketball gets a little bit overwhelming.
Q. Obviously Fran has given us a bit of a warning as far as media coverage, but it would be good to have more coverage of BUCS and university sport, but how near in the future do you think it is? Do you think there’s any chance of increased media coverage?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I do, I do. I think with the development of things like Hoop Sticks, for example, we’re definitely taking a group of media with us and we’re covering ‑‑ we’re trying to do an all‑access piece for the whole weekend, and we’re hoping that that will be a positive step, and other universities see that and be like, okay, that’s kind of cool. That builds not only the profile of the university but the profile of sport. That’s just some of the things that we’re trying to do to help increase our media coverage, and let’s hope that that maybe sets the bar for other institutions, like yeah, we need to be doing that, as well.
We’re excited about the direction the media is going, and I also understand Fran’s point about it being too much. We take the Smart example where he had an emotional response falling into the crowd, and boy, was he scrutinized for that, and that kind of exploded in the media world. But then on the flipside, maybe here in the UK we have a really exceptional kid that can go under the radar because there’s limited to no media coverage about him.
There’s swings and roundabouts both ways, I guess.
Q. We haven’t really talked about obviously there’s a lot of basketball coming in with your team, Mark, obviously taking the Loughborough team down to London this week. With the history of sport of Loughborough, any team associated with that university you expect them to go on and win the tournament. Do you believe that your team can win this year?
MARK JARRAM: I’ve got to be careful what I say, but no, I mean, we’re obviously going down there with the intention to win, and I mean, why would you compete if you don’t intend to win.
But we are taking the approach of every game is one game, and it’s a packed weekend with two games back to back. But yeah, we do want to also uphold Loughborough sport and represent Loughborough in a positive way, and we will act as professionals and represent the school and represent each other really well. We’re excited about the weekend.
Q. And Fran, obviously with March Madness coming up, for a British basketball fan who doesn’t follow college basketball too closely, if I wanted to tune into ESPN and watch some of the games, who should I look out for in particular?
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Particular teams, is that what you’re asking?
Q. I guess I could say who are you tipping to do well this year?
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Well, we are, as we mentioned earlier by Paul, we are heading into March Madness. Conference tournaments are going on right now, and by Sunday night we’ll have selected the best 68 teams at the Division I level, and as some of you know, in the States that’ll be a three‑week tournament. The best teams this year are some of the traditional powers like Florida and Duke University with Coach K, our USA Olympic coach; Syracuse is very good; Arizona is very good again.
But the beauty of March Madness, and maybe someday this will happen at the university level in the UK, the beauty of March Madness are the sleepers, what we call the underdogs, the Cinderellas. That’s how we refer to them in the States. The team that is below the radar that maybe is the smaller university that has the great run through the tournament and creates a lot of excitement.
So our tournament every year in the USA is made up of the traditional powers and also the teams that are the underdogs, and one particular one, Wichita State, who is the first team to go into the NCAA Tournament undefeated, I believe, since 1990 or ’91. They are 34‑0. They play at a lower level, but they still have commanded great respect.
This next three weeks here in the States, college basketball is at its peak fever you could say.
Q. I just want to touch on what Fran said about the coverage. We’ve not really had any NBA on any live broadcasting networks over here except for The Finals, the playoff finals up until about, what, five to 10 years ago, then they started to bring in some playoff action, and it’s been quite scattered, but since the internet has come into effect, there’s streaming facilities, so a lot of times you’ve had to go out there and try and get the information, whereas now it seems like it’s available and accessible for the demand. So I think that’s going to help on some level the evolution of it. The more when the Thunder came over, America came over, that increases obviously the profile, and then also in addition to that being increased, SKY or BT Sport now have picked it up. So I think that’s going to help.
But obviously one of the bigger hurdles is obviously the funding. If we don’t have the available funding, it’s going to be hard to progress. What do you think about that, Mark, the funding situation?
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I think it’s vitally important. I mean, if you don’t have the resource to do anything, then it’s quickly going to be ‑‑ it’s going to crumble, I guess, a little bit. But our challenge is to prove that the UK basketball does deserve funding, and I think we’re doing that. I think we’re really showing that what we’re creating and the direction we’re moving, we should be supporting it, and that’s both performance‑wise and what we’re doing in the community and the amount of fans that we’re now getting for the professional games is ever increasing, the demand of players in the community schools, and the fact that professional play in school is having. It’s all growth, and I think it’s an important direction.
Just to touch on media coverage a little bit, it is great that we are getting more coverage of U.S. sports over here, but like you said, if you’re in the circle, you have to go find it, whereas in the U.S. it’s in your face, and it’s not as difficult to find the basketball. And that is going to help boost ‑‑ just having it readily accessible, people may be flicking through the channels, oh, basketball is on, let’s take a look at that. That’s where it starts. You get the taste, and then you want more and you want more and you want more, because it’s an unbelievable sport.
In the UK given how bad the weather is, just generally it’s a great outlet to sustain sports, whereas like football, soccer, they have to cancel a lot of the games over the winter period because of the weather conditions. You have the environment which is sustainable throughout the whole year‑round. I’m hopeful that one day it does come to fruition.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: And interestingly, I was going to add that it seems to me the basketball experience in the UK will be circular in the sense that as the players get better and the coaching improves and the product becomes better, it creates more interest, and more interest means media coverage, and more media coverage means that more young players want to participate in basketball, and the product continues to improve.
I think it becomes a circular proposition, that each aspect of the improvement of basketball will lead to the next aspect. Increased attention from the fans will be as a result of an exciting product that’s put on the floor, and that comes about because the players love the sport and want to continue to improve.
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I completely agree with you. That’s an incredible point. And just I think increasing the product will also ‑‑ we want more Cinderella stories, and we want more underdogs because that’s what people want to hear about.
To move away from having three or four dominating teams year in and year out and moving in the direction of a better product, better teams, so there’s more of a competition, that will be tremendous in helping the excitement of basketball grow.
Q. Can I ask Fran about what his thoughts are toward Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins’ prospects, how they match up against each other, small forwards, and where he thinks they may come to ultimately?
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Yes, that’s a very good question. These two young men are two of our finest prospects at the university level, and as many of you know, Andrew Wiggins is Canadian. He grew up in the Toronto area, and now he’s playing at Kansas, and I watched him score 30 points yesterday here in Kansas City in the Big 12 tournament.
First of all, both young men have proven to be in their first year of college basketball outstanding representatives of the sport. Both come from quality families. Both have gotten a lot of attention at a very young age and have handled the attention just so ‑‑ with so much grace. They’re both outstanding players. We’re going to be watching them play for the next 15 or so years as they transition from college to the NBA and then will play for their respective national teams, I believe, for a long time.
Andrew is a great athlete. His mother was a track athlete, represented Canada in the 1984 Olympics. His father played in the NBA.
And Jabari Parker also has great bloodlines. His father played in the NBA, as well. Jabari is probably a little bit bigger and stronger. Andrew is a little bit more explosive athlete. They did play once early in the year. I believe it was like their second or third game of the season.
But I think you can safely say that for all the publicity and hype that both young men have received this year for being 18 or 19 years old, they have done an incredible job, and both of their teams are expected to go far in the NCAA Tournament starting next week.
Q. It would be great to hear Fran and Mark’s thoughts on really the student athlete experience. We talked a lot about media and perhaps how that influences it, but also from your time as a coach, Fran, your view on the student athlete experience in the States, and then Mark, the student athlete experience in the UK.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: Thank you for letting me answer that. If you strip away all of the attention that many of our student athletes get here in the States, it really comes down to relationships. I coached for 23 years, and I’m probably growing closer to many of my players now 10 and 15 years after I’ve coached them than even when I was around them, and I realize the profound impact I’ve had on many of their lives. That’s the most rewarding part about the coach‑student experience is that you’re helping mold a young man or woman at an age where they really need someone to look up to as a roll model, and we’re doing it by using a great sport like basketball to learn so many great life lessons like teamwork, shared sacrifice, handling success and failure, working hard to improve yourself.
And I have to tell you that I was very fortunate to coach a number of years at some great universities and managed to turn it into a career after coaching in this crazy thing I call broadcasting covering the games. They pay me to sit at courtside to cover the games and talk basketball. That’s almost absurd.
But the most important thing of all is the relationships I’ve developed with my student athletes while I coached them and the relationships that have been fostered since I coached them.
By far that’s the best thing about being a coach of university athletes.
MARK JARRAM: Yeah, I completely agree, Fran. I think that the student experience that we provide is exactly the same, both UK and U.S., just on different scales. I think ‑‑ I love that you touched on having the impact that we do as coaches because that’s fundamentally why we all coach is to help the development and help the growth.
I do think that we do provide the same experience, just on different scales, mostly based on resource and media coverage and the cultures that we both live in that are so different. But it’s great as a coach to ‑‑ these players, we see them more than they see themselves. We get to watch them all the time, and we’re some of the younger people on the planet, we really want them to succeed. As their coach, we really want to see them do well.
It’s great that not only do we get to do that, but the staff around us, they all get to do that, and our goal is to make these students better, not only as players but as people.
I think that the opportunity we get as coaches to do that is tremendous.
THE MODERATOR: I think that is a fantastic place to leave it. I will note just for anybody on the call there is an ESPN player charity basketball event that will be held a week from today, actually a week from right about now it will begin, and we will be hosting ‑‑ it will be a rolling six‑hour game that will be raising money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. It will be taking place at UEL’s sports dock and it will run from 4:00 p.m. until a little after 10:00 on the 21st of March. Anybody that is 16 or older is able to take part in that, so they can sign up online.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: And one last thing I wanted to add because Mark and I talked about it earlier, I coached Justin Phoenix, who played in the BBL for quite a while, at Manhattan College, so he helped educate me about how basketball is growing in the UK. I don’t know if any of the media on the call were aware of that, but Justin Phoenix I know was a very good player in the BBL, as Mark could attest to. I wanted them to be aware of that.
MARK JARRAM: And an MVP level. He was very, very good.
FRAN FRASCHILLA: And he didn’t have good coaching at the university level. That’s the most amazing thing!