Moderator: I want to thank all the media who has jumped open and Jay Bilas for taking some time to answer some questions.
We will go right into the Q&A session with Jay.
Q. As you know, the Big Ten will go into a double-bye mode with its conference tournament next week. Are you a fan of that? Does it make it nearly impossible for teams not in the top four to win it, do you think?
JAY BILAS: Well, it’s a good question. When I was doing the Big East tournament years ago, the bottom four teams weren’t invited to Madison Square Garden to compete. I was one of the voices that said, This is not right. One, the conference tournament is billed as a celebration of the week. If you don’t have four of your members there, it just seemed wrong.
When the Big East was doing that, I felt like if you’re pinning your automatic bid on a tournament, everybody ought to be there for a chance to compete, even though it seems like a longshot one of the bottom four teams would win it. I was pretty adamant about it. But then after they decided to bring everybody, you saw it, I quickly learned that I was wrong. Having everybody there, there’s some teams that are ready for it to be over. They’ve been knocked around all year long, they’re out of gas.
Sean McDonough made this point to me. I didn’t realize how good a point it was at the time. He’ll say it was a recurring theme. He said it really was interesting for some of the games and the teams that were playing in order to make it to New York, that it put more on those games at the end of the year that otherwise wouldn’t feel like they had anything riding on them.
I felt like that wasn’t a good enough reason. But all things considered, I’m not sure whether this sounds, what the right term is for it, whether it sounds elitist, whether you’re overlooking the ability of some of the teams that underperformed during the year to put it together at the end.
There’s something that says, you know what, bring the top eight and play for three days. Five days of a tournament is too long, it’s too much. Even though these leagues are gigantic, it’s too much.
I’m not sure there’s a proper solution to this. Once you decide you’re going to go big or go home, you kind of have to live with this. You have Tuesday afternoon games that seem of zero consequence. Then you have a team that in order to get to one of the big shots in their league, they’ve got to play two games and they’re likely to be out of gas.
In the old days, your third game was for the championship. Now it’s to get to the quarterfinals. That’s a long slog. I don’t know that it’s worth it. But I know I felt a certain way years ago, and now I feel like I was wrong.
Q. What do you see as the ceiling for Wisconsin? Can this team win it all?
JAY BILAS: There’s no question. I think Kentucky is the best team. They’re the best team by a pretty good margin. But I don’t feel like they’re unbeatable. They’re unbeaten, but I don’t feel they’re unbeatable.
If you saw the Georgia game the other night, Georgia sort of ran out of gas at the end, but their game plan was really good. It’s not just the game plan, they had the personnel to be able to pull it off because they had big guys that could play out on the perimeter, pull the Kentucky big guys away from the basket.
Wisconsin has that as well with Hayes, Dekker, Kaminsky. They have guys that don’t have to be anchored to the low post.
That being said, offensively I think they can score on Kentucky. The only question is are they going to be able to stay in front of them because Kentucky, they can do what Maryland did to Wisconsin. They can spread them out and drive them, put their big guys in ball screen situations.
Kentucky has got the numbers to really affect your legs at the end of the game. They can get into your legs like very few other teams this year can do.
The first 30 minutes of a game are like body punches in a fight. They’re not going to knock you out, but by the end you’re going to feel them towards the end of the game and there’s still going to be pressure.
Q. Texas looked really good early in the season, ranked as high as No. 6. Now they’re struggling to get into the tournament. What happened to that team? What do they have to do to get into the tournament and what does it mean for Rick Barnes?
JAY BILAS: I think what happened was that team was playing as well as anybody in December, early December. They went to Kentucky and played Kentucky really tough and rough. That was one of the only fair fights you’ve seen where it was big guy on big guy. They had the big bodies to compete up front. Texas is a better shot-blocking team than Kentucky is by number.
Isaiah Taylor getting injured was an issue. They lost him for 10 games. That hurts. Then having to integrate him back in was another adjustment period. They lost games for different reasons. It’s not just one thing. It’s not like the guy in No Country For Old Men. It’s not just the one thing. There’s a number of things that have contributed to this.
I think it’s been a confidence issue. Jonathan Holmes is not the same player from a confidence standpoint than he was earlier in the season. Because of the size of their team he’s had to play the three probably too often, more than Rick would like. He’s a much more difficult matchup for the opponent at the four.
They’ve lost games that I felt like they should have won. They lost games they feel they should have won. That’s hurt other people, like Stanford. It’s also hurt Texas that UConn hasn’t performed well. One of their big wins earlier in the season, it continues to be devalued by the rest of the season.
I still think they’re an NCAA tournament team. They’ve played an extraordinarily difficult schedule. The arguments are fair they haven’t won against it. This is one of the difficult things. What do you say to Kansas State that has lost more games to lesser competition but has beaten higher-caliber competition than Texas has? That’s going to be the hardest decision.
I lean toward the team, when you’re talking about the end of the line, that has won more games against quality competition. At that spot you’re not going to play lesser teams than the NCAA tournament. The only people that get to play lesser teams are the higher seed. That’s an individual decision the committee members are going to have to make on Texas and Kansas State.
As to what it means for Rick Barnes, I think Rick is one of the top coaches in America and I think his record has proven that. Out of the last three years he’s had two difficult ones. If it’s me, if I’m sitting in the chair in his athletic director’s office, whoever makes decisions there, it’s not even a decision. I think Rick Barnes is Texas’ coach, period. I understand the business and how it works. I understand the questions that get asked. To me it’s not even a decision to be made.
Q. How, if at all, do conference tournaments help prepare a team for the NCAA tournament?
JAY BILAS: Well, I think having single elimination games where you’re playing on a neutral floor in that type of environment can be really good and I think sharpen a team.
I think it cuts both ways. You’ve seen it where teams have gotten on a roll, have played really well. They feel like they’ve toughened themselves up by having that kind of competition before going into the NCAA tournament. But I’ve also seen it where teams feel like they’ve worn themselves out a little bit. They don’t go into the tournament with as sharp a focus. Then you see other teams that have lost in their conference tournament, they get to go home, no spotlight on them, they get to go to work. They get to go back to the laboratory, retool, they come out better than they were before.
I distinctly remember that happening in 2005 when North Carolina won the national championship. They lost to Georgia Tech. I was sitting by the baseline, they’re about to lose. Roy Williams, I remember him walking down the bench saying, If you listen to me, we’re going to win the national championship.
They got to go home and work with nobody paying attention to them because they went home without nets around their necks and they got to have a stark assessment of where they were and go about the business of getting to where they wanted to be. They ultimately wound up winning. In part I think it was because they lost.
Q. You mentioned the win-or-go-home dynamic. How different is that? How does that impact players or teams to be in that dynamic?
JAY BILAS: I think it depends on their mindset. If your mindset is you’re going to play to win, understanding that you may lose, that you’re willing to accept the consequence of losing, you’re going to be fine. That’s the mindset you want. If you go into it trying to protect something, that you’re playing not to lose, then that’s where you can get tight, and tension comes into the equation.
I think in sports like basketball or golf, tension is the enemy of performance. I’ll give you an example, even though it’s not a tournament thing. Brad and I talked about it during halftime, then mentioned it during the second half.
Kentucky at halftime at the Georgia game, I think they were tied at one point. There was anticipation, tension in the building: Kentucky is tied. When they came out for second half warmups, Kentucky looked like they were playing a game in the park. They had smiles on their faces. They warmed up. There was not a hint of arrogance about it. There was nothing wrong with it, but they were not bothered at all.
They looked like they were going to play to win. They weren’t afraid of losing. They came out of the second half and played their tails off and ran right past Georgia at the end of the game.
I’m not a psychologist. I can’t get inside their heads. It was a very, very interesting view of things. If that mindset continues in the tournament, they’re going to be in very good shape.
Q. Jay, what is your take on Butler going into the post-season, picking up on the theme of the conference tournaments? Butler has a good starting five, but not very deep. In some ways would they be better taking an early loss and getting ready for the NCAAs?
JAY BILAS: It could be. I tend to think a team like Butler, they’re in the Big East now, a conference championship is really important. I’m old school. I came from an era where winning the ACC tournament, when I was in college, was everything.
I understand sort of the mindset of preserving yourself for the big show. At the same time I just can’t imagine competing for something, kind of taking my foot off the gas. I don’t know how you do that.
I don’t know that Chris Holtmann is built that way. I don’t know that the players are built that way. When you have a game to win in front of you, I think you go out and win it, then you worry about the game afterwards later. These things are too important. Butler, they may not be as deep. They’re banged up. Travis is banged up. I can’t see them doing anything but playing to win there.
Q. I know you saw them down in The Bahamas a couple months ago. What is your take on them going into the post-season, their season in general?
JAY BILAS: First, I think Chris has done a magnificent job, not only in coaching the team, but in managing a very difficult situation. He did it in a dignified manner with class that protected the players, the university, was very respectful to Brandon Miller and his issues. That was certainly not a pleasant tightrope to walk. I thought he did it in a magnificent way.
I think the players handled a difficult situation really well. For them to have played as well as they’ve played, to have kept their eye on the prize, to do it daily, was really impressive.
They’re a very good team. It’s one of those things where you say you wouldn’t want to play them. You say that as a compliment. They’re hard to play against. They make things difficult on you. They’re very physical. They do not take any possession for granted.
When you see Butler in there, it’s like going to the dentist: it’s not a game where you’re going to have a lot of rhythm, and it’s not going to be fun. But they’re capable. Are they capable of winning the whole thing? I don’t know. But they’re second-weekend capable, I know that.
Q. Jay, your takeaway from seeing Georgia against Kentucky, what is the ceiling for this group? What impression did you get of where Mark Fox has his program six years in?
JAY BILAS: I think the program’s in great shape. They’ve got a team of players that are getting older together. Look, I think Georgia fans have seen sort of when they’ve had the super talented player that has come in, like Caldwell-Pope, Tompkins, guys like that, how difficult it can be when they leave.
The players did the right things for themselves, and the program did the right things. But getting players that are very good and that are sticking around to be old players, I think there’s great benefit to that. You’re going to see a couple more guys become seniors next year in the program, and that’s going to be really helpful.
Georgia is definitely an NCAA tournament team. I think that’s become clear to anybody now. They’re going to be in the field, absent something bizarre happening. With their next win, they’ll have won 20 games for only the second time in the history of that program. I think what Mark has done there has been outstanding. He’s built something that I think has a really solid foundation. I was really impressed with not only the game plans they had against Kentucky, but the personnel they had to execute it.
They kind of ran out of gas a little bit at the end which has happened to a lot of teams – basically every team that has played Kentucky. But they’ve played them as well as anybody I’ve seen. I was really impressed.
Q. Jay, do you think Kentucky’s experience in the NCAA tournament last year helps any this year, or not a big deal at all?
JAY BILAS: I think it helps a lot. It’s always good to have that kind of experience. But it’s not by itself going to carry them through.
I think one of the things that happens sometimes in every sport, but it seems especially prevalent in basketball, is that you kind of expect something to happen. We’re home, so you expect for the emotional level to be high, you expect to be prepared. As a result, you don’t focus the same way in preparing yourself for a fight.
You might prepare differently on the road because you’re conditioned that this is not going to be easy. Sometimes I think you can say, We’ve been through this before so we know what to expect. You don’t have that edge that you need in order to compete at the highest level.
I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that kind of thing. It’s a difficult challenge. It’s not just going to happen just because they’ve had the experience of it. I would rather take a team into the tournament that’s experienced it than one that hasn’t. I think you’re dealing with fewer variables when you’ve been through it before.
Q. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen at Kentucky over the last month, or has there been anything?
JAY BILAS: Well, I mean, it’s funny. I have been really interested in a lot of things that have been written and said about Kentucky this year because it seems there’s a narrative that has developed, questions being asked on Kentucky, the one-and-done program, whether it’s good for the game. Really interesting things that have been asked.
One of the things that I’ve asked is, What do we want in a team that we would admire that Kentucky is not? In other words, in college we’ve got this holier than thou provincial view of things that we want players that value the front of the jersey more than the back. You hear that a lot. Well, okay. Who plays harder defense, who plays more together, who sacrificed more than Kentucky? Their players have sacrificed individual playing time, individual numbers, starting spots, minutes, all the things that the selfish player of today, at least the stereotype of the selfish player, would demand. They’ve sacrificed all of it. They seem to get along wonderfully well together, going against the stereotype of the one-and-done.
The one-and-done culture… They’ve come back. They have six guys that have come back from last year. Two of them have come back twice. That goes against the one-and-done thing, the thing we seem to despise in college basketball.
Who has been a problem? They haven’t had anybody suspended. There’s been nobody dismissed, nobody with off-court trouble. They’re great with the media. Like they’re nice, goofy kids.
If they were wearing different uniforms, they would be celebrated for all those things. You kind of have to wonder, when we say we want something, like why aren’t we accepting it because we’re getting it from Kentucky. We don’t seem to want it from them, we seem to want it from somebody else.
Q. Michigan State seems to be in flux right now. Branden Dawson might not play Saturday. What do you see from the Spartans, Jay?
JAY BILAS: I think Michigan State is very good, but just inconsistent. They’ve lost some games for different reasons. I don’t think their loss to Wisconsin was a big deal because Wisconsin’s pretty good. How many teams are going to beat Wisconsin at the Kohl Center? Not many, including Michigan State.
The loss that made you scratch your head was when they lost to Minnesota, when they made so many poor decisions at the end of the game. You give credit to Minnesota for making the plays to take the game. Looking at it from Michigan State’s perspective to gift wrap it and hand it over, those were puzzling. I’m sure it’s really puzzling to Tom Izzo and his staff.
I think the post-season gives them a little bit of a new start. Everybody starts 0-0. The teams that have had some inconsistencies throughout the season that don’t start the post-season 0-0 are making a mistake. The teams that are undefeated, like Kentucky, if they don’t start the SEC tournament with the mindset they’re 0-0, they’re making a mistake.
I don’t doubt that Michigan State can have a really good post-season. But if they carry sort of the baggage with them of missed steps, missed opportunities, inconsistency, my leg hurts, I don’t feel well, they bring that into the tournament, it’s not going to end well.
Q. You may not have a schedule in front of you, but off the top of your head, can you look at two or three games this weekend that are going to be vitally important for teams getting into the tournament or not?
JAY BILAS: The first one I would say is Kansas State-Texas. Kansas State has built an interesting résumé. They’ve lost to a number of teams outside of the top 50, either six or seven. They have a .500 record of teams outside of the top 50. Texas has beaten everybody they’ve played outside of the top 50. But Texas hasn’t won much inside the top 50 and Kansas State has.
You have two teams out of the same league that when you put their résumés side-by-side, you may be able to argue which is the better team, but if they play head-to-head. Who has put together the better sort of resume for the tournament? It’s hard not to pick Kansas State because they’ve won more games against quality competition.
Myself personally, that’s where I would lean. If all things are equal, you’re going to play good teams in the tournament if you’re an at-large team. Kansas State has proven they can beat more good teams than Texas. I think that’s a really important one.
I think Carolina is really important. I think it’s important for seeding, for mindset. If Duke wants to get a No. 1 seed, they have to win the game. If you don’t win that game, you don’t win in the ACC tournament, I think it puts the No. 1 seed in a little bit of jeopardy.
I think winning that, that’s an important game, period, but it’s a really important game when you put in seeding. I think seeding is vital. I think seeding in the tournament is really important.
Arizona-Stanford is really important. Stanford lost last night to Arizona State. I think they’re a tournament-caliber team. But that was their 11th or 12th loss. I think beating Arizona at Arizona, they had a shot to beat them at Stanford. Arizona, they’re the real deal. They’re really good. If you could pull that off, that would go a long way to cementing a tournament bid.
Q. I wondered how plausible you think it is that the NCAA Selection Committee would want to punish certain teams or certain coaches or stack the deck against certain teams or certain coaches, or favor certain teams or certain coaches.
JAY BILAS: I don’t believe that. Of the people that I know on the committee, they’re high-integrity people. The problem that you have with any sort of committee situation like that is because they have competitive stakes in their jobs, those questions get raised. They may be unfair and unreasonable, especially to people who are not in the room, and I’m not in the room. But those questions do get asked. Then you question the structure, whether the committee is structured the right way.
I think it could be better. I think the structure of the committee could be much better. I think the way it’s structured now, they do a terrific job. I think it’s fine. I think it’s healthy for us to quibble over seeding. Last year I thought Kentucky’s seeding was poor. I thought the committee did a poor job of seeding the tournament.
I think when you get into motives about that, that’s a wholly different enterprise and it requires substantive evidence of there being a reason behind it. Absent that, I have zero question about the committee’s integrity. Those people are great. They put in a lot of time. I think they are pure of heart and do a fabulous job.
But I always stop at reasonable people can quibble over where this team was seeded, is this the right thing, is the committee makeup the right thing. Those are wonderful things to discuss. I think we should do that. I’m nowhere near questioning anyone’s integrity. I have zero reason to do that.
Q. You mentioned earlier about the sacrifice that Kentucky players have made in minutes and statistics, all of that. You said if they were wearing different uniforms, they would be celebrated for those things. I’m wondering what it is about Kentucky that apparently you feel brings out this animosity.
JAY BILAS: Well, I think it’s a number of things that you see every day. It’s sort of the New York Yankees syndrome where Kentucky has been so good for so long that I’m sure people root for them to lose. That’s okay. I don’t have any problem with that. But I do have a problem with, like, players being stereotyped improperly.
Look, to answer your question more directly. Some of it is John Calipari, frankly. People have views of John, and they’re entitled to like or dislike him. I have zero problem with that. That’s a matter of taste. I happen to like John very much. I don’t like people questioning me why I like him, so I wouldn’t question why somebody doesn’t.
But when you get down to factual matters, when people say things based on some sort of factual basis, they better be right. Most of it is not right. Most of it is unreasonable. That’s an issue.
But more than anything, I have a problem with the way the players are treated. If you took Karl-Anthony Towns, put him in another uniform, I think you’d see him viewed differently. Same thing with all the other guys.
They’ve done nothing but handle themselves in a first-class manner. Like if we really believe that it’s virtuous to sacrifice for the good of the team, for the good of the team rather than the name on the back, what have these guys done other than anything we love about college sports? The answer is nothing.
They have been everything we have said we want. Look, if they haven’t been, I would say so, but they have been. For people not to acknowledge that… I’m not saying they have to go out and throw parades for them, that’s fine. They don’t have to do that. But some of the things that are said and written I think are frankly a little bit out of line given what we say we want.
Q. Jay, as you’re probably aware, we’re talking about Crean’s job status in Indiana. What is your take on Crean’s job overall with this team?
JAY BILAS: Let me start by saying something that’s probably self-evident. That is, every coach serves at the pleasure of his administration, and it’s every fan’s right to be happy or unhappy with anything in their program. It’s their business and I wouldn’t try to talk them out of it.
I’ve known Tom Crean since 1998. I got to know him in ’97, ’98 probably. I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the years.
He’s a great basketball coach. I’m a huge believer in Tom. I think all of my comments and statements over the years, assistant at Michigan State, Marquette, Indiana would reflect that. I have not changed my view one bit.
If I were AD at Indiana, I wouldn’t have to give him a vote of confidence because you’d be able to read the confidence on my face. He’d be my guy. I’m a huge believer in Tom. I think he’s recruiting X and O, you name it. I think he’s top shelf.
Q. What is your take on their team this year? There’s a thought maybe they overachieved a little bit early and that got everybody’s hopes up. What is your take on this season?
JAY BILAS: I think they’ve played very well. Personnel-wise they don’t have the strength up front that I’m sure they’d like. They played a different style this year. They’ve taken advantage of their ability to shoot it and spread the floor.
If you find a more entertaining team in college basketball, let me know. Indiana has been appointment TV for me to watch because they’re so much fun. I can’t imagine that’s not a fun way to play.
But I think they’ve done well. That’s a good basketball team. I think it will get better as they get better personnel up front.
Q. When you were talking about Kentucky and players that have been criticized, probably Andrew Harrison has been the brunt of that more than anybody. How do you feel he’s played this season, especially maybe the last month or so, from what you’ve seen?
JAY BILAS: I think he’s played really well. I think Andrew’s done a really good job. He’s attacking more now. Coaches will say he’s playing downhill. The downhill thing has always made me laugh because the court is not tilted.
He’s getting to the lane more. That’s where he thrives. I think he’s really good in transition. He’s really good getting into the lane. That’s where he can get to the line and make plays. It also opens up opportunities for him to get perimeter shots because of the threat of him getting into the lane.
The more he pushes it, the more he gets up the floor, plays ahead of the defense, the better player he is. His assists are up, his turnovers are down. I think he’s defended much better. He’s gotten to the defensive glass a little bit more.
I think Andrew’s done a great job. He and Tyler Ulis form a really good combo. They’ve been able to play together in certain situations. Then Tyler has been able to spell him at times. As good as I think Tyler Ulis is, there would be no question in my mind that Andrew would be my starter at point. He’s a better college player right now than Tyler Ulis is.