ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas spoke with media members on Tuesday, March 6, to discuss Champ Week, Selection Sunday and the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Bilas, ESPN’s lead analyst, will work New York Life ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games this week in Brooklyn, N.Y, alongside Dan Shulman and reporter Allison Williams.
A transcript of the call is below.
Not sure how much you’ve been able to watch Auburn this year, but what is your assessment of them? How is it in your assessment that they’ve been able to go from a woefully bad SEC program to the SEC regular-season champion this season?
JAY BILAS: Well, they’ve done a really good job. Bruce [Pearl] has done a really good job with his team. They’ve got good players in there. This isn’t the first time Auburn has been good. In the late ’90s, Auburn had Chris Porter. They were very, very good.
This is a team that I think is very talented and tough. I know you watch them all the time, but Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron are very good players. They’re undersized. Losing Anfernee is a big deal. McLemore is a good player, was a good shot-blocker, a guy who played really hard. Losing him is a big deal.
They’re still good. They can still beat just about anybody out there, but not having a capable player in your lineup like that reduces your chances of a longer run in the tournament than otherwise. If they had him, you could say they’re an Elite 8 team without straining yourself. They’re more vulnerable without him in there.
With mid-majors, the secret is out about Gonzaga and Middle Tennessee. Any other mid-major team you think could be dangerous heading into the tournament or a player that’s jumped out at you as a real player?
JB: Kind of depends now what you mean by ‘mid-major’. That’s taken as being an insult to some programs. I’ll go with sort of non-power conference teams, let me say that.
I think Nevada may be the best of the non-power conference teams. One of the measures is they have major conference talent. I don’t know if people remember, but last year in talking about Gonzaga throughout the course of the year, the thing I felt about Gonzaga last year was they had major conference players. They had so many guys that transferred in that he were major conference talents, then they recruited a couple guys that were major conference talents that could have played anywhere. I think that’s very much what Nevada has.
Eric Musselman has done a really good job. I know they just lost to San Diego State, but that game was on the road. They’re legit. Kendall Stephens transferred in from Purdue, hit over a hundred threes. I think Taylor Martin is second in the league in scoring. His brother Cody Martin transferred in from NC State. Jordan Caroline is one of the best players in the country that doesn’t get enough pub. He’s a good rebounder, plays incredibly hard, he’s productive at a high level. He does it against the best teams they play, not against the worst teams.
They’ve got everything you need to be really good in the tournament as a ‘mid-major’, non-power conference team, even though the Mountain West — I don’t know if you would have called the Mountain West a mid-major years ago, but it’s got a bunch of teams that were traditionally mid-majors. Nevada is one of them.
I’m trying to think who else would be in that list. Loyola of Chicago is good. They’re tough and talented. I happen to like Boise State a lot. Chandler Hutchison is the real deal. He’s a first-round draft pick.
Off the top of my head, I would say those teams. You mentioned Middle Tennessee. They’re right there with Nevada as being the best of the traditional mid-majors.
The SEC obviously has a lot more NCAA tournament quality teams than they did years ago. Georgia is not considered one of them this year. If the school makes a coaching change, what type of job do you think it is, and what type of coach do you think it might attract?
JB: Did you say ‘if’?
JB: I hadn’t heard there was any change there.
I don’t know where they would decide to go if they made a change. I’ll tell you, if they’re thinking about it, I’d think twice. I think Mark Fox is an outstanding basketball coach. I’ll give you another ‘if’. If I were in charge, this wouldn’t be a discussion, there wouldn’t be a change.
If you look at the SEC, the traditional programs that had a lot of success, how much of a challenge do you think it is for Georgia to be a consistent NCAA tournament type of program?
JB: Nobody in the SEC has been a consistent NCAA program except for Kentucky. There’s not one. Nobody’s done it. It’s just Kentucky.
This is a general question. What value do you think there is in having conference tournaments?
JB: Well, it’s great value. One, they’re an incredible amount of fun. I played in the ACC tournament four years. I was an assistant coach three. I’ve been covering tournaments, including the Big East and the like, for years. They’re awesome.
But it depends on what you value. The competition is great. I think the players and the coaches really enjoy it because it’s three days of league competition where everybody’s in one place, all the fans are in one place. It’s a fantastic tournament setting. Tournaments are fantastic settings for competition.
If you’re talking about interest and things like that, you have some teams that are fighting to get into the tournament and using their conference tournament as a last chance to get quality wins to boost their rÃ©sumÃ©. I’m not a big believer we should be in that business.
I think the NCAA Selection Committee should makes its decisions on at-large teams last Sunday night. I think the USC-UCLA game, games out west, those were the last games played in the regular season. I think the committee should have made its at-large decisions right there, and the conference tournaments should be about one thing, that’s the automatic bid.
The last thing about the automatic bids. Every conference gets to decide how to give out their automatic bid. They can give it to the regular-season champion like the Ivy League used to do, they can have a tournament like most every conference does now, they could arm wrestle for it, have a raffle.
The reason they do these conference tournaments is one reason: they do it for money. Obviously we love it because we get great content and competition and it’s wonderful theater. But these are done for money.
I did the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference [championship game] last night between Iona and Fairfield. That was the No. 6 and No. 4 seeds in that league. If I were the MAAC commissioner, I would be banging on my schools saying, We need to invite only the top four seeds and let our best teams compete for the title.
We’re giving a chance to everybody to sort of go into the tournament and represent the league with no chance to win. You’d want your best teams every year competing.
I’m not sure if I were the commissioner of one of the gigantic conferences that you’d want every team in your tournament. When the Big East only brought the top teams in, the last four teams didn’t make it, it was great drama at the end of the year, and nobody missed the fact that they weren’t there because the games that are played today, no disrespect for the teams playing, but they’re not particularly interesting games. Do we really expect a team to win six games or five games in a row? It’s incredibly unlikely.
You saw Miami at their best Tuesday night. What do you think would be a realistic expectation for them in the tournament, how far could they go? It’s difficult to assess without knowing if Bruce Brown will be ready next week.
JB: I think it depends a lot on Miami’s draw. There’s certain teams if they play makes it a little bit less likely they win. But Miami has done a great job.
When I saw them at Notre Dame, they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, what could have been four. Obviously Notre Dame wasn’t at full strength when they played, but they were searching for answers. They reeled off four in a row after that, all of them seemingly by one bucket.
I think they were all — if I remember right, they beat Notre Dame by a bucket, Boston College at the buzzer, beat North Carolina at the buzzer, and Virginia Tech at the buzzer. That’s four games in a row by a bucket. That’s hard to imagine you could turn around a three-game slide without your best player and have four games in a row won like that. Have to be feeling pretty good about themselves heading into the ACC tournament.
They’re very capable. They’ve got good players and size. Their big guys are starting to play better. They were going through a really tough time throughout that slide. They’ve turned it around. They’re starting to play better.
With size in mind, as exciting a guy is Chris Lykes for a player under six feet?
JB: He’s fun to watch. There aren’t many under six feet that are as good as he is. Chris Clemons at Campbell is probably the best of those guys. He’d probably stand up and tell you he’s six feet. He is under six feet.
Lykes is really quick and fast, gets up underneath you. He’s unafraid. I mean, he’s very, very good. He’s really fun to watch. So, yeah, I’ve been really impressed with him.
What do you think makes John Beilein’s Michigan team so tough to prepare for come March every year?
JB: I don’t know that they’re tough to prepare for in March. Everybody is tough to prepare for in March. They run a lot of cutting, where they’re very good offensively. They spread the floor. They shoot a lot of threes. You can get into a mindset where you start chasing them. That makes it difficult.
But as far as their scoring is concerned, it basically comes down to are they going to hit threes, because they’re not a team that gets to the free-throw line that often, not a good defensive rebounding team.
Their offense isn’t actually as good as it’s been in past years. It’s very good, but it’s not as good. Michigan is a way better defensive team than they’ve been in a long time. One of the reasons is they rebound. They don’t offensive rebound, but they defensive rebound. They limit you to one shot. They’re very capable defensively. They’re a little bit more athletic than they’ve been. They do a really good job of staying in front of the ball so they don’t have to help quite as much as they have in the past. They have good size.
I hope this makes sense. They’re not a shot-blocking team, so they don’t protect the rim, but they protect the lane really well. It’s hard to get to the basket on them. They do a good job of making you take contested shots. They do so for the most part without fouling.
They put you on the line a little bit, maybe more than John Beilein wants, but for the most part they make you make a more difficult shot than you would normally take. That’s the sign of a good defense.
Do you think they’re a team who you could see potentially going on a Final Four-type run?
JB: Sure. They’re fully capable of winning. The Final Four is four games. Getting there, you have to win four games. It’s essentially, Can you win two four-team tournaments? That’s basically what the NCAA tournament is. For each team it’s a series of three four-team tournaments. If you can wrap your head around that, you have a chance to do well.
Michigan clearly could function in a tournament setting because they’ve won their tournament the last two years. I mean, I think last year was probably a little bit more I don’t want to say a surprise, but last year they ran into Oregon and got beat, if I remember right, by a bucket. Oregon was an outstanding team last year.
There are a number of teams that are capable of beating Michigan, but there are very few teams, if any, that Michigan is not capable of beating. That’s got to be a good feeling going into the tournament.
If Kentucky is going to have a chance to have any success in March, is there one player that has to really elevate his play and show he can be really good for two, three, four games?
JB: Kevin Knox. Kevin Knox has got to be their star. He doesn’t have to pull a Danny Manning or anything, because I don’t think he’s going to do that. He has to be good. He has to be consistently good throughout the course of the tournament. I don’t think they’re going to win at the highest level with him having just average games or just okay games. I think he’s got to be very good.
Look, Kentucky doesn’t have that one guy. Very few teams do. But everybody has to play their best for them to advance to where they’re used to advancing as a program.
Look, I think I was on record on November 14th saying, This isn’t a vintage Kentucky team. They’ve done a good job. Kentucky has had a good year. But they’ve already lost 10 games and they haven’t even hit the SEC tournament yet.
It’s not as good as the team has been in the past, since he’s been there, since 2010. They’re still capable. This is a year where the best teams are the best because they’ve been consistent. That doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten.
In Kentucky’s bracket, there are only going to be three, four teams that are better than them. Everybody else they should feel comfortable that they’re going to beat if they play well. The other teams, they certainly can win those games, teams that are better than them.
I was going to ask you about Oklahoma’s tailspin over the last five weeks. Is it as simple as defense, throwing numbers at Trae Young, taking him out of his rhythm, taking Oklahoma out of its? Is there something more going on?
JB: No, I don’t think it is that. Trae Young has not played his best over the last 10, 12 games obviously. But he has a lot on his shoulders.
Look, his teammates are good. I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful at all, but basically all of his teammates can do one thing each. They are a lot easier to limit than I think the casual observer might think.
Brady Manek, who is going to be a great player, right now he’s a catch-and-shoot guy. Rashard Odomes is a driver. If guys are really proficient at one thing, that’s what they do. The best defenses take that stuff away. You got to do something else. Oklahoma has had a problem doing that, and doing it at a winning level.
They’ve been close. Some of the games they’ve lost, I remember I watched the game they had against Texas on the road, I was there for that game, they lost that by five or six points, had a chance to win. They had a chance to win against West Virginia the next game. They got beat bad a couple times. Kansas crushed them, all that. Baylor. Baylor socked it to them pretty good. But they’ve had chances to win in the games they’ve been in. Wasn’t Oklahoma State an overtime game, something like that?
They’ve had chances to win. I think they’ve been a little bit easier to limit than you would have expected.
If Oklahoma State beats OU tomorrow night, then knocks off Kansas a third time the following day in Kansas City, do they at least merit at-large discussion?
JB: I think they more than merit discussion. I think they’re right there to get in. Oklahoma State’s issues, right around — actually, it was all of January, they weren’t very good in January. They got beat a lot. If you count winning and losing as being good.
They did some good things, but they lost a lot more than they won. But I think the difference is, for Oklahoma State, while they’ve lost like 12, 13, 14 games, something like that already, you probably have to figure they’re going to add one more in there, another loss. That’s a lot of losses to get in as an at-large team.
What they have to rely upon is the strength of their schedule and the fact they have won games against really good teams. I’ve been saying this for a long time. I think this is an important point. I do not care if a team lost, stubbed its toe a few times, lost to some bad teams. When they say, That’s a bad loss, who cares? If Oklahoma State gets into the tournament, they’re not going to play any bad teams. The question is, Can you beat really good teams? They’ve proven they can do that.
But they have lost a lot of games. They have had a lot of chances. When they beat Florida State non-conference, they’ve got some good wins. If they get in, it’s going to be the quality of their wins over the number of their losses.
About Houston, specifically Kelvin Sampson, after the five years he was out, what do you think of the job he’s done? Has he resurrected his image or career by what he’s done this season?
JB: Well, I don’t know about resurrecting and all that stuff. All I know is Kelvin Sampson is one of the best coaches I’ve been around. I’ve watched him since he was at Oklahoma, all those years in Norman. He’s the real thing as a coach. So I am not surprised in the least bit that he has Houston where they are right now.
One, they’ve got tough, quality players. Rob Gray is one of the best guards in the country. I’m a big fan of Devin Davis, the way he plays. He’s an excellent offensive rebounder. Corey Davis is a really good player that can really shoot it. He’s got to have made almost a hundred threes this year.
They do a really good job. They guard really well. They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, which is a Kelvin Sampson staple.
The question about resurrecting, I’ll tell you this, right now college basketball is going through this FBI probe. We’ve had people arrested. The term ‘corruption’ is being used. I said this at the time so this is nothing new. Kelvin Sampson was being criticized for phone calls. I mean, that’s how ridiculous the NCAA system has been all these years. He was out of the college game for a while because of phone calls. Tell me we don’t have our priorities out of whack.
It’s been a down year for the Big Ten. They’re probably going to send four teams only to the tournament. Do you think the Big Ten kind of salvages its image this season if three or four can make the Elite 8?
JB: I guess so. Depends on how you look at it. Leagues are usually judged by how their best teams do. Last year Gonzaga went to the national championship game, and I don’t think anyone was saying the West Coast Conference was one of the best leagues in the country.
I don’t really have a problem with, Hey, the Big Ten is down this year. Top to bottom, it’s not as good as it has been. But the top teams are really good. If the top teams, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, they wind up going to the Final Four, they have three teams in the Final Four, it doesn’t make the league any better than we saw it during the year. Our eyes are not lying to us.
We’ve ranked the top teams where they deserve to be ranked. They’ve proven how good they are. But the rest of the league deserves where we’ve ranked them, too.
I don’t see a problem. This is where I’ve always kind of laughed a little bit. For those that say, and I’m one of them, that say the Big Ten is down, we’re not idiots now, and if we’re idiots now, we were idiots when we said the Big Ten was great in past years.
It’s not a big deal. The league didn’t have its best year, but its best teams can still win a national championship, go to the Final Four, have a great tournament.
We’ve had years where the ACC was the best league, and a number of their teams got knocked out in the first weekend. How you do in the tournament isn’t representative of how good your league was, it’s representative of how well your league did in the tournament.
You talked about Oklahoma earlier, but when you look at Trae Young’s performance, even though he’s still putting up big numbers, how much of his decline, if you want to call it that, is defenses are keying on him, a guy getting a little fatigued over the course of the season?
JB: I think it’s both. Seniors get tired. This has nothing to do with a freshman wall. Would he be better off handling it if he were a senior? Of course. Will he be better when he’s 22 than he is now, when he’s in the NBA? Of course. But 22-year-olds will be better when they’re 26, so that’s not a big deal.
Look, I think Trae Young is a great player. He has had one of the great years in the country, really in basketball if you look back. He’s done something that nobody’s ever done since they’ve been keeping these stats. He’s leading the nation in scoring and assists in the same year.
If you go and look the all the analytics of, like, guys who are efficient, I think he could be more efficient than he is, but he’s at the top of all the analytics among players. He’s done a really good job this year. He’s a hell of a player.
For those that wanted him to be Steph Curry, at his best every night, Steph Curry wasn’t Steph Curry every night when he was in college. People seem to forget this. When Steph Curry was at Davidson, he did not go to the tournament his junior year. Steph Curry, his last year in college basketball, did not lead his team to the tournament.
The idea that Trae is not performing at a high level, he’s performing at an incredibly high level, it’s just the spotlight on him has been really intense. That’s life in the NFL, that’s the way it goes. Not complaining about it.
He’s still the real deal. He’s really good.
We saw Duke win four games in four days in the ACC tournament last season. Other than UNC, what teams do you like that are playing tomorrow in the ACC tournament that have a shot to win it?
JB: Who has a real shot to win it?
JB: I mean, there are a number of teams. I think Virginia is the best team. You’re talking about the teams that are playing four days?
The teams that don’t have double byes.
JB: Yeah, I wouldn’t even put North Carolina in there. I don’t think North Carolina is likely to win the thing in four days. That’s a tough thing to do.
Duke last year had a bunch of pros on their team. They got really hot and played incredibly well, wound up getting bounced out of the tournament quick once they got to the NCAAs. There is a price sometimes that can go along with that.
I don’t see anybody from the bottom of the league doing it, whether it’s obviously Pittsburgh, Wake Forest. Georgia Tech and BC are playing right now. I’m watching that game as we speak.
Notre Dame would be the team that I would say, with Bonzie Colson back, they could catch some magic because they can score. But that’s still a tall order to win four games in four days. It doesn’t happen very often. It’s happened before in different conferences. I think last year was the first time it happened in the ACC if I remember right. It’s happened in other leagues. I think it would be really unusual for it to happen.