ESPN men’s college basketball analyst Jay Bilas spoke with media members yesterday to discuss the upcoming college basketball season. Bilas will be on the call for No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke – as part of State Farm Champions Classic – this Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, alongside Dan Shulman and Holly Rowe. College GameDay will also be live from the event beginning at 6:30 p.m., with host Rece Davis, and analysts Bilas, Seth Greenberg and LaPhonso Ellis.
Q. I wonder what you make of the game Michigan State and Kentucky right off the bat?
JAY BILAS: Well, it’ll be great. We’ve got the four top-ranked teams. I’m not sure that after the first month they’re going to be the four best teams, but to start the season, to have one, two, three and four is going to be really fun.
Michigan State, I think everybody knows, a Final Four team last year, and they have a number of players back. But they’re very talented. They have experience. And I think they’re going to be, if not the best team, among the best teams all year. But it’s not an overpowering team.
We’re going to see a rotating No. 1 this year, and Kentucky is going to spend time at No. 1 because they have experience back, and as you know, a very talented group of freshmen coming in. I think after Calipari has them for a little while, they’re going to be — they’ve got the chance to be as good as anybody.
Q. What do you make of the match-up between Ashton Hagans and Cassius Winston?
JAY BILAS: Well, Winston is one is most accomplished guards in Michigan State history, and that’s saying something, and he’s got an outside chance of catching Bobby Hurley’s all-time assist record. He’s an amazing basketball player. You can talk about a lot of things that he’s not. He’s not big, he’s not athletic, but he knows how to play, and he figures out a way to win. He was the best player on the floor last year in the Elite 8 game against Duke. He was spectacular.
Ashton Hagans I think has improved from last year when he was excellent, but he’s as good of an on-ball defender as there is in college basketball. His ability to put pressure on Winston — I think one of the most important issues in the game is going to be ball security, and it has been an issue over the last several years with Michigan State, where although they like to get up and down the floor and score a lot in transition, they can be a little loose with the ball and turn it over.
If Kentucky can turn Michigan State over, and that starts primarily with Hagans and his pressure on the ball, that can be a difference maker in the game.
Q. A little bit more about Cassius and kind of the experience Michigan State has. I know getting back veteran guys like this who are playing at his level, All-American type guys, is not that common these days. How important is that for Michigan State, to have a senior like him leading, and Xavier Tillman, a junior, guys who have kind of been through some of this before? How does that help this team?
JAY BILAS: Well, it’s an old-school thing. I think we’ve gotten used to the best players leaving. Like 13 of the top 15 players on the AP All-America team are gone. And the guys that are back weren’t — one of them was high up there, and that’s Winston. But you just don’t see that that often, where a team goes to the Final Four and they return a good part of the team, and the guys they lost were seniors.
So Michigan State has an advantage there, but I think one of the things that I think sometimes gets overlooked is even though Michigan State didn’t lose NBA pros, it’s going to be hard to replace what Matt McQuaid brought and what Kenny Goins brought and what Nick Ward brought. That’s going to be hard to replace, and it’s not — and then they don’t have Joshua Langford and might not for some time, and may not ever get back what he should be.
So there’s a lot to make up for. But having a point guard of that caliber, I think you could put all the coaches of the top 25 teams in a room, and say, all right, hands up all those who would like to have Cassius Winston running your team, and every hand would go up, but the only one that gets it is Tom Izzo. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of experience coming back. It’s vital.
But you’d rather have super talent and experience, and super talent can overcome experience at times and has in the past, but I don’t see a lot of super talented teams out there that are capable of doing that. Even Kentucky has got more players back this year than they normally have. So that’s a good thing for Kentucky, as well.
Q. I wanted to ask you, too, about their schedule, which is usually tough, but in the first five, six weeks, they’re going to play Kentucky, Duke, potentially Kansas, they’ve got to go to Seton Hall. How tough is that to play a schedule like that this early?
JAY BILAS: Yeah, Izzo decided not to schedule the Warriors because Klay Thompson was hurt and he wasn’t sure he’d get as much out of it. He’s always done this, and that’s one of the reasons he’s one of the best and most respected coaches out there. A lot of coaches will say, we’ll play anyone, anywhere, any time, and Tom actually does it. He knows his players like to play in those games, the fans like to see them, and he likes to coach in them. And he’s not afraid to get beat because he knows what comes from that. Like he’ll find out who you are and he’ll find out what you need to do in order to compete with the best.
And so I think it’s of great value. You know what it reminds me of, and it shows my age, Denny Crum used to do that with his Louisville teams. They would play back in the day, a lot of coaches would schedule these cupcake wins in the non-conference because they thought conference play was everything, and they wanted — back when you had to win 20 games to keep your job, they wanted to schedule wins, and Denny Crum didn’t do that. Like he wanted to go out and play and find out who they were, and they always wound up getting better as a result of it. So they might get some losses hung on them early, but it was of great benefit.
You know, Tom doesn’t want to lose these games, but when you can play in the Champions Classic, I mean, I know his hand was the first to go up saying, we’ll do it, we’ll play. And I think that’s a — I think we wind up beating up the coaches that don’t do what Tom does instead of celebrating the fact that Tom does them.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Seton Hall. They’re an experienced team here with Myles Powell back, Ike Obiagu, the Florida State transfer. They’re picked to win the Big East. And they’re also playing a tough schedule with Michigan State, Maryland, Oregon. What kind of chance do you give them to make a deep run in March and contend for the Big East Tournament in the regular season?
JAY BILAS: I think they’re as good as anybody in the Big East, and having Myles Powell back is similar to what we were talking about before with Cassius Winston. You’ve got a guy back that’s been a top-level player that has done it at the highest level, and he’s ready to do it in such a mature way, as a senior. I’m a huge fan of his. He can score. He guards people. He’ll accept any physical challenge that comes his way. I think Seton Hall is going to be very good.
But having him, having Myles Powell makes them a contender. Like they can beat anybody with him. They proved it last year beating Kentucky and all that, and having guys that have been there and fallen short, when you know you’re good and then you get clipped in the tournament, don’t go as far as you think, I think that’s the kind of experience you want back because it’s motivating experience, and then guys know what to do with that motivation. It’s not just a short-term thing. They can carry that forward.
I think Kevin [Willard] has got a good team here, and it should be fun to watch.
Q. The trend in recent years seems to be experienced teams winning it all or having a chance to win it all, Villanova, Virginia, North Carolina, and the one-and-done teams have really only won it twice with Kentucky and Duke. Does that philosophy sort of help Seton Hall here with having an experienced team?
JAY BILAS: Well, I mean, I think having an experienced team is just good, period. But as you know, not many programs can bring in a haul of five super talented freshmen. It’s nobody’s choice. If you actually look at who’s winning the most games and who’s winning the most tournament games, since 2010, the teams that have won the most tournament games are Duke and Kentucky, but they’ve also had the most freshmen.
So I’m not arguing with anybody that says, hey, you can’t win a title just with freshmen. Of course you can. Like in 2012 there were older players around Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In 2015 there were older players around Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, all that stuff. You’re always going to have that.
But if you’re looking just at results, like how many teams are consistently with experienced players going to Elite 8s and Final Fours like Kentucky and Duke have been doing, and both of them have won a championship in the last, what, eight years, it’s hard to argue with their success.
I think we tend to — and I’m not saying you’re doing this or I’m doing it, but I think we tend to say, okay, well, the one-and-done players aren’t winning. Yes, they are. Like the last two years Duke was a bucket away from the Final Four and so was Kentucky, doing it with young players. And you know, we’ve seen some older teams flame out in the first and second round. Because Virginia was really experienced the year before and got beat by UMBC.
The results are a little less — I mean, they’re a little different than sometimes the narrative takes us.
Q. Kind of along those same lines, I’m wondering, Memphis does have a lot of new players, unproven, inexperienced players that they just brought in, but they don’t really have a ton of experience around them. How do you see their — do you see it sort of taking a while to work out the kinks, or how do you see the early part of their season playing out? And then secondly, just your general thoughts about James Wiseman.
JAY BILAS: Well, first, I think Memphis has an extraordinary level of talent that they’ve brought in, and I love — I don’t like it, I love the way Penny Hardaway is approaching it. These players are coming in with lofty reputations, and they’re well-deserved. They’re really good. And they want to win, and they don’t want to win next year, they want to win this year. So I think Penny Hardaway is embracing that, and they’re saying, hey, we want the smoke, and they’d like to win the National Championship this year, and some team are seeing that as being — I don’t know how they’re seeing it, but it’s rubbing some people the wrong way. I think it’s fantastic, and I think it’s been said in exactly the right tone.
What do we expect? Do we expect Memphis to say, well, we’ll see what happens. We’ll give it our best shot. I don’t think that’s what most competitors want to say. So I like it. And I think it’ll be a blast to play in that program, it’ll be a blast to watch, and I can’t wait to see it. And I think they will have, because they are so young, they’re going to have their ups and downs and great moments, and they’re going to see their own blood and all that stuff.
The first opportunity — the biggest opportunity is probably going to be when they’re in Portland in early November. I think it’s the 11th, when they play Oregon, and that’s going to be a huge test. It’ll be away from home, and it’ll be against a program that was deep into the NCAA Tournament last year and has been a Final Four team a few years ago, really good, solid Oregon team with a veteran point guard in Payton Pritchard. So that’s going to be a challenge.
But they’ll play well at times, they’re going to have times when they won’t, but it’s a long season, and as long as they’re healthy and have fresh legs at the end, they’re going to be difficult to deal with.
Wiseman is a great talent and a super young man. I was in Memphis a few weeks ago and got a chance to speak with him, and I was blown away by the caliber of young man that he is and the way he carries himself. He’s obviously a great player. Like he’ll be a top-5 pick. He’s projected to be the No. 1 pick overall, but conservatively he’ll be a top-5 pick, and he’s super skilled, and he can really at his size do just about everything out there. So they can build the team around him, and as long as they shoot it well — and with Boogie Ellis they should shoot it well. That shouldn’t be the issue, but leadership is going to be the issue. They’ve got a great coaching staff, but coach-directed teams only go so far. They’re going to have to have player leadership, and that’s going to have to emerge.
Q. I want to go off the court with the NCAA and ask you, ultimately who in your opinion is standing in the way of making these changes that you’ve recommended to benefit student-athletes? Obviously right now we’re all taking name, image and likeness, but other items, too, so if tomorrow Mark Emmert comes out and says, Jay, I agree with you, does everything change there, or are there other power brokers making the call, applying the pressure to the status quo?
JAY BILAS: Well, there are a lot of people that have their hand in this and have a voice in it. The Board of Governors is one, and they gave the okay for the different divisions to explore this and put rules together that deal with name, image and likeness rights.
I do think that the message was sent, and it’s pretty clear, the committee that’s being chaired by Gene Smith and Val Ackerman, so what they’re saying and what the Board of Governors said I think on Monday, Monday or Tuesday, they’re not going to go very far on this.
When you say name, image and likeness rights but within the collegiate model, what you’re really saying is we are going to do this but we’re not really going to do it. So it’s not going to be much at all in my judgment. We’ll see. But there’s a bunch of different committees and things that all this stuff goes through, so there’s a lot of different people that have a voice in it, and I think that’s part of the problem.
What I find really interesting in this is that 45 days ago, give or take, when California passed SV 206, they call it the Fair Pay For Play Act, when that was passed, Mark Emmert and other NCAA officials, whether they be Larry Scott, the commissioner of Pac-12, they came out and said, this is an existential threat to college sports, and Larry Scott said, this will hurt women and it will hurt women’s sports, and they talked about how it was unconstitutional and all these different things, but when you say existential threat and antithetical to what college sports is about and it will make players professional and it will make players employees, and then 30, 45 days later you say, well, we’ve changed our mind so we’re going to move forward on this but we’re going to do it within this collegiate model thing, that’s a pretty significant flip-flop and/or about face, and there’s no explanation of well, we held this out as being this principle that we would never bend on, and now we’re bending on it.
And I find it — I think it goes to — like it basically says, we’ve never had any principle, this has always been about money, and really it’s just about how much money. So that’s been surprising and at the same time a little bit disappointing.
Q. What do you think that Mark Emmert and Larry Scott, what are they ultimately scared of? Is it the money? That if this happens, they’ll be out of a job, their salaries will be cut, they won’t be flying on private flights? What is it that they’re ultimately scared of changing here?
JAY BILAS: No, I don’t think they’re worried about their jobs at all. They’ll continue to make big money, and rightfully so. That’s fine. I’ve never argued nor has any other reasonable person ever argued that coaches shouldn’t make the money they’re making or administrators shouldn’t make the money they’re making. The issue is the money that’s being generated and the money that administrators and coaches are making when players are being cut out of the business altogether. That’s the problem. That the only person that is not allowed to make money, not only in college sports but in our society, is a college athlete.
Every other college student is allowed to make money in their chosen field of endeavor. I think what they’re worried about is they’ve got a business right now and they know where every dollar is going, where it’s coming from, and they know exactly how to manage it. And if they take away these amateurism rules and open it up, then there are question marks about what other people are going to do. They’ll say, well, geez, what is Zion Williamson going to do? Is he going to do a radio show? Is he going to wear a different shoe than we wear? What are we going to do? Whereas with any other decision, that’s just business. They don’t ask, does Dabo Swinney, how is he being paid? Is he being paid through a radio show or is every dollar coming — they don’t ask that. They only ask that of a player.
Five years ago we fought over a stipend, the cost-of-attendance stipend, and it was the same rhetoric. We’re going to have to cancel sports; we cannot afford it; women’s sports are going to be hurt. And five years later, nobody even questions that. It’s all fine. We argued over food. We can only give them one meal a day five years ago, now you can feed them whatever you want, and the world is still firmly on its axis and all the doomsday talk was total nonsense, and the doomsday talk now is total nonsense, too.
Q. Obviously Michigan kind of had an interesting off-season this year. I guess looking at this team, what do you like about it, and what concerns do you have with Michigan’s roster?
JAY BILAS: Well, what I like about it is they’ve got Xavier Simpson back, who is such an outstanding point guard. I mean, he’s only six feet tall, but he is such a good defender and a great passer. He had Cassius Winston in the league who led the nation in assists, and he was right behind him. The battle between those two every time they played, and I think they played three times last year, is one of my favorite match-ups to watch in the game. They are such, such good players and good leaders and unbelievable fighters.
Michigan has got a lot of guys that have to step forward into different roles this year, so John Teske is going to have to be more of a scorer, Isaiah Livers is going to have to be more of a scorer. I was disappointed that Bogner got hurt. That’s going to be a difficult thing to overcome. But having that trio we just talked about is going to be really helpful, and I’m not sure — we’ll have to see how their young players are able to step into a new system because the new system, the one thing with John Beilein going to the NBA, Juwan Howard’s system isn’t just new to the freshmen, it’s new to everybody. There’s going to be a lot of newness to it, but I think it’s going to be really fun, and I think as much enjoyment as they got out of playing for John, I think they’ll really enjoy playing for Juwan. I’m really happy for Juwan Howard because he’s worked his way up the hard way and has really — like he’s primed for this. I couldn’t be happier for him, and I think he’s going to do a fantastic job.
Q. How do you feel about their chances to kind of make a run in the Big Ten, maybe be a top-3 team or so in the Big Ten this season?
JAY BILAS: Well, the Big Ten is really good. So it’s going to be a challenge. There are so many good teams in the league. Like both Michigan State and Maryland are potentially top-5 teams. Like I think Maryland has got a chance to be top 5. That’s how good they are. And they’ve got a sophomore class that is one of those classes that Maryland fans won’t forget because I think they’re going to stick around. Then they’ve got Anthony Cowan at point. Purdue is going to be really good. I would say if Michigan can crack the top 5, that would be really a good year because Wisconsin, Ohio State — who else will be good? Iowa will be pretty good. I think Penn State will be much better this year and challenge for the NCAA Tournament. I think they’ll be — I think Penn State has got an NCAA Tournament caliber team.
If Michigan gets into the top five, that would be an extraordinarily good first year for Juwan Howard.
Q. I know you’re going to be on a call up at the Garden, but for a guy like Cassius Winston, who comes in with major expectations, when you go to the Garden, how does that maybe change some of the things that — the expectations and the bright stage? Does it kind of put things into perspective for a guy like that?
JAY BILAS: I think Cassius will embrace that and really enjoy it. I don’t know, I can’t remember whether he’s played there before or not. I know Michigan State has played there, but it’s been a while — I think, going in there as like a National Player of the Year candidate, First-Team All-American and all that stuff. It’s a little bit of a different deal. I think now he can really enjoy it at a different level and have a great perspective on it.
Like to me, the Madison Square Garden is kind of like playing at Augusta National or something. It’s a bucket list thing for a player, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s an NBA player, college player, whatever. All the amazing moments there have been at the Garden and being the mecca of basketball, I think it’ll be a great experience for everybody, but I think it’ll be an experience that Cassius will save or.
For him, he’s done everything now. He’s proven — he’s led the league in assists. He’s been All-American. He’s been to the Final Four, he’s done all this stuff. I think focusing on being a champion and taking the steps necessary to be a national champion, I think that’ll be his focus, and he’s got a little bit of — he kind of strikes me as some of Tom’s best leaders that — and it’s been a struggle. I know he’s battled with Tom over having to be a better defender and all these kind of things. Like he’s been challenged throughout his time there, but he’s answered the call. Like maybe when Mateen Cleaves was there running the point. He’s going to be one of the more beloved players that have played at Michigan State, and so Tuesday night will be a wonderful — it’ll just be a great celebration for the program.
I know you didn’t ask me this, but I want to say it anyway. Tom Izzo, I’ve said this in the past, like he’s not one of the best basketball coaches in the country, he’s one of the best coaches in American sports. Tom has got this humility to him where he’ll say, well, we’re not on the level of Kentucky or Duke or North Carolina or all that, and every time he says that, I go, yes, you are. Like who else has been to eight Final Fours in the last 20 years? Who else has done the things that Michigan State has done? Like Michigan State wears green, but they are a blueblood, and he is on the top level with any coach that’s ever done this. I mean, he’s not sitting in the backseat of any car with college coaches in it. Not one. And his program is the envy of the game, and especially the way he does it.
I don’t know a better guy, and I know I don’t know a better coach. Like he’s extraordinary. And I wouldn’t mind seeing him like take his right arm and put it over his left shoulder and pat himself on the back a little bit for what they’ve accomplished.
Q. SEC play, Auburn, what do you expect from Bruce Pearl and his guys? I know you have a couple of Sun Belt teams on there; in particular, South Alabama, who’s right now ranked as the No. 1 team to win the Sun Belt this year. How do you think Coach Bruce and his guys are going to go up against Coach Richie and his guys?
JAY BILAS: Well, I think Bruce has got a bigger — he’s got a size this year. I mean, he had it last year, but they’re really going to be able to use it this year maybe in a different way. It’s hard — you don’t lose — like they’ll be a top-20 program to start. I don’t know where exactly they’re ranked. I don’t remember honestly. But when you lose like Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, and then the biggest loss honestly is Chuma Okeke. That’s a huge loss based on how good that guy was. But to have the big guys back like Danjel Purifoy, Austin Wiley, that’s a great sort of starting point, and they’ve got good guards back, they just don’t have that experienced backcourt, that Final Four backcourt they had, and then the incredible difference maker that Okeke was. But Bruce is one of the best coaches in the country, and they’ve also got the Okoro kid coming in. Isaac Okoro is coming in. So he’s not quite what Okeke was. I mean, you can’t expect that out of the gate, but he’s going to be a great player. Bruce will have them playing hard and playing with their hair on fire. It’ll be great.
But it’s going to be a challenge to replace what they had in the backcourt last year and then what they became as a team. Like you saw them in Maui, you’re like, holy cow, these guys are legit, and they proved it, and if Chuma didn’t get hurt, it could have been Auburn cutting the nets down instead of — it almost was anyway. I think you would have had to favor them if he didn’t get hurt.
Q. Do you expect Austin Wiley to be able to have (indiscernible) everybody has been really waiting on?
JAY BILAS: Yeah, like Wiley can really run. He’s got back-to-the-basket ability, and that’s not the norm now. A lot of these guys are face-the-basket, perimeter, shoot-the-three type players, so they’ve got guys now with — Purifoy is a little bit different but still big. He’s like 6’7″, 6’8″, but Wiley especially, he could have a special year this year. And I think he’s going to have to for Auburn to challenge.
Q. And I did mention they’d be playing South Alabama, who’s No. 1 in the Sun Belt starting off in the preseason. They’ve pretty much got all their guys back. Do you expect a team like South Alabama going up against Auburn giving them some sort of contention?
JAY BILAS: Yeah, I mean, South Alabama, they won 17, 18 games — I can’t remember what they did last year, but they were a good team or a capable team. I think they went — did they go — were they .500 last year? Did they win more games —
Q. That is correct.
JAY BILAS: Yeah, but they’ll be representative. They’ll have a good team. You know how those things are in the state. Like you play an in-state rival and you’re going to have a fight on your hands.
But the Mitchell kid is really good. He’s got a chance to play for money in the future, and he should be — he’s an all-conference player.
Contact: [email protected]