With college basketball conference play underway, I caught up with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas to ask him a couple of questions about this season, as well as a few others on a variety of topics. We talked about John Wall, NCAA Tournament expansion, and whether college athletes should be able to sign endorsement deals, among other things.
I talked to Mr. Bilas on the phone last Tuesday, December 29th. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Kahn: Is John Wall the best freshman you’ve ever seen?
Bilas: I’m not sure I’d go that far. He’s spectacular and he may wind up at the end of the year being the best freshman I can recall, but Carmelo Anthony was unbelievably good. He’s the best freshman this year and I think he’s one of the best point guards I’ve seen in a long time in college, but I would hesitate to go quite that far this early.
Kahn: Did you like watching Carmelo play as much as you’ve liked watching Wall play?
Bilas: Yes, just in a different way. The game has changed even in the last six years. That was back when high schools players could come out so we’re looking at a landscape that’s a little bit different right now. This year there are some very capable freshmen; there have been over the last half a dozen years, more so than maybe even in the period where high school players could go out. (Wall’s) every bit as good as Derrick Rose was and maybe even a little bit more advanced.
Kahn: Do you think the NCAA Tournament will ever expand, beyond maybe a few more play-in games for 16 seeds? If so, what effect do you think it would have on what is viewed by many as the greatest sporting event in the country?
Bilas: That’s a good question, Andrew. I don’t pretend to have the answer to this. I have a gut feeling that expansion to 96 teams, or doubling the field, would be a mistake. I’m sure people said that when it was 32 — that if you doubled it it might be a mistake. But what you’ve got now is you’ve got a six-game tournament to win a championship. If you double it, you’re asking the best teams to win seven games. And what you start doing is a few things: One, you devalue the regular season even more and you devalue the results of conference tournaments. Making the NCAA Tournament is no longer as special as it was. You’re going to invite even more teams into Division I, which is too big already. There are 347 Division I teams in college basketball; that’s absurd. Frankly, it’s laughable.
I think you’re also going to start rewarding, frankly, mediocrity. I’m not sure that it would help anyone or anything in the game. It would feel more populist, but it would just devalue the whole thing. And it would add a layer of difficulty for your best teams. There are those that consider just making the NCAA Tournament the thing, and then there are those who look at it like I do, that the NCAA tournament is the national championship event — that’s how we crown a champion. So for the sake of making the 50th best team in the country feel better, I don’t think we should be making it more difficult for our best teams to compete for the national championship — that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do to me. Why would we expand it? What are we worried about, that it’s not fair to the 65th team? Well, so what? I played in the tournament, it’s a great thing, I want everybody to have that feeling. But at the same time you go, “wait a minute now,” this whole thing wasn’t designed to make everybody feel good, it was designed to crown a champion. We’re getting away from that main point which is this is for the national championship.
Kahn: I agree. I’d like to ask some of these coaches who’d like to expand it if they realize that just making the Tournament wouldn’t be enough. If it’s expanded, then fans and boosters are just going to want a win or two in the Tournament.
Bilas: I agree with that. People are always going to — I’ll use a football metaphor — people are always going to move the goalposts. When 20 wins used to be the thing, now it’s not anymore. It used to be that having a winning season was important, now you have to make the NCAA Tournament — that’s become the be all and end all. But you’re right, I don’t think the NCAA tournament will be as big of a deal. It will be “now you have to make it to the second weekend.”
The first question I would ask is when they say, “Well, let’s expand the tournament.” And I’d go, “OK, why?” It’s a pretty simple question. The answer’s all over the map. Why would you expand the NCAA Tournament? When it expanded early on, when it was basically a regional tournament, and you had to win your league’s bid to get in, and I think there were 16 teams way back when, I understood that. The answer was: We’re expanding it because you could have the top three teams in the country in the same league and only one could come out of that league and we’re not having a fair competition for the national championship. That’s fine; that makes perfect sense. But when you ask that now — why? — well what’s the answer? I’m not sure what it is. I think you might get 64 different answers.
Kahn: I just hope one of the answers isn’t about money. It would not improve the quality of the tournament as far as its goal to crown a champion, but I hope they don’t think they can make a few extra bucks on it and then do it because of that.
Bilas: And that’s another really good point. I think it’s really smart of them to look at it and I think it’s a healthy debate to have. We seem to agree, but our position isn’t necessarily the right one. I readily admit, I don’t know the right answer, but I feel pretty strongly about the way I look at it. When I ask the question “why expand it?” I’m open to the answer. So far I haven’t heard a good one. If they could make enough money where they could fund other sports and do some really good things with that money and that was the only thing standing in the way of gymnastics programs staying in or scholarships being funded, or something like that, then fine, that’s a good enough reason. But that’s not what’s going to happen. It’s not going to work that way, so I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to do it.
Kahn: Completely switching gears here. When you were hired by ESPN, did you know that you’d be writing for their website in addition to providing analysis for TV? How do you approach writing for the web versus TV analysis?
Bilas: The short answer is no. When I first started working for ESPN it was 1995 and there was no internet presence then. I don’t think I’m wrong in this — I think I was the first guy to write for ESPN.com on the basketball page. It started around the time I had first started with the company. If I wasn’t the first I was one of the first. I look at it all as part of the same thing. I’m a basketball analyst; I can analyze it in writing, on the radio, on television, wherever they want. I don’t look at it as anything additional or different from what I do on television. Writing just gives me a little bit more space, honestly, to say what I may have to say.
I’m a trial lawyer so I’ve had some experience writing and I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not one of those guys that has to dictate my column to somebody. I write it myself on my computer, I send it in by e-mail, and magically it appears. I go through the same editing process that everybody else does. I’m fortunate that other than spell check, which keeps me from any major errors, the rest of it is just about exactly how I write it.
Kahn: You were a player at a big-time school, then a coach, before becoming an analyst. Most networks prefer to hire former players and coaches. Do you think it’s a requirement that someone speaking about a sport should have played it at some point? Many writers never played — at least not past the high school — yet they have no problem sharing their opinions on the game.
Bilas: Another really good question. The answer is, I don’t think you had to have played or coached. I think it is helpful. I think what people want is someone who has studied the game and has as extensive a knowledge of the game as possible. I’m a big baseball and football fan and when I watch a baseball game or a football game, I tend to learn more from the people who are the most knowledgeable about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing stories to take me inside of the players or coaches who play and coach the game. But if I want to hear the ins and outs of the game itself…You watch games for the competition. If I wanted just to know about the players, I’d just read stories.
There are so many aspects of a game and of a sport. There are the background stories of the people who play it which are always revealing and really interesting. There’s the competition itself and the ins and outs of it, and the x’s and o’s sometimes, and the raw drama of competition. And then there are the investigative stories about the way the sport works, or what’s behind the game. Like we’re talking about the NCAA Tournament, or NCAA rules, or recruiting, or things like that. There are so many aspects of it. Nobody’s cornered the market on knowledge of the game. We all have our own expertise and our own backgrounds of the game. There is plenty of room for everybody.
Kahn: Before this season you wrote that college athletes should be able to get paid for endorsing products. Can you expand on that? Do you think that might help make the game more ethical? In other words, maybe players wouldn’t have to accept illegal funds if they knew they could legally make money once they started playing college ball?
Bilas: Last part first. I don’t know that providing players with the ability to capitalize on their names and likenesses is going to keep them from violating any other sort of rules. When people said — players used to get laundry money — we ought to go back to that, when players got a stipend, it might eliminate some of the cheating that goes on. And my response to that was always, “No it won’t.” If you want to expand the scholarship because it’s the right thing to do for the players, then do it. But if you’re trying to stop players from violating other rules, that’s not going to stop them. If you give a player two hundred bucks a month and somebody offers them additional money on top of that, they’re still going to take it. If they were predisposed to take it without the stipend, they’re going to take it with it, because that’s more. So I’ve never understood that logic.
I don’t feel like schools should pay the players. The idea that somehow these players deserve workers’ comp and should be paid a salary, I don’t necessarily agree with that. But I don’t think they should be handcuffed from taking advantage of their outside opportunities the way they are. I have a hard time reconciling the fact that a college basketball player can make a million dollars a year playing professional baseball but still be an amateur basketball player, but there’s a skier at the University of Colorado, who was a professional skier and they make their money off of endorsements, so he endorsed products skiing, and they wouldn’t let him play college football, because he traded on his name and likeness as an athlete. I thought, “that’s absurd.” Why shouldn’t a player be able to capitalize on it?
And there are lawsuits right now over it. The lawsuits right now that have to do with video games — the names and likenesses of players — is exactly what I’m talking about. The NCAA and the schools are making money off of the names and likenesses of the players, and the players are being cut totally out of it. To me it’s pretty simple analysis. If you look at these games, there is no question that the names and likenesses of the players are being used — none. They can say they have the right to do it, I’m not arguing whether they are right or wrong, but they are certainly doing it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed they don’t do it to the coaches. Do you ever notice the coaches aren’t in those games at all?
Kahn: I don’t really play video games too much. My brother would know.
Bilas: Ask him. I’m sure the lawyers that are dealing with these cases have looked at that. It’s pretty stark that the players, who aren’t allowed to make a nickel out of this, their names and likenesses are being used, but the coaches, who the makers of these games know they can’t violate their names and likenesses, they can’t violate trademark copyright laws, intellectual property laws, they don’t have the coaches in there. If the games are going to be totally realistic why wouldn’t they have the coaches? The answer is, because they can’t do it. And they know they can’t. But the players, they know they can, and they do. And I don’t think that’s right.
I don’t think high school players should be paid just because their high school charges admission to the game and they sell popcorn and all that stuff. I’m not suggesting that the University of North Carolina has to pay Deon Thompson. But if Deon Thompson, or whoever the player is at a particular school, if a local car company wants to give the kid a car and he does a commercial, why should anybody care? It doesn’t make him a pro. If it doesn’t make him a pro if the NCAA does it, I don’t see how it makes him a pro if the kid himself does it.
Kahn: That’s a good point. I know when I played in some golf tournaments when I was younger and there were holes were you could win a car if you got a hole-in-one, and if you accepted it you would lose your amateur status, which I always thought was ridiculous. I think that happened to a college basketball player a few years ago.
Bilas: That’s another good point. You can get your amateur status back in golf. You can’t get it back in basketball. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Do I think it should be looked at? Absolutely. Do I think there are areas in which we can take the handcuffs off of players, and make things easier on them, and not compromise the quote unquote integrity of the game — I think there’s a feeling in college athletics that if somehow a kid were to make a nickel off of being a player, that all of the sudden the innocence of the game is gone, and I don’t believe that. Because nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that there are kids playing college basketball right now that are also professional baseball players. And nobody cares. It’s happened for a long time. You can go all the way back to Danny Ainge. Danny Ainge was a professional baseball player when he was in college. And Trajan Langdon at Duke was a professional baseball player when he was in college. He was an amateur basketball player and a professional baseball player. Those things for me are kind of hard to reconcile with how draconian the NCAA rules can be.
Kahn: My final question is one I’m particularly interested in since I went to Michigan. You did the Kansas-Michigan game and during the broadcast you seemed confident about Michigan getting a Tourney bid. In your most recent blog entry, you appeared to pull back on those statements a little bit. Michigan has a home game with UConn — do you think they’ll win that and then go a few games over .500 in the Big Ten? Or do you think they can suddenly turn it around come conference play?
Bilas: I believed what I said in the Kansas game, that I think that’s an NCAA Tourney-worthy team. Or it least it should be. But when you really look at their body of work to this point — they’ve played 10 games; they’re 6-5. Northern Michigan is a Division II team, so that game doesn’t count. They’ll put it in their record but the committee’s not even going to consider that game. So they’re 5-5, they have not beaten a team ranked in the top half of Division I yet. Their best win was against Creighton and that was in overtime on a neutral floor, and Creighton is a .500 team. Their best win was against Detroit, and Detroit’s ranked ahead of them.
It’s way too early for this kind of thing, but Michigan’s ranked 189th in the last RPI I looked at. While that’s not a true indicator, because I think you have to get to February to where that’s really accurate and somewhat reliable. But heck, it’s an indicator, and it’s not a good one for them. They have not played as well as I expected. I ranked them in the top 15 to start the year. I really thought they would be much better. They’ve got two pros on that team, and they’ve not played near their capabilities, and it’s been surprising. Are they close? I think people spend way too much time talking about, “Well, if we had just hit a couple of shots here or there.” Their defense has not been very good against good teams. Against the top five teams they’ve played, they’re allowing those top five teams to shoot over 50 percent from the field. That’s a pretty big deal. If Michigan plays well in the Big Ten…if they win 10 out of their 18 games, I think they should make it.
Kahn: You can compare them to the football team in a way. You started saying, “Well, if they just stop with all these turnovers and the defense stops making all these crippling mistakes, then they’ll start winning.” But after three or four games of it you start to realize, “OK, well maybe this is just what they do.” Same with basketball — people keep waiting for them to shoot better and stop the opponent from easy dribble penetration, but after a certain number of games you start to think that maybe this is just what they are.
Bilas: Andrew, you’re right. I think Michigan has clearly dug a little bit of a hole. I kind of look at it as opportunities lost. I don’t think somehow they’ve got to make up for the games that they’ve lost, because you really can’t do that. For me at least, and I may look at it a little bit differently than some other people, but the teams that Michigan will be competing with to get into the Tournament — assuming they don’t win the automatic bid by winning the Big Ten Tournament — are all going to have lost a fair amount of games. They’ll all have that in common — they will have lost a lot of games. The issue is going to be: Who have you beaten? Last year at this time, Michigan had beaten UCLA and Duke. This year, they haven’t beaten anybody. They’ve got to go out and find some quality wins for people to say, “Look who they’ve beat. Look who they’ve proven they can beat.” That’s the main difference between this year and last year. Last year they already had a couple of scalps and this year they don’t.