2010 NCAA Tournament: National Championship Contenders

There are a lot of really good teams this year, but unlike last year there is not one that stands above the rest. North Carolina didn’t run the table last year as some foolishly predicted, but they were undoubtedly the best team from start to finish. Their closest NCAA Tournament game was 12 points.

This year, people thought Kansas was the clear-cut No. 1, but Kentucky’s resurgence has some people thinking otherwise. Below, you’ll see my rankings of the teams with the best shot to win the 2010 NCAA Tournament (along with the odds, courtesy of Superbook.com, for each team to do so). As you’ll see, at this point I believe there are only seven lucky teams that have a shot at hoisting the hardware in Indianapolis.

1. Kansas (odds: 7-4)
I don’t care if Kentucky has replaced Kansas as the “it” team of the moment (although that might change after the Wildcats were upset on Tuesday night), I still believe the Jayhawks are the best team in the country. Xavier Henry is undoubtedly the second best freshman in the nation, and the inside-outside combination of senior point guard Sherron Collins and junior center Cole Aldrich is second to none.

I stress the class standing of Kansas’ stars because that is what separates them from Kentucky. Experience is not something to dismiss come Tournament time. This is a Kansas team that has players who’ve been to two Final Fours and won a national title. Last year the Jayhawks won two tough games before falling to eventual runner-up Michigan State in a close game. My only concern is that KU’s younger players defer too much to Collins. Henry might have to assert himself a bit more offensively if this team wants to realize its full potential. Even so, if I were filling out my bracket today I’d write “Kansas” six times.

2. Kentucky (4-1)
Two syllables: John Wall. He is the player of the year frontrunner at this point in the season and clearly the most talented player in college basketball. But he is a freshman. So is teammate DeMarcus Cousins. And Eric Bledsoe. In fact, of the nine Wildcats averaging at least 10 minutes per game, four are freshman and two are sophomores. That leaves junior Patrick Patterson and senior Ramon Harris as the only upperclassmen who see the floor regularly.

But does age matter? Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a title as a freshman in 2003, but all the teams led by a freshman have come up short since. Kentucky handled the last few minutes of the loss to South Carolina pretty well in my opinion. Despite coming up short, they didn’t seem to panic or start pointing fingers. The real test will be how they respond after their first setback. With their next two games against ranked opponents (and upcoming trips to Vanderbilt and Tennessee), we’ll see what this very young Kentucky crew is made of. One thing is for sure: the Wildcats are going to be a tough out come March.

3. Purdue (25-1)
Just when you thought my picks were getting boring…

Please keep in mind that this ranking is based on the assumption that point guard Lewis Jackson will return from a foot injury that’s kept him out so far this season. If he decides to take a medical redshirt instead, Purdue is Elite 8, and maybe Final Four material, but I don’t think they can win it all. I don’t have any numbers in front of me but I imagine it’s hard to win the title without a true point guard.

If Jackson does return though, I think he is the final piece to the puzzle and the Boilermakers — much like fellow Big Ten school Michigan State last year — will play in the Final Four in their home state. Of course that is a very big “if” considering it is Jan. 28th and Jackson hasn’t played yet. The reports are optimistic though, or else I wouldn’t even consider ranking Purdue so high.

4. Villanova (12-1)
‘Nova reached the Final Four last year and the ‘Cats brought mostly everyone back this year. Dante Cunningham graduated, however, and I think he will be missed more than people realize. Sure Villanova is undefeated in the Big East, 18-1 overall, and ranked third in the country. But Cunningham was a huge part of this team, and he brought an element that I’m not sure Taylor King, or anyone else, can replace.

I think ‘Nova has a great shot at making the Final Four; guard play is so important in the Big Dance and ‘Nova’s backcourt is as good as any. But I don’t think this team has an inside presence that warrants them being higher on this list.

5. Michigan State (12-1)
The second Big Ten team on my list, I like the Spartans because of their ability to close out tight games (see their last two wins against Michigan and Minnesota), their experience (they’re led by upperclassmen who’ve been to multiple NCAA Tournaments, including the Final Four last year), and their balance (they can score in a variety of ways).

Michigan State has a go-to guy in reigning conference player of the year Kalin Lucas, as well as a mastermind in coach Tom Izzo. It was a surprise run last year, even though MSU was a two seed. This year, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Spartans are back in the Final Four.

6. Texas (12-1)
The Longhorns earned their first ever No. 1 ranking earlier this year, though it didn’t last long, as they promptly dropped two straight. But they righted the ship last night with a victory over Texas Tech. Texas beat Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and Michigan State, all by double digits, and two of those teams were ranked in the top-10 at the time.

Losing Varez Ward for the season hurt, but the key to this team will be the development of freshman star Avery Bradley. If he grows into a true superstar, he will be the perfect complement to Damion James. The ‘Horns have experience, and the key will be seeding. If they can win the Big 12 and earn a one seed, that will be huge.

7. Syracuse (4-1)
Given their odds, perhaps I should have the Orange higher on my list. ‘Cuse has some impressive wins, too, including a rout of California that I witnessed in person. Even so, I’m not 100% sold, though I’m not exactly sure why.

Syracuse has a great coach, a nice balance of upper and lowerclassmen, and a true star in Wesley Johnson. This team is also a classic case of “addition by subtraction,” as it was no secret to anyone watching ‘Cuse that Eric Devendorf was more trouble than he was worth. Two other starters — Paul Harris, who was overrated to begin with, and Jonny Flynn — were also apparently not all that coachable.

So there’s reason to believe the Orange may go deeper in this year’s Tournament than they have since the ’03 title I mentioned earlier. I like Syracuse; I just like the other teams a little bit more.

Notables and Notes

  • I didn’t include Duke (15-1), Georgetown (25-1), or West Virginia (25-1), simply because I don’t see any of them winning it all. That goes triple for Duke. If you think the Blue Devils have the weapons to bring a title back to Durham, well, you probably thought they did last year, too.
  • Defending champ North Carolina is now 40-1, because everyone is starting to realize what Roy Williams knew months ago: this Tar Heels squad is too young and inexperienced to have such lofty expectations.
  • There’s great value with tenth-ranked BYU at 40-1. Yes, the Cougars did drop their first MWC game last night at New Mexico, but that’s nothing to be ashamed about. BYU (20-2 overall) is still an experienced Tournament team, with a bonafide star in Jimmer Fredette. The Cougs just hope they don’t have to face Texas A&M in the opening round, at the Aggies have ousted them the past two years.
  • Ohio State (30-1) has an All-American so they’re worth a look, though it’s hard to imagine the third best team in a conference winning it all. Gonzaga and (somehow) Cal are the biggest favorites of any west coast teams at 60-1, which speaks to the decline of the teams out west. UCLA, for example, is 200-1, which is a joke because I don’t think they’ll even make the Tournament.
  • Siena and Temple, both 100-1, have bracket buster potential, though it’s unlikely either of these programs will ever win it all.

Agree? Disagree? Feel your favorite school was snubbed? As always, let me know in the comments section.

MAAC Basketball: Midseason Questions

MAAC basketball starts up again on Thursday night with four games on the slate. The marquee match-up has to be Siena at St. Peter’s; I’ll be covering the Iona-Marist game. As I noted yesterday, the Saints and Gaels are two teams I’ll be discussing as I answer some questions heading into the second half of conference play…

Will Siena go undefeated in conference play?
The Saints certainly have the talent to do so. They’ll be favored in every MAAC game this season, and rightfully so. But math tells us that even if a team has a 90% chance of winning each game, that team is still unlikely to run the table in an 18-game schedule (or even in an eight-game schedule).

Siena still has the aforementioned road game at St. Peter’s, as well as trips to Niagara, and Rider, two games that resulted in Siena’s only two conference losses last season. The Saints also have tough home contests against top-tier MAAC teams Iona and Fairfield. If the Saints have a weakness, it’s their lack of depth. I think a weak bench will sting them in a high-energy late-season game.

The Verdict: Siena will be upset at least once (and probably only once) in the regular season.

Can Iona and Fairfield stay hot?
Let’s start with the Stags. As I wrote in yesterday’s article, Fairfield is overachieving without Greg Nero. Freshman point guard Derek Needham is playing better than most expected, leading his team in points, assists, steals, and minutes played. If the freshman can hold up for the second half of the season, the Stags can remain near the top of the MAAC standings.

However, Fairfield’s schedule is no walk in the park. Having already played last-place Marist twice, the Stags still have to travel to Siena, Rider, and Loyola, as well as host St. Peter’s, Iona, and Niagara. None of those games will be easy. Relying so heavily on a freshman point guard is usually not a formula for late-season success, so I can see Fairfield’s season going either way.

Iona doesn’t rely on a freshman point guard, but Kevin Willard’s starting lineup often consists of three or four underclassmen. There are 10 Gaels averaging at least 11.5 minutes per game — six of them are freshmen or sophomores. Unlike other MAAC teams though, Iona has no player averaging more than 29 minutes a game (four of Siena’s starters are averaging 30 mpg).

The deep bench has allowed Willard to play an up-tempo, full-court press style of attack that has often worn down opponents this year. Offensively, it’s been a “different guy every night” type of season. I know Willard would prefer to be scoring in the 80’s, which Iona hasn’t done since Dec. 23rd, but he’ll take the wins any way they come.

And I think those wins will continue to come for this young squad. Look at Iona’s next six games: Marist, Canisius, at Siena, at Marist, Manhattan, Loyola. The Gaels will be favored in five of those games and I expect them to win all except Siena.

The Verdicts: Fairfield holds serve at home, but loses three of four on the road, which would put them at 12-6 in conference, a mark that should leave them no worse than third place. Iona, as I just mentioned, should win five of their next six. If they do that, even if they do lose their three road games (Siena, Fairfield, and St. Peter’s), they’ll be 12-6 just like Fairfield. Both of these teams are the real deal.

Which team, if any, will rise up?
Sorry, Marist. Loyola? Not this year. Manhattan, despite its proven ability to hang with anyone, has dug itself too deep a hole.

My team to watch in the second half is Rider. At only 4-6 in the MAAC and 11-11 overall, the Broncs certainly qualify. Remember, this is the team picked to finish third in the preseason poll. The schedule sets up favorably for a strong finish: of their final eight games, six of them are at home, including a Feb. 26th nationally-televised match-up with Siena.

Given that Rider has the preseason player of the year, senior Ryan Thompson, it can’t be counted out just yet. Are the Broncs going to win the regular season title? Of course not. But don’t be surprised if they get hot down the stretch and carry a bunch of momentum into the conference tournament.

The Verdict: Rider finishes strong, winning six of eight to put them at 10-8 in the conference. Come tournament time, watch out.

I welcome your thoughts and predictions in the comments section!

MAAC Basketball Midseason Report

February is almost here, we’re past the halfway point in the conference season, and there have been enough games played for us to get a good look at all 10 MAAC teams. So it’s time for some midseason awards. Which team has been the biggest surprise? Who is the front-runner for player of the year? Which teams are heading towards the postseason? Here are my thoughts on the key story lines so far this season…

The Surprises

Siena’s non-conference slip-ups
The Saints are sitting pretty at 10-0 in the MAAC. They have looked fairly dominant this season and are certainly the favorites to repeat as conference champions. But should they fall in the conference tournament, they’re in big trouble.

Siena dropped the ball in the non-conference, losing to Temple, St. John’s, Georgia Tech, and Northern Iowa. The Saints did beat Northeastern, who sits atop the CAA. But the resume lacks that “signature win” the selection committee likes to see.

Iona’s impressive start

In just the third year under head coach Kevin Willard, the Gaels are in second place in the MAAC with a 7-3 record. They’ve won six straight and have become “road warriors,” winning seven of nine true road games this season, the biggest of which was a victory at Providence. “We played 18 road games last year,” Willard said after a win at Manhattan last week. “They understand what it takes to win on the road. You’ve got to play defense.”

After some early season inconsistency, Willard has Iona playing its best basketball of late. The Gaels have won six in a row and are 15-6 overall. In case you’re not impressed with all of this, consider: Iona was picked ninth in the conference preseason coaches’ poll.

Fairfield’s similar (and nearly as impressive) start
Hats off to Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley, also in his third year. Like Iona, the Stags are 7-3 in conference. However, they did lose to the Gaels on Sunday. Even so, they are 14-6 overall, an impressive feat considering the injury bug that continues to bite this team.

After learning that star player Greg Nero’s season was over before it began after, of all things, off-season sinus surgery, it meant that Fairfield would be without four of its top five scorers from last season. The answer? Freshman point guard Derek Needham, sixth in the MAAC in scoring (averaging 15.7 points in MAAC games) and third in assists, who’s running away with the freshman of the year award.

The Stags were picked fourth in the preseason poll but that was before the coaches knew that Nero would be out. Fairfield lacks a big-time conference win but still has a few opportunities to get one.

The Awards

Best Game: This was a tough one, but I’m going with the Jan. 16th contest between Canisius and Manhattan. Canisius won an overtime thriller on the road, 63-61, on a Julius Coles three with five seconds left. Manhattan’s shot as time expired hit the rim. Honorable mention goes to yesterday’s Rider-Niagara game, won by the Broncs on a tip in with five ticks left.

Best Individual Performance: Nick Leon vs. Niagara. The junior guard hit 11-of-12 free throws en route to 29 points, tied for the most in a MAAC game this season. The difference between Leon’s effort and Rico Pickett’s 29 against Fairfield was that Leon’s came in a win, a 90-86 overtime victory for the Purple Eagles.

Tough Luck Team: Manhattan — no doubt about it. The Jaspers are 2-8 in the MAAC, but consider: four of their losses were by three points or fewer. One more basket (or one more stop) in just a handful of games and Barry Rohrssen’s club could be at .500. “We’ve been fighting; we’ve been scrapping,” Rohrssen said after a three-point loss to Iona last week. “We are right there. And we’ve got to make some plays to put things away in our favor.”

All-MAAC Team: I went for some balance as far as positions and teams. Also keep in mind that because of Iona’s schedule so far I haven’t seen all these players in person yet. But here we go: Edwin Ubiles (f, Siena), Anthony Johnson (f, Fairfield), Ryan Rossiter (f, Siena), Frank Turner (g, Canisius), Tyrone Lews (g, Niagara). I’d give the player of the year to Ubiles, as he is the most talented player I’ve seen thus far.
Honorable Mention: A lot of guys are worthy, but I’ll mention some, such as Wesley Jenkins (St. Peter’s), Alex Franklin (Siena), Rico Pickett (Manhattan), Ronald Moore (Siena), Derek Needham (Fairfield), Bilal Benn (Niagara), and the underrated Scott Machado (Iona).

What does the second half of the MAAC season have in store? Will Siena run the table in conference? Will overachieving Iona remain near the top of the standings? Is one of the bottom-half teams capable of making a late-season run? Find out the answers to these questions tomorrow in my MAAC edition of “Who’s Real, Who’s Fake?”

Michigan Beats Indiana; Is NCAA Tournament Bid Still Possible?

In 2008, the year after the Notre Dame football team went 3-9, the Michigan football team did the same. Now, a year after a preseason top-15 Irish basketball squad failed to make the NCAA Tournament, it looks like the Wolverines could be headed down the same path.

Believe me, it hurts me to make that comparison.

I can’t believe Michigan is only 9-7 (3-2 in the Big Ten). A few weeks ago I was concerned that a Tourney bid was slipping away. Now? It’s out of reach, and John Beilein’s boys have a big hill to climb just to get back into the conversation.

Not everyone was as surprised by this as I was. AnnArbor.com Michigan beat writer Mike Rothstein made the connection between these two teams back in November, before the season tipped off, stating in an interview with MGoBlog.com that he feared Michigan could miss the Tournament just like the Irish did in 2009. He covered Notre Dame last season for The Journal Gazette, and heading into his first season in Ann Arbor, he noticed the similarities.

Though I did find it interesting, the comparison didn’t really concern me at the time. Although I wasn’t surprised that the Wolverines were considered a top-tier Big Ten team, I was surprised to see them ranked so high (No. 15) in the preseason poll. And even after the season started collapsing, I didn’t think to myself, “I should have seen this coming!” Just because Michigan’s make-up, on paper, is similar to Notre Dame’s, doesn’t mean it should suffer the same fate. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“What gave me a feeling this might happen — and I had it the second I watched this team in Orlando against any real competition — was the lack of a reliable third scorer and a leadership void,” Rothstein said via e-mail on Thursday, before Michigan beat Indiana 69-45 at Crisler Arena. “Despite a killer schedule, what did Notre Dame in a season ago was missing the little things/stability guy in Rob Kurz. This year the biggest issue for Michigan is all about personnel. People may talk about shooting and defense and yes, those are important, but the focus and intensity C.J. Lee and David Merritt brought to the Wolverines kept everyone else in line on every possession.”

Even with minor personnel changes, it’s hard to argue that the loaded Big East didn’t contribute significantly to ND’s demise. ND didn’t have the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country last year, but they did head into Big East play with a 9-2 record, including a win over then-No. 7 (and eventual NCAA Tourney team Texas). So the theory that the Irish got swallowed up by a brutal conference slate certainly makes sense.

But what about Michigan? The Big Ten has been just as good as expected, but that’s irrelevant as far as the Wolverines are concerned. Their troubles started before Big Ten play began, as they dropped games to Marquette, Alabama, Boston College (in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge), Utah, and Kansas, while failing to beat any team of note. How do you explain that?

Rothstein’s reference to the seniors of last year’s Michigan team, Merritt and Lee, seems more than plausible. They didn’t fill up the box score, nor did they necessarily catch your eye with spectacular play. But they were fifth-year seniors who had been through some tough times.

“The leadership void is a big issue and that hole helped lead to some ill-advised shots in the offense,” Rothstein said in the e-mail. “With this team, bad offense leads to poor defense and this is how the cycle is going to go.”

Much like that Notre Dame team from a year ago, Michigan relies heavily on the outside shot and has been playing poor defense. When they’re not hitting from deep, as has been the case for much of the season, and they’re not getting enough stops on the defensive end, well, that’s not exactly a formula for success.

So did Michigan buy into its own hype after receiving the high preseason ranking?

“While I don’t think they thought they’d coast to a NCAA Tournament bid…I think they felt they were better than they were,” Rothstein wrote. “At the time, that was bad. Now, I think they still believe the same thing and that is good for them because it keeps confidence. This stretch could be the rejuvenation point or the breaking point.”

The stretch Rothstein referred to started with last night’s game, which was a must win for the Wolverines. Now the real brutal slate begins — No. 15 UConn on Sunday, followed by road games at No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 6 Purdue, and finishing with a home game vs. No. 8 Michigan State on Jan. 26.

If the Wolverines want to dance, they’re first going to have to fight.

Green Bay Packers Charles Woodson Named Defensive Player of the Year; Darrelle Revis Snubbed?

Charles Woodson, defensive back for the Green Bay Packers, has been named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, and deservedly so…sort of.

Woodson deserved the award — his interceptions (9) and touchdowns (3) were tied for the league lead — but perhaps Darrelle Revis, the New York Jets cornerback, deserved it more. (By the way, I am a Jets fan and an alum of the same school at which Woodson won the Heisman trophy, so I’ve got reason to like both guys.)

Revis became well known this season for his ability to shut down the league’s best receivers. If you’ve watched a Jets game the past few weeks, you’ve seen the graphic: the one that shows how Revis has held the likes of Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, and Chad Ochocinco to minuscule numbers. If you’re looking for a better shut-down corner than Revis, you’ve got a greater chance finding the Kiffin family vacationing in Knoxville.

Although I haven’t seen the Packers nearly as much, I know that Woodson is more of a “do it all” corner. His versatility is evidenced by the interceptions (including the aforementioned three that he took to the house) and the four forced fumbles. He recorded 20 more tackles than Revis and notched two sacks as well. Woodson is still a great athlete and a true playmaker, even if he doesn’t quite compare to Revis when it comes to locking up a wideout.

I’ve read some profiles on both Woodson and Revis recently and, not surprisingly, they have a lot in common. They both seem to understand the value of film study, impressing their respective coaches with their attention to detail. Knowing your opponents’ tendencies is critical to a defensive back’s success, and these two stars understand that.

So, was Revis robbed? Even though I was pulling for him, I can’t honestly say he was. He would have received my vote — in addition to Revis’ personal accomplishments, the Jets had the best defense in the league, allowing the fewest yards, points, and passing yards — but to say Woodson wasn’t a worthy candidate is ridiculous. I was surprised by Woodson’s margin of victory — he received twice as many votes as Revis. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, I just feel like this could have gone either way and the voting doesn’t seem to reflect that.

Woodson’s win, in a way, makes Colt McCoy’s failure to win this year’s Heisman Trophy even more surprising. These awards, unfortunately, can sometimes become “lifetime achievement” trophies. Sophomore Mark Ingram beat out McCoy, who had just as impressive a season as Ingram and was the senior with the remarkable career. While voters ignored McCoy’s complete body of work (as they should), perhaps Woodson got extra votes because of his long, successful NFL career. While Woodson just finished his 13th season, Revis is only in his third.

The consolation prize for Revis? His season is still going.

An Interview with ESPN College Basketball Analyst Jay Bilas

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.

One man's writing in one place.