Jay Bilas joined ESPN as a college basketball analyst in 1995, and provides courtside analysis on more than 40 games a year, and as a studio analyst for ESPN’s weekly College GameDay and College Gamenight shows. He recently sat down and spoke to members of the media in a conference call to discuss the 2011 NCAA tournament. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. You were one of the biggest critics of VCU being invited to the tournament. Now, it seems like you’ve become a rallying cry for that team’s success. Do you have a problem with what’s been said?
A: I don’t have any problem with anything’s been said. I get to say what I want, everyone gets to say what they want. I have zero problem with it. It doesn’t bother me a bit. Those arguments for selection are selection Sunday only arguments. They have nothing to do with performance. I’ll put it this way, the fact that VCU has played extraordinarily well and won does not make my argument wrong. Similarly the fact that UAB lost and did not play well does not make my argument against them right. That’s not the way the world works, certainly not the way that college basketball world works. If one were to listen closely to what was said on Selection Sunday, the argument was basically that Colorado or Virginia Tech was worthy of getting in first, not that any one team didn’t belong at all. I felt that of the teams discussed, UAB should’ve been last in line but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t capable of playing well and winning once they got there. Performance in the tournament is different than selection.
Q. Speaking of VCU, what do you think of how they’ve played in this tournament?
A. It’s been amazing. They’ve shot the ball extraordinarily well. They’ve not turned it over, they’ve got a lot of speed. In watching them play, this is the best they’ve played all year. They played well at times throughout the year. Early on, I saw them play up in New York and they played well there. In the middle of the year, they were not quite as good. In their tournament, they played well. The full body of work they had, I thought Virginia Tech, Colorado, Alabama and St. Mary’s made better cases. All those teams are capable of beating people. It’s not just VCU. I applaud them for what they’ve done in the tournament. They’ve got a great draw right now as far as continuing to advance and play well.
Q. Who do you think is the favorite right now?
A. I think it’s Ohio State. I think Ohio State and Kansas are the two best teams. Throughout the year, I’ve maintained that I didn’t think there was a historically great team. I think if there is one, it’s Ohio State. They’ve played extraordinarily well, especially in the latter part of the year. Of the losses they’ve suffered, it’s taken an awful lot to beat them. Wisconsin had to have an extraordinary finish. Purdue played a great game at Purdue to beat them, so I think Ohio State and Kansas have separated themselves by a little bit. But of the two, I would say Ohio State is the better team.
Q. Do you think a Kansas vs. Ohio State national championship game would be the ideal final?
On paper it would be if you take a BCS view of things. The beauty of it is, the teams get to prove things through the course of the tournament. I’m one of those that believes that the best team doesn’t always win in this. In other words, in 1985, I thought Georgetown was the best team, and they lost to Villanova in what was an epic game, an epic upset. In 1991 I was an assistant coach on that Duke team that beat UNLV and I thought UNLV was the best team. We happened to clip them. So, the best team doesn’t always win, and that’s part of the beauty of this tournament. Those are the two best teams, I think it would be a wonderful final if they were to earn their way there.
Q. What are your thoughts on the upcoming Kentucky vs. Ohio State game?
A. I think Ohio State is the better of the two teams because they’re a lot older and they’re really balanced. Having that kind of experience and the talent they’ve got is a great combination. I think Kentucky’s got terrific talent, but it’s inexperienced talent. I may differ with some of my friends on this, but there’s an adage that’s been used that freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore at this time of year. I differ with that. I think freshmen are freshmen more so now than at any time during the year because they’ve never been in these kinds of situations before. We saw that when Kentucky played West Virginia in the regional final. West Virginia threw out that 1-3-1 on Kentucky and they didn’t handle it particularly well. I think if they had an older, more experienced team, their talent and experience would’ve guided them through that and that wouldn’t have been as big an issue for them.
Q. Can freshmen actually carry their teams despite the inexperience?
A. I think it can happen in today’s game, especially when the older players in the game are not of the same caliber than the older players were in the game 20 years ago. It is possible for freshmen to be more successful now than they could’ve been many years ago. But still, experience matters. If you had overwhelming freshmen talent like Kentucky had last year, it can take you further than not having that overwhelming talent. But Ohio State has outstanding talent. They’ve got not only two really good freshmen, they’ve got the best freshmen in the country, Jared Sullinger, but Aaron Craft is beyond his years as a freshman as well. I haven’t seen a guard put better pressure on a basketball than he does and be more disruptive as a defender. He had 15 assists in that George Mason game, so they’re the real thing. They’ve very, very good. It will take an extraordinary effort on Kentucky’s part to win.