NCAA Hoops Viewer's Guide (Cont.)
SI.com: Give me the storylines that interest you most this season and why you chose them?
Bilas: I'll start with Kentucky because they are the defending champ, and the most interesting and thought-provoking team in basketball. No team is more polarizing than Kentucky, and it's not just among fans. I believe that Kentucky's success really rankles some of the "moralizers" in college sports that believe they alone know what college sports is all about. John Calipari has done something, frankly, I didn't think was possible. He has taken super talented but incredibly young teams and turned them into close knit, unselfish, hard playing, winning teams. In three years at Kentucky, he has dominated the NBA Green Room, and has also won over 100 games and reached two Final Fours and won a National Championship. It is incredible, and one of the great accomplishments in the history of the game. This year, he has another stellar crop of freshmen, and should be right there to go to Atlanta (site of the 2013 Final Four).
I will be nostalgic about the Big East this year. This is the last year of the Big East at full strength, with all of its power. After Syracuse leaves, it will never be the same. This year, the Big East will be really good. Louisville and Syracuse are the best teams, and both have the personnel to reach Atlanta.
I will be interested to see if the Big Ten is as good as I think it will be this year. The Big East, Big 12 and ACC will be really good, but I think the Big Ten has a real chance to be the best league before all is said and done. Indiana is the favorite, Cody Zeller is the best big man in the country, and Tom Crean has a really fine offensive team that is ready to take the next step and challenge for it all.
The Pac-12 will be really interesting to me, also. Last year was not a good one for the West, but this year should be much, much better. UCLA, if the NCAA clears Shabazz Muhammad, should be the best team. With him, they are a national contender. Without him, Arizona is probably the better team.
Next will be how the "mid-major" teams fare, the ones that traditionally have lost out to the majors when we get to the NCAA tournament. This year feels more like 2010 to me than last year, and we could see some volatility because of it. There may be a few teams like Creighton, Davidson, Murray State, Illinois State, VCU, Long Beach State, Drexel, or Gonzaga that could find their way to the Elite Eight. If you get there, you can make something crazy happen.
SI.com: The college basketball fan, given all the television entities that will broadcast games this year, probably has more options than ever before. But this year, at least for me, it feels like a tough sell for broadcasters with a lack of known stars. This has always been an issue in college hoops but it seems acute this year outside of a couple of teams and players (Zeller, obviously). Am I speaking more as a generalist, or will it be a harder sell this year to get casual college hoops fans involved during the regular season?
Bilas: That's a great question. Because players don't stay in college as long as in the past, I think it is harder than ever for the average fan to follow the college game, and it has really hurt the game. I don't believe that the NCAA does the best job administering the game, marketing the game, and working toward practical solutions to encourage players to remain in school. We spend far too much time moralizing, and telling the NBA what it should do rather than simply dealing with what is best for the college game, and taking the necessary steps to adapt to a changing landscape.
On the marketing side, just as one of many examples, we have no recognized start to the season. The NCAA owns the NIT, which is nearly invisible at the end of the season. Why not move the NIT to the beginning of the year, invite the top sixteen teams (which could include at least the top four mid-majors), and have a national championship event to start the season? In our game, everyone knows when practice starts. It starts on Oct. 15, but nobody knows when the season starts. We can fix that, and we can place greater emphasis on the regular season and make it more meaningful to fans. That is where the success of the NCAA tournament has negatively impacted the overall game.
We have a great game here. I happen to believe it is the best game. It is just fine the way it is, but I think it can be better than fine. I know we can do better, and we should do better. But those that are currently "in charge" need to do a better job of listening and acting in the best interests of the game. How's that for moralizing!
SI.com: We always invite moralizing in this space and the NIT idea would do wonders for the sport, including adding revenue. Let me stick with another television topic. I find it frustrating how often college coaches are mythologized by broadcasters. It's endemic in my opinion, and I'd argue dangerous. You've worked on both sides of this, in coaching and broadcasting. How do you assess my thesis?
Bilas: Generally, I guess as broadcasters we can all go over the top in trying to convey how good we think a coach is, or how much respect we may have for the system or teaching ability of a certain coach. It may be seem prevalent, but I'm not sure there's a lot of danger associated with it. I tend to believe the public can sift through those that throw too many bouquets and those that throw too many grenades. Like anything else, there needs to be a balance.
There are some coaches out there that are worthy of the praise, as long as we keep it in the basketball context, and we don't make it seem as if they could cure cancer or split the atom with a butter knife if they turned their attention to it.
SI.com: Tell me what a good studio analyst should provide me as a viewer?
Bilas: Wow, I'll have to ask one, the next time I run into one of those.
When I'm in the studio, I try to tell the viewer something I find important, or that I have noticed that interested me. I always hear, "Tell me something I don't know," but we have a pretty big audience, and more than a few of them played and coached at the highest levels. It would be presumptuous of me to assume I know a bunch of things our sophisticated viewers don't know. Over the years, I have tried to keep it simpler, which can be one of the toughest things to do. I try my best to provide my perspective on things and do it in a clear and concise manner. I have really tried to simply talk to the people with whom I am on set. Sometimes, it seems like each of us take turns giving short speeches instead of just talking and interacting with each other about the game. On GameDay and other studio appearances, I have really tried to get away from looking into the camera and making a short speech. Rather, I try simply to talk to my colleagues, and have a give and take. It works well for us on GameDay, and has been really fun.