With the meat of March Madness getting ready to tip off this week, longtime ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke star Jay Bilas takes a shot at some NCAA Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: What kind of March Madness should we expect?
A: A bit of a crazy one, because we don’t have two dominant teams, like we had last year with Baylor and Gonzaga. Gonzaga obviously was undefeated going into the Tournament, [and] Baylor would have been, absent that difficult COVID bout they had toward the end of the season. I think we’ve got eight teams that are title favorites, or prohibitive title favorites. And I think the champion is most likely to come out of that group. Wide-open is an overused term. The Tournament’s never wide open. It can open up for a team and a bracket, but it’s not wide open. I think the eight teams I’m thinking of now could all lose in the Sweet 16. The top teams are more likely to lose this year, but I still think you’re gonna get the champion, or Final Four teams, out of that group.
Q: Of that group, which one do you think is the most vulnerable?
A: Probably Purdue, because they don’t defend as well as I thought they would. They’re as good an offensive team as there is — I think Gonzaga’s the best offense — but Purdue’s defensive numbers are just not as good as I would have anticipated. They can be tempoed down, and they can be beaten. But everybody can. Saint Mary’s beat Gonzaga [on Feb. 26].
Q: If you’re Gonzaga coach Mark Few, what do you tell your team, because there will be tremendous pressure on the Zags to finally win it all?
A: They’ve had that pressure for a long time, so that’s nothing new for them. Mark is a competitive, ball-out, go-get-it guy. Not, let’s hang on to this and try not to lose. He’s a let’s-go-get-it. So they’re gonna ball-out, I’m not concerned about that. Look, they may get beat, but they’re not gonna choke. That’s not in their DNA.
Q: What can you tell me about Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren?
A: Timme is the most underappreciated star in the game right now. He’s been so good for so long, that if he didn’t average 30 this year, we were gonna think he wasn’t doing as well. And he’s been first-team-All-America good. When he plays against ranked teams, he’s shooting like 67 percent. It’s ridiculous. He’s one of those old-school guys that knows how to play. And Holmgren is a freak. People say he’s a unicorn, he’s not. Ralph Sampson … that guy was a unicorn. We’ve seen Holmgren before, and his name is Ralph Sampson. Holmgren is special, and he does do many things so well. But you add all their parts together, offensively they’re the best team.
Q: Who are some of the other players that you’re looking forward to watch?
A: Jaden Ivey at Purdue is special. If Johnny Davis is healthy at Wisconsin, he’s a special player. Keegan Murray at Iowa. … Duke’s got four first-round picks on their team. There’s so many players on these quote-unquote mid-majors that are really good. Malachi Smith is the real deal at Chattanooga. Murray State is equally as capable of making a run as they were when Ja Morant was there. They have a number of the same players, but they’re older — Tevin Brown, KJ Williams, that whole crew— they’re really talented, really good, I don’t know how far they’re gonna go, but they’re not gonna be one-and-out, I know that.
Q: Who are some of the dangerous sleeper teams?
A: Davidson’s really good, Providence is really good. There are a bunch of teams that, when they play their best, they can beat anybody. And there are probably more of those this year than we’ve had in [past] years. Now that may be reflective of the power at the top, but I think it’s more reflective of how good some of these other teams are. And as you know, we’ve got more older players this year than we’ve had. You would think that it would have led to more consistency, and it hasn’t. But we’ve got a bunch of teams that are capable of playing really well. How many times have seen this where a team has performed a certain way during the regular season, and then they get in the tournament and they catch fire? I don’t know who that’s gonna be, if I did I’d go to Vegas and be sitting by the pool with a drink in my hand and a big pile of money. I know it’s gonna happen, I just don’t know who.
Q: Who are some possible unsung heroes or X factors?
A: Jaylin Williams at Arkansas. JD Notae is their best player, but since Jan. 1, Jaylin Williams has been as good as any frontcourt player in the country. Armando Bacot has been great at North Carolina, they’re starting to play like we thought they would at the beginning. Adama Sanogo at Connecticut. … Connecticut’s really good. They’ve had ups and downs like most teams. They’ve got all-conference talent at the key positions, at point guard with RJ Cole … they’re legit. [Villanova’s] Collin Gillespie, even though he’s an old hand now. Villanova’s gonna be hard to beat. They’re not as talented as they’ve been in their championship years, but they’re legit, and they’re gonna be hard to deal with because of the way they play.
Q: What are your thoughts on Seton Hall?
A: Really good. Another one of those undervalued teams. Jared Rhoden’s one of the best defenders in the country. They’re experienced, they’re tough, and they’ve been through it. They’ve had performances where they’ve been as good as anybody, and they’ve had others where they could be beat by anybody. So they’re not fooled into thinking they can just go roll in and win. But I like their makeup and their chances. Kevin Willard is one of the best coaches in the country, he’s really good. I just think they’re tough.
Q: Do you think Willard might be elsewhere next year?
A: Coaching’s about leverage, and he’s got it. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s gonna be somewhere else, but when Maryland opened and Louisville opened, Bruce Pearl signed a gigantic contract at Auburn. That’s what happens. He could very well stay there, but it’s not gonna be at the same price and shouldn’t be.
Q: What are your thoughts on Rutgers?
A: Rutgers is one of those teams that early on did not perform at the level we thought. But now they’re the team we thought they’d be. So if you’re looking at their overall numbers, you’re fooling yourself into thinking that’s who they are. Who they are is who they’ve been over the last 15 games, and they’re very good. [Clifford] Omoruyi is a problem. Caleb McConnell’s an unbelievable defender — he’s top-five in the country, at any position. And Paul Mulcahy’s a terrific guard that makes really good decisions, and then Ron Harper Jr. … how many times does he have to make a big shot before people go, “That guy’s the real deal?” Everybody says, “Well I wouldn’t want to play them.” I’d want to play everybody, because it means you’re playing meaningful games, but they’re gonna be under-seeded for sure. They’re gonna be better than their seed because of the way because of this total body of work thing. And the total body of work is not gonna indicate how good they are.
Q: What do you like about UConn?
A: They’ve got talent at the key positions, and really good depth. So they have size, shot-blocking and they have scorers. But they don’t have one guy. Their go-to guy’s the open man, which is a great way to play. They’re another team that’s probably undervalued.
Q: Tell me about the two Duke kids, Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin.
A: Banchero’s the most talented. He’s 6-[foot]-10, 255 [pounds], and he’s a matchup that very few teams can deal with. So it means you’re probably gonna have to double him, and that’s gonna open up some other things. He’s a pretty good passer, and they’ve got other weapons. The problem is they’re young, so in certain games, their youth kind of showed. It happened on the road early, it’s been better as the season went along. They’ve been a more mature team in the way they’ve approached things. But one of the keys to their team had been Griffin. He’s been out for almost two years with injury, and then he comes back and now he’s one of the five best shooters in the ACC. But he doesn’t have to have the ball all the time. He’s a weapon out there. They’re legit. I think the thought of them being this great defensive team is probably overplayed. I think they defend well, but they’re not a turnover-forcing team. They’re actually, in ACC games, they’re underwater in turnovers. Their turnover margin is minus, which is unusual for a good defensive team. But they’re one of the eight, they’re a threat to win it.
Q: Your thoughts on St. John’s coach Mike Anderson?
A: I think he’s fantastic. I think Mike’s got the program exactly where it should be, and that’s getting good players and being hard to play against.
Q: Who are unsung coaches who could make a name for themselves in this Tournament?
A: I think Matt McMahon at Murray State is outstanding. I think Lamont Paris at Chattanooga’s a terrific coach.
Q: Are there any likely 16 seeds that could upset a No. 1?
A: None of that’s likely. It’s happened once since 1985. But because it’s happened once it can happen again. But no, I don’t think there’s anybody that I would say, “Hey, this is the one that’s gonna happen.” Because even the one that did happen, UMBC [in 2018], look what had to happen, De’Andre Hunter was out [for Virginia]. A lottery pick’s not playing for you, it’s a different world. You’d have to have something like that happen, I think.
A: Baylor’s a marvel. I can’t believe they perform at the level they do given all that’s happened to them. Not only what they lost last year, but what they’ve lost in injury games this year with LJ Cryer being out, [Adam] Flagler being out, then they lost Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua for the year. So they’re not gonna be as good as we thought, but how can [they] be No. 3? it defies logic, and it defies everything you’ve thought about the game. But it just sort of shows what their culture is about. It also shows to me that quote unquote role players … the role you’re asked to play isn’t necessarily who you are. Those guys bust out of roles into bigger roles when they need to, and that speaks really well of their talent level.
A: They lead the nation in playing hard. They play as hard [as], if not harder than, any team I’ve seen. Their defense never takes a night off. The only issue they have is: Is their offense gonna be efficient? Their guards are really good … but they don’t score as easily as you would hope. But their defense keeps them in every game. [Walker] Kessler makes them really hard to play against ’cause he covers the rim up inside of 10 feet. He’s a shot-blocker that you don’t see very often.
A: Arizona’s probably the most balanced team out there, offense and defense. Their big guys really run — [Azuolas] Tubelis, [Christian] Koloko, [Oumar] Ballo — they really run, and that’s not easy to do. So they put a lot of pressure on the rim in transition, and if they see your head turned, or if they see you backpedaling, they’re throwing it. They’re courageous passers without being reckless. They lead the nation in assists, and that doesn’t happen by accident. And then defensively, that kid Koloko is the real deal. He’s not just a shot-blocker, he’s a great shot-blocker, but he can guard a guard. Against Oregon, two of the last three possessions I believe it was, he guarded Jacob Young and Will Richardson and stayed in front of ’em and shut ’em off. You hardly ever see that. He’s next-level.
A: Kentucky’s got an older team this year, so it’s an unusual situation for the last 10 years or so for [coach John Calipari]. They’re the oldest team they’ve ever had, and that includes Joe B. Hall’s (chuckle) teams and [Adolph] Rupp’s teams and all that stuff, so they’re different. And they’ve got a superstar in [Oscar] Tshiebwe ’cause he gets every rebound. He’s got more offensive rebounds than any other player on his team has total rebounds. He’s a monster. And their guards are good. They’ve got good depth, and they play hard. So they’re a legit contender for the whole thing.
A: Wisconsin’s probably gotten more out of what they have than anybody. They’re really competitive. They play really hard and together, and they expect more out of themselves than other people expect of them. They’re not spectacular, but if you do solid over and over again, it starts to look spectacular after a while. They can reach a Final Four. I wouldn’t put them in the Eights to win it, but Johnny Davis makes them dangerous against anybody because you look at what he’s done in the biggest games he’s played — against Purdue at Purdue he had 37, he had 30 at Indiana, he had 25 at Michigan State, and they won all of ’em, and they’d never done that.
A: Kansas is another team that has done more with less. This is not one of Bill Self’s most talented teams. But the pieces fit together and they play really well together, and Ochai Agbaji is a star. And then Christian Braun is probably the most underrated kind of Robin to his Batman in the country — guard rebounder, gets steals, in the top five in the league in blocked shots as a 6-5 wing … courageous driver. They’re not as good as they’ve been, but they’re very good.
Q: Providence College?
A: I love Providence. Very blue-collar … they’re talented, but they don’t rely on their talent. They play hard, and their pieces fit really well together because they’ve got specialists at every position. [Jared] Bynum is a special scorer, [Justin] Minaya can really defend, I love [Noah] Horchler ’cause you can put him to any situation and he performs. And [Nate] Watson’s one of the best sort of low-post players in the country. They’re Final Four-good, too.
Q: How far can emotion carry Duke?
A: I don’t know. … That’s always one of those things that we’ll judge in hindsight. The North Carolina game [Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium], if they won, we would have said emotion carried them to the win. If they lost, the weight of the emotion affected ’em. To me, if you’re not emotional at this time, I don’t know what you’re made of, ’cause it’s a national championship event. But I don’t know how to judge that on the front end.
Q: What would your emotions be if Coach K ends up cutting down the net?
A: The same as if he doesn’t. It’s been 42 years, and he’s been a part of my life for all that time period. I met him when I was 17. His second year coaching at Duke was when he recruited me. So, it’ll definitely be an emotional time.
Q: What do you expect from Jon Scheyer when he takes over from Coach K?
A: Jon is great. I can’t say I’m his biggest supporter ’cause I wouldn’t say that, but I can’t imagine there are any bigger. He’s awesome. He’ll do a great job. He’s technically skilled … he gets it. He’ll be great.
Q: What enabled Coach K to connect to different generations?
A: He’s just a next-level thinker. He has authority over the most important thing in his player’s life, and that’s basketball. But he thinks way beyond the game. He thinks endlessly about the game, but he thinks beyond it. He’s not the only one, and he’s not perfect. But he’s as close to perfect as I can imagine.
Q: What is Coach K’s legacy to you?
A: Well, it goes beyond the wins and losses. I can’t imagine my life without him in it. I would not have gone to law school without him, I would not have gotten into coaching without him. … I don’t think I would have gotten into broadcasting without him. He knew I was interested in it, and he introduced me to Chuck Howard at ABC Sports, and I worked for ABC Sports my whole college career. So without him, hopefully I wouldn’t be homeless, but I wouldn’t be where I am. I know that.
Q: Do you pick the Final Four?
A: No, I’m gonna have to see a bracket on this one. Sometimes I can say, “Here are the four best teams” ’cause I know who the No. 1s are gonna be, but …
Q: But you expect Gonzaga to be in the Final Four?
A: I do. They’d be the No. 1 favorite to me.
Q: Anybody else that you expect to be in the Final Four not having seen the brackets?
A: I think Kentucky. I like Kentucky’s makeup a lot. But again, all these teams can lose in the Sweet 16.
Q: Describe the wonderful news from Dick Vitale that he is cancer-free.
A: One, relief. And two, and maybe this should be one, but proud. Just really proud of how he’s handled this, how he’s fought it, how he’s done it publicly so he can inspire so many other people. And then, we love him so much, I want to see him come back at the level he wants to do this. Nothing’s final, but that he appears to have gotten through this is incredibly uplifting, and I couldn’t be happier.