Book talk and college hoops analysis with CBS Sports’ Seth Davis.
by Ben Osborne
We gave a quick review of Seth Davis’ new book, When March Went Mad, in SLAM 126, but given its perfect timing and the chance to interview its author, the ubiquitous Davis, who will be all over your TV screen during CBS’ coverage of the NCAA Tournament and also stays busy writing for SI and SI.com, I figured more coverage was called for.
I mostly want to let him talk about his book, but the quick summary is that it’s a dramatic look back at all that went into the 1979 NCAA Title Game, when Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State in a hype-filled game that was watched on TV by record numbers and helped propel both college basketball and the NBA to the heights of attention they have now. To read more, and order the book, go to it’s amazon.com page.
But first, see what Seth had to say to SLAM about the book as well as the current college season, which I’ve found boring but he swears will come to life in the next few weeks…
SLAM: Why don’t you start by telling basketball fans why they should get your book:
SD: Because my kids need to eat! No really, I have to say, the main reason this is a good book is because its a fun story. Its all well and good to talk about how this game transformed basketball, but I wanted it to read like a novel, not a textbook. Great characters, lots of detail, and a story so unlikely you’d never buy into it if it were fiction.
SLAM: I can see the obvious appeal for the college fan; we’ve got plenty of those on Slamonline, but their numbers pale in comparison to the NBA junkies who visit our site; what’s in your book for them?
SD: I don’t think there’s that much difference between NBA fans and college fans. If you love hoops, you’ll love this book. Plus, one of the main reasons this game was so significant is because of the success Magic and Bird had in the NBA. Their stories are very familiar after they left college, but there’s a lot about them that is far less known. That’s the story I got to tell.
SLAM: Why didn’t Magic and Bird cooperate with the book? I assume you wanted them to? Are they proud of that game or almost sick of talking about it?
SD: No, I think they’re both at a point in their lives where they’d rather do their own projects and tell the story in their own way than give it away for free. I certainly understand that. Ironically, even though I would have loved to have spent time with those guys, editorially speaking they were the two I needed the least. Theyv’e both written books, had books written about them and have been quoted out the wazoo. Their voices are all over this book.
SLAM: I’m 34 years old and the first championship game I remember watching is UNC-Georgetown in ’82 when Jordan hit the game-winner. I think you’re four or five years older than me, meaning there’s a good chance you remember this great Magic-Bird battle. Do you? Did you watch it live?
SD: Its funny you say that because that ’82 game is also the first one I remember watching, partly because I lived in the D.C. area and had an obvious interest in Georgetown. The ’79 game occurred exactly three weeks before my ninth birthday. I have no recollection of watching it so I’m sure I didn’t, but I definitely remember knowing it was coming. In a way, that’s more significant. It was the hype and the excitement of the game that people remember more than the game itself.
SLAM: I think the players are better today, but I’m not a fan of the domed Final Fours at all, and obviously ratings have fallen dramatically since ’79. As much as that season/game helped birth what we have now, do you think the product was better or more fun back then?
SD: I think the product today is better in almost every significant way, starting with the three point line and the shot clock. I get what you’re saying about the domes, because you do lose some intimacy, but the Final Four is a huge event and it deserves a huge venue. They certainly have no problem filling the place.
SLAM: Before I get to some questions on the current season and your job…I have to be honest: I’d during typical season I split my attention between NBA and college—as a fan, at least—about 65-35 NBA. This year must be more like 85-15. I think the NBA is having a great season, and there aren’t too many stories in college capturing my attention. Blake Griffin is great, but he was hurt for awhile. Stephen Curry was the neatest story to me, but he’s slowed down a bit. Wake Forest is a wonderful story but they may have run out of gas. The Big East is tremendous, fine, but I get sick of their coaches saying “best conference ever” days after playing DePaul or St. John’s. The freshmen class seems about as pedestrian as predicted. What am I missing this year that I can cram on and be caught up with by the time conference tourneys kick off?
SD: Hey, I like the NBA too, but I just don’t think it can compare with the passion and energy of the college game. You’re always seeing something new in college hoops, even with teams you’re familiar with. This has been another great year for college hoops. You’ve had a handful of marquee, brand-name programs at the top, yet nobody has emerged as a consensus favorite. And remember, most people had never heard of Stephen Curry before last year’s tournament. One thing that’s guaranteed is that something is going to happen during the tournament that you didn’t expect and won’t forget. So my advice to you is lock into the college game as much as you can from now until April 6. Then you can turn back to the pros. I promise you Kobe, LeBron and CP3 will still be there.
SLAM: I was hoping for more specifics, but I get the point: if you love the college game you need to have faith that will entertain like it has so many years before. Before the season started, SLAM—like most outlets—picked Carolina to win it all. I felt it was the right pick even more than the guy we pay to make do our pre-season rankings. Foolish me thought Roy Williams could take that team, which I feel is by far the most talented in the country, and tell them: “Guys, this team can be very, very special. Let’s try and go undefeated.” Instead, the Heels have the same annoying losses they seem to get every year, and now, even if they’re the “favorite,” Carolina is really just one of several “contenders” and at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t win. Did I overrate them? Do they have a tendency to coast that reflects poorly on the coach or players?
SD: Gosh, by that description you’d hardly know they were 26-3 and headed for a number 1 seed! Trust me, there will never be another undefeated season in college basketball. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened in 33 years. There are too many more games and the hype would be too intense. These are college kids, not robots, so you have to give them a few off nights. Carolina is never going to have a defense-first mentality, but last I checked the object of the game was to out-score their opponents.
SLAM: As for UNC’s rival—your alma mater, Duke—did the Devils again come out of the gate too fast and set themselves up for an early Tourney exit, or are Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler too good to let that happen?
SD: It did look like they were headed south pretty quick, but it looks like they’ve stabilized. Coach K took a major risk elevating a freshman to the starting lineup at the point guard, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This team is tougher than its been in the past. If the Devils lose, it wont be for lack of toughness.
SLAM: Why doesn’t BJ Mullens get more minutes at Ohio State? I loved him in high school and think he could be great in college, too. He’s shooting like 65 percent from the floor and only playing 20 minutes a game.
SD: The cynical (and popular) answer would be that Thad Matta is trying to keep him in Columbus for another year. I doubt that’s entirely true, but regardless the kid isn’t coming back, so Thad might as well play him 30 minutes a game. He’s got big time upside, and I know the scouts love him.
SLAM: Is Arizona State a real threat to go far? I think so, but I may just love James Harden too much.
SD: I gotta tell you, I’m not a huge Harden guy, especially in terms of the next level, but ASU plays a very unusual zone defense. Those teams tend to do well in the tournament because their opponents are unfamiliar with their system.
SLAM: While I’ve got a love for the pageantry of college hoops, respect some of the coaches and agree that a good number of players are able to get a free education while playing the game they love, the hypocrisies of the game may be too many to number here (For sake of brevity I’ll stick with coaches making millions of dollars while players don’t get paid, and the willingness of the NCAA to sell ads to alcohol companies when many of the players people are watching are not even legally allowed to drink). For reasons such as these I have been actively rooting for Brandon Jennings to enjoy his time in Europe, enjoy the money he’s earning in Europe, and then come back here and be a top-5 pick in the Draft. I concede that the move he made is not for everyone, but I thought a successful year over there by him could lead maybe 5-10 kids a year (say, somewhere around the number who used to enter the NBA Draft out of high school) going straight to Europe, and that such a situation could keep the pendulum from switching too far away from players’ rights by coaches knowing that elite players did have a choice other than college basketball. While Brandon seems like he’s going to come through this okay, it has clearly not been easy and it seems unlikely anyone of consequence will follow his lead next season. A-how worried was the college basketball establishment about what Brandon did? And B-If they were worried, are they not anymore?
SD: First of all, you’re wrong when you say the players don’t get paid. They get tuition, housing, food, books and spending stipends, not to mention first-rate training, exposure and academic tutoring. If you think all that is worthless, then you should check out the statistics about how much money college graduates make over their lifetime as opposed to people without a degree. As for Brandon Jennings, I never thought for one millisecond that this was going to be the start of a trend. The only reason Jennings went over there is because he couldn’t get academically qualified at Arizona. Very few, if any, American kids are going to prefer to go to Europe, especially after the experience Brandon is having.
SLAM: Lastly, I can’t think of a cooler job for a college hoops fan who likes media platforms than the one you have; tell me real quick how you divide your time between SI, SI.com and CBS, and if indeed it is as fun as I imagine?
SD: Hey, you forgot author, husband, father, golfer and wedding singer. This time of year is very, very challenging, but it is so much fun I never mind it. I work very hard, and luck is the residue of hard work and all that, but at some point you just have to get lucky, and I have had much more of my share than that. So yes, its as much fun as you would imagine, but when the tournament is over I’m going to enjoy hanging with my wife and kids and catching up on my sleep. And I’ve gotta rest up: Midnight Madness is only seven months away!