Q+A: Jay Bilas
The ESPN college basketball analyst talks about the upcoming season and hip-hop.
by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
With the NBA labor talks stalling yet again, it’s starting to look like college basketball might be the only hoops we get to watch this year. Luckily, ESPN is planning on broadcasting more than 1,450 regular-season men’s college basketball games, 43 of which will be available in 3D. To help you prepare for all these games, SLAM spoke to ESPN’s Jay Bilas about the upcoming season and much more.
SLAM: You’re calling the Carrier Classic (North Carolina vs. Michigan State) for ESPN tonight. Do you think that North Carolina is the team to beat?
JB: I do. Going into the season, I think North Carolina and Kentucky are the two best teams in the country. North Carolina has more experience, but Kentucky has equal, if not greater talent. I’ve watched both teams practice, and when you watch Kentucky practice, you’re just blown away by their talent level. They’re really good and they’ve got more experience returning this year then they did in the previous two. Yes, they lost Brandon Knight and a couple of seniors, but they have Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones coming back; they’ve never had that kind of talent and experience returning since John [Calipari] has been there. Not only are they bringing in the nation’s best recruiting class—which is a stunning group of player from a talent perspective—but they also have a preseason first team All-American [Terrence Jones], and a guy, in Lamb, who’s capable of being first team All SEC and Kentucky’s top scorer.
SLAM: Speaking of recruiting classes, who do you think is the best freshman in the country?
JB: Le’Bryan Nash from Oklahoma State is a tremendous player, and I think Austin Rivers at Duke is terrific, but for me, the top of the list is Kentucky’s Anthony Davis. I think he’s going to be an extraordinary player and have a tremendous year. You’ve also got Michael Gilchrist, who’s playing with Davis in Kentucky, and James McAdoo at North Carolina—there are just a ton of players who are going to be stepping in and making an impact.
SLAM: Who do you think is the most overrated team in the country?
JB: I’d probably put Vanderbilt in that category. With them, the phrase I use is that they’ve been winners, but they haven’t been champions. I think they’re very capable of having an unbelievable year and making it to the Final 4—they’ve got that kind of talent. But with them, the question is whether they have the toughness to make it. The toughness to finish games. I think they can do it, and I’d love to see them do it; they’ve got great kids on that team, and a terrific coach in Kevin Stallings. I mean they don’t make them better than him. He’s tremendous.
SLAM: Who’s a mid-major team that we should be keeping an eye on?
JB: The mid-major I’d keep an eye on is Creighton. I think they’re going to be really good. They got a kid named Doug McDermott who is capable of being an All-American. He’s really, really good. He had an unbelievable summer, is really versatile and had a great year last year as a freshman. They also have size and a really good point guard named Antoine Young.
SLAM: Who’s the best player in the country? And who’s the best NBA prospect?
JB: Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger is the best player, but I think the best NBA prospect is either [North Carolina’s] Harrison Barnes or Anthony Davis. Barnes has got tremendous skill, but he’s still learning how to dominate because he’s an unselfish player and wants to be perfect all the time. But there aren’t many guys that can go out and get you 40 (laughs). And Davis, he’s just going to keep getting better and better. He’s got a ceiling that you can’t touch without a ladder. He’s 6-11, has really long arms and a really high skill level. Really high. He was a guard, and just grew to be 6-11. And he’s got unbelievable hands—he can catch anything. He can also shoot a little bit and has good skills. I think he’s going to get better. And he can really block shots.
SLAM: Changing the subject, you recently retweeted a tweet from Taylor Branch? Did you read his Atlantic Story: “The Shame of College Sports?” What were your thoughts?
JB: Oh yeah, I was blown away by it. He was someone who would be termed an outsider and who said that he initially believed that players shouldn’t get anything more than they already get, only to investigate, and come to the conclusion that the system is horribly unfair to players and is diametrically opposed to what the NCAA says it’s all about. I think it’s great that we all have our views on things—I’m definitely a person that has views, and reasonable minds can differ in these matters, but I have not heard an argument on the other side of this that makes me think the way I look at this [paying college athletes] is wrong.
SLAM: So what are your views? Do you think college athletes should be paid?
JB: Well, I don’t put it in such terms; I’m not advocating that players should be paid. What I think should happen is that the restrictions of compensation should be removed. The NCAA says that athletes should be like every other student. Well no other students in the university are restricted the way athletes are. No student is told that they cannot benefit from their name and likeness; that they cannot work in their chosen field without jeopardizing their ability to be a student and do what they choose to do on campus. No musician on campus is told they can’t cut a record, no thespian is told that they can’t do a movie, no journalism student [is told] that they can’t work for a newspaper or write a book and be paid. No professor is restricted and capped. Only athletes are.
I’ve heard the president of the NCAA [Mark Emmert] say that compensation of athletes is antithetical to what college sports are all about, and that he can think of a thousand reasons why. Well, he might be able to think of them, but he hasn’t articulated them. He says he can’t see any place where it would appropriate. Well I think so many smart people have articulated many reasons why it would be appropriate. There’s no legitimate justification for it [not paying the athletes], especially when people say, “well that’s antithetical to what college sports are all about.” Well they don’t seem to have a problem with the fact that the commercialism of the game that we’re seeing is antithetical to what college sports are about, too. The free market is allowed to work for everyone except the athlete. The Olympics gave up on amateurism. Well what do we know that the Olympics didn’t? Listen, these players are essentially professionals now. They’re compensated via their room, board, tuition, books and now the $2000 stipend, so the idea that were perpetuating this myth of amateurism is, on one level, laughable, then on another level, total unfair. I think it’s morally wrong for so many to benefit from this endeavor, while the athletes cannot.
SLAM: On a lighter note, you’ve been tweeting out hip-hop lyrics. Are you a big hip-hop fan?
JB: (Laughs) Yeah. Does that surprise you?
SLAM: I think it surprises everyone. Who’s your favorite?
JB: Right now I’m on a [Young] Jeezy kick. I grew up in L.A. and first started listening to rap music when I was in high school when the Sugarhill Gang was a big deal. I also listened in college with Run-DMC, Doug E. Fresh, you name it. And I’ve got a 15-year-old boy, he listens to a lot of rap, so I’ve been keeping up. But my boy, he doesn’t understand why I love Jeezy so much.
SLAM: Has your love of hip-hop surprised other people?
JB: Every time I’m at ESPN now, people ask me about it. I’ve also been going to a lot of practices, and at just about every one, someone asks me “are you bumping any Jeezy today?” Not to long ago, I was watching a practice at North Carolina and after the practice, Kendall Marshall tweeted “I wanted to stop and ask Jay Bilas about Jeezy, but he was standing there with coach Williams, and I didn’t want to do it.” So I tweeted back at him that that’s too bad, because me and coach Williams were talking about when TM: 103 [Young Jeezy’s new album] was coming out (laughs). Now I have a feeling, though, that Roy Williams wouldn’t know what TM: 103 is. But, you know, I never judge a book.
SLAM: Yeah, you never know. I would have said the same thing about you
JB: (Laughing) Exactly.
SLAM: Last question, and it’s very important. Which one of Digger Phelps’ tie-highlighter combinations is your favorite?
B: Oh god. Digger and I have had many conversations about his highlighters. I love Digger, I’d walk through fire for that guy, but the most angry that Digger ever got at me—and he’s been angry at me many times over the years—is when, you know, he keeps all his highlighters in this case that is probably better protected than the nuclear football that the President carries around. Well once I took the case and kind of held it hostage for a while. He was so mad. I thought if he had a gun, he would have shot me.
SLAM: Did he find it?
JB: I had to give it back. I thought there might be some sort of meltdown if I didn’t (laughing). It’s really sad.