The biggest weekend in college basketball is right around the corner, as the Final Four will tip off tomorrow evening. Michigan State and Duke will square off in the first national semifinal at 6:09 p.m. EST, while Wisconsin and Kentucky will play in the second game, which is scheduled to tip off at 8:49 p.m. EST.
To get ready for the Final Four, we caught up with ESPN college basketball analyst and former National College Player of the Year Jay Williams to talk about the four teams left in the field and his work with Dove Men+Care on its “Real Strength Moments” campaign.
SLAM: Let’s start with the first semifinal. Kentucky has managed to go 38-0, which is amazing. What is it that makes this team so special?
Jay Williams: Number one, it starts with their coach and it actually ties into this whole campaign, Bill, about Dove Men+Care because you get a chance to see what real strength is. The way that John Calipari has coached this team has been beyond tremendous, it really has. You think about what it takes to get a team to buy into something, it takes a ton of work and a ton of belief and a ton of effort, and it’s already an arduous process with veterans, talking about teams who are juniors and seniors to buy in, yet alone a team that’s filled with freshmen and sophomores, and the fact that he’s been able to take all these guys who could be potential first-round draft picks and get them to buy into something bigger than themselves, and get them to look outside of their own personal benefits, and get them to buy into the “metric system” or the “platoon system”—whatever system you want to call it—is fascinating.
It’s brilliant, it really is, and he’s constantly challenging kids throughout the entire year, and you see the bond they have and the sense of togetherness, that’s what real strength is about. And to do this in the midst of this social media frenzy and this technological frenzy of constantly in your face, asking you questions about being undefeated, that’s very within itself, for these kids not to think but the goal. They’re not chasing greatness about being undefeated, they’re chasing a Championship, and those are two completely different things.
SLAM: How do you think they are two completely different things?
JW: Well, you know, when you think about chasing perfection, you’re so worried about doing everything perfect that you end up losing focus on why you’re really playing the game, if that makes sense. You’re thinking about not messing up rather than being aggressive and being reactive, and I’ve heard John Calipari say this multiple times. He’s like, “I want our guys to turn the ball over more.” It’s shocking when you hear a coach say that, usually you hear a coach saying the complete opposite: “We need to cut back on our turnovers.”
He wants his players to live in the moment and be aggressive, and not think about the repercussions of “I have to be absolutely perfect on the court.” He wants them to be them, and by them being them, that will equate to being successful. It’s because of John Calipari that this team understands what it takes in order to achieve that level of success.
SLAM: One of the teams that has been mentioned all year as the type of team that can beat Kentucky is Wisconsin, and of course the two sides are going to match up this weekend. Why do you think people have said Wisconsin creates such a matchup nightmare for Kentucky?
JW: Well because we saw it, number one, last year in the Final Four when the game came down to the wire, and if Aaron Harrison doesn’t make that shot we’re talking about Wisconsin in the national championship game against UConn. So one shot away. And then I’ll say that it’s the basketball IQ of Wisconsin. It’s the fact that they have five players on the court that all possess the ability to shoot the basketball and they all understand how to play.
The one thing that I will say: that Notre Dame game against Kentucky, Notre Dame didn’t utilize enough head fakes. If you realize [Notre Dame guard] Jerian Grant had [Kentucky center] Dakari Johnson at the top of the key one possession and he gave him a head fake, and Dakari bit on it and [Grant] jumped into him, got to the free-throw line and made three free throws. Well, Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes all possess the basketball IQ to utilize ball fakes and head fakes, and they will be able to get Kentucky up in the air.
Now, if they can capitalize on that, you could see Kentucky get in foul trouble, and it would be remiss to think that the gameplan is not associated around getting Karl-Anthony Towns in foul trouble. It’s very much similar to the way Frank Kaminsky attacked Kaleb Tarczewski of Arizona, they will do the same to Karl-Anthony Towns. Frank Kaminsky’s ability to roam on the perimeter, Frank Kaminsky’s ability to play down low, and with Nigel Hayes, they will attack Karl-Anthony Towns, and if they catch him off-balance defensively, that could be a difference maker in the ballgame.
SLAM: This game is a matchup of college basketball’s best offense in Wisconsin against its best defense in Kentucky. Which side wins?
JW: It’s hard for me to bet against Kentucky. Yes, I would still favor Kentucky in the ballgame because these kids have not shown one ounce of tightness. You talk about what togetherness really means, you talk about what brotherhood really means, once again what real strength really means, these kids believe that they are going to win each and every game. Through all the chaos, through all the media hype, there’s a band of brothers there and it’s difficult for me to bet against the Wildcats.
SLAM: Moving onto the other semifinal, you’re a Duke guy and you won a National Title while you were in Durham. What are some similarities you see between the 2001 team and this squad?
JW: I don’t know if I see similarities because I think we’re two completely different teams. There are a couple, there’s one from a leadership perspective with [senior guard] Quinn Cook. Not that I’m comparing Quinn Cook to Shane Battier—Shane Battier was the National Player of the Year and obviously played on the frontline whereas Quinn plays in the backcourt—but Quinn Cook has come such a long way with this team. I’ve watched him mature a whole lot over his four year span at Duke.
When he first came in he was very emotional, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and it got the best of him, and there were times sophomore year that he equated leadership with how he did offensively on the court. Junior year he was growing into where this year, it takes a lot for a player to allow another player, another All-American at the same position, to come in and to run the team. And it’s because of Quinn Cook’s sense of confidence within himself that he’s able to do that and he would not have been able to do that sophomore year, I don’t know if he would have been able to do it last year.
But by him allowing Tyus Jones to come into the equation and building Tyus Jones up to be great, it’s made him better and it’s made this team better, and there’s a sense of togetherness within this team that reminds me of the bond we had in 2001, and not every team has it, not every team has the special togetherness like these kids do, and it’s very unique and different.
SLAM: And it certainly doesn’t hurt having guys like Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow in there who are just freaks of nature.
JW: You need to have a couple of draft picks on your team to get to this point, I think it’s fair to say.
SLAM: Yeah, and on the other side is Michigan State, which may be a team that some people may think doesn’t have those super talented draft picks, which isn’t to say that they don’t have great players. But how on earth did Tom Izzo get this team, which compared to past Michigan State teams isn’t considered “great,” to the Final Four?
JW: Well they don’t have the same caliber of players. I did the McDonald’s All-American Game the other day and we said that there’s a total of 18 McDonald’s All-Americans in the Final Four. Seventeen of those play for Duke and Kentucky, the only other McDonald’s All-American is [Michigan State forward] Branden Dawson, he’s of that caliber.
The thing I love about this Michigan State team is that, they may not have the sexiness associated with the name power that comes along with Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns, but those dudes play hard each and every possession. And all the things I just recited are things that they put on their bulletin board, those are motivational factors for these kids. And Tom Izzo, once again, finds a way to get the most out of his players.
You have Tum Tum Narin, who’s a starter now, and that kid is relentless with his pressure. You have Travis Trice, who has found his offensive swagger if you want to call it that. That’s your senior, a guy that was a starter at the beginning of the year, came off the bench in the middle of the year, now to being a starter again. Denzel Valentine, that’s a tough kid. Branden Dawson, who will fight you each and every possession. And even Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello, two guys who nobody really expected to come up with, but those guys have found the voice, they found out who they are this season.
This team is a team that’s together, they fight and that’s how they got to this point. And now people talk about “what do you need to do to win the Final Four?” Now that you’re here, everything’s gravy, now it’s a toss up, who really wants it more? And there’s a bad taste left in the mouth of Michigan State, because they played Duke in the Champions Classic at the beginning of the year, and they’re not the same team they are now that they were then.
SLAM: So let’s also pick this game. Will Duke’s talent win out or will that toughness and that swagger that Michigan State has, will they be able to pull another rabbit out of the hat and win?
JW: Duke would be my favorite in this game because I think they’re going to have a very difficult time trying to guard Jahlil Okafor. Last time they tried to double with Branden Dawson but Jahlil Okafor is so good at passing out of double teams, and Justise Winslow and their ability to space out the floor, I think Jahlil Okafor will be the deciding factor in the ball game. I think the Championship game will have Duke and Kentucky, it’s a game that everyone wanted to see at the beginning of the year, it will be the highest-rated game in the history of college basketball.
SLAM: If you had to pick a winner of that game?
JW: I’m going Kentucky, it’s hard for me to pick against the Wildcats.
SLAM: Got it. One question before you go, you’re working with Dove Men+Care on its Real Strength Moments campaign during the Tournament. How are you involved with that?
JW: It actually ties into all of the things that we were just talking about. We were talking about a sense of brotherhood, we were talking about the emotions of the Tournament, the bond that these players have with their coaches, and the “real strength.” The thing about what real strength means that I think we’ve seen multiple examples of throughout this entire NCAA Tournament, and unfortunately on a negative side, but it’s gonna happen on the positive side as well, where you’re gonna see so many guys out there be able to win a cChampionship, and you’re gonna see that bond of how a player really wanted to achieve something great for his coach, that connection that they have.
Players who exhibit real strength—it’s OK to cry at the podium. And that’s the value of being a man just like pounding your chest after you have an and one. It’s the same thing. We’re gonna get a chance to see a bandwidth of emotions throughout the next couple of days, and that’s what this whole campaign is about. It’s OK.