Verbatim: An Interview With Jay Bilas (Part II)
Welcome to the debut of One And One’s interview series, Verbatim, which kicks off with a two-part session with ESPN and CBS college basketball analyst (and attorney) Jay Bilas.
Jay, a former player and assistant coach at Duke, is one of the most plugged-in members of the college basketball community along with one of the most outspoken network analysts about problems with the current NCAA athletics model and within the sport of college basketball itself.
In part I of the interview, Jay discussed the NCAA model at large, big-picture issues with enforcement, and why he believes the current president of the NCAA, Mark Emmett, should not continue in that job.
Here is Part II, focusing more specifically on changes to the sport of college basketball.
SI.com: Do you think it’s important for college basketball going forward to become more relevant from November through February? And if you do, how would you go about doing that?
JB: The answer to that is yes, I do. I’m one of those that feels we have become a one-month sport, or maybe two months. You get to February and March and that’s the primary time for interest in the sport from the general public. I’m not naive. College basketball is not or will it be football. That’s OK. It’s not a competition. But college basketball has lost interest over the years. The numbers are still good because of the number of eyeballs you get over the course of the season given the amount of product that’s out there, but generally I don’t think it’s of the same interest it has been in years past.
That has to do with the governance of the sport as well, the marketing of the sport. I feel like there are so many things we could do to increase the level of interest and make the games more meaningful, because we have devalued the regular season to the point where some people think it has no real meaning. We do Bracketology and Bubble Watch and all these great things, but the net effect of that is that it’s all about the end, rather than winning your conference, the pre-conference play and all that stuff. Everybody knows when practice starts but nobody knows when the season starts.
What are the basic things to look forward to at the beginning of the season. Can we take the NIT, which the NCAA owns, end it as a postseason tournament and make it into a pre-conference tournament, where it’s an invitation-only thing? I don’t know. I haven’t thought [it] through. Do you attach a bid to it? That way you can bookend the season with national championship events.
SI.com: I don’t know if you know John Infante, who runs The Bylaw Blog, but he and I and a couple of others have discussed a concept borrowed from European soccer where you could implement a Champions League-type situation into the regular season. It would give you what you’re talking about, a mid-season, prestigious championship and additional TV inventory with meaning, and it would also be based on regular-season standing from the year before to gain entrance, so it would make conference play. Would that be something you could see the powers that be getting on board with and sharing the organization for?
JB: The powers that be, I don’t know. Because that’s part of the problem. I don’t know who the powers that be are. When you have an idea like this, whose door do you knock on? Who do you call? The answer is there’s nobody in charge. College basketball doesn’t have anybody in charge. That’s why I think we need sport-specific governance, so that there’s a commissioner of college basketball, a commissioner of college football.
But I think that’s a great idea. When you get smart people who understand the landscape of the game in a room and talk about it, you can come up with something. Whether it’s the Champions League, whether it’s the use of the NIT, whatever it is, we can do so many things to increase the level of interest in the sport. That’s a big part of this, the interest in it. Whether people who run college sports want to admit it or not, they’re selling this game. The public interest is important, what people like is important, and I think we can do so many more things than what we’re doing.
I think the Champions League would be great, but the governance of it … the idea brings up the most important question which is “Who’s in charge? Who do I see about this?” And I don’t know the answer to that. There have been times when I think “I should go talk to someone about this,” and you go “Well, who? Who do you call?”
SI.com: Well, if you want to vouch for me as the first commissioner of the Champions league, I’d be happy to accept the nomination and we’ll go from there.
JB: It’s a great idea. I read the thing … I can’t remember whether you and Infante collaborated on it, but I read it and I thought it was great. I don’t know as much about soccer and how the Champions League works, but anything that puts more emphasis on the regular season [is a plus].
But we still have the same problem at the end of this; 350 teams is too many. One thing I like about sort of having a division, when people say haves and have-nots, of schools with more resources if you want to put it that way, is they’d have to play each other more in nonconference. If you have fewer teams, they’d have to play each other. Just the amount of teams would make for better competition and better games.
SI.com: I think that’s a side benefit of a concept like the Champions League as well. Not only would the higher-level teams run into each other in nonconference play more, but it also give the mid-majors a little bit more access to elite games that could help their profiles for an NCAA-type tournament at the end of the season.
JB: I think that’s what everyone wants is that the teams that can really play, for them to be able to play against other teams that can really play. In early-season competition, you have the guarantee games — now, I think it’s a good thing that the guarantee games will go away in college football. It’s good for the competition, it’s good for the game. Now is it good for the schools who are getting that guarantee check? Of course not. But you start saying ‘Wait a minute now, why do the best teams have to support everybody?’ That doesn’t make a lot of sense.
SI.com: I agree with that. And I took it out specifically on Indiana at the beginning of the year, but they’re not the only team guilty of it. But their nonconference schedule was abysmal. They were the No. 1 team in the country and they served up their home fans a schedule of nine or 10 exhibition games at home. This isn’t Indiana-specific, but it’s a problem that there’s such an entrenched system now where certain schools make so much money at home that they don’t have to go anywhere, can just afford to buy opponents who are willing to take a check and you have more and more noncompetitive basketball in the first two months of the season.
JB: Exactly. Like we were saying before, if the pool of potential teams to play was smaller, which it should be, they would have to play more “quality games.” Now for some institutions and coaches would it be burdensome, would they think we’re going to lose more games, this will be a problem? But I can tell you for players — I’m not so old now that I can’t remember — I didn’t get excited to play teams that couldn’t beat us. You want to play big games, and the more big games we played, the happier we were.
No players want to play these cupcake games. They want to play the good teams, the best teams. I think it would just be better. I’d rather see fewer games and better competition. I think that would be better, but we’re not going to see that because of the money involved.
SI.com: I know you’ve said in the past that the NCAA selection committee should be comprised of ‘basketball people.’ Do you still feel that’s the case? And why do you think that’s important above what the people are currently doing on the committee?
JB: I’m glad you asked me that. I think my stance on this is misunderstood. I have said that, and I do believe that, and I’ll always believe that, but I think the reasoning is a little bit different. It sounds very elitist and it’s not meant that way. I’m basing it on what the selection committee has said over the years. All of them said that the influence of Dave Gavett [and the like], C.M. Newton, was invaluable because of their basketball experience. The praise for their basketball experience was effusive. So if one was really good, 10 would be even better. That’s not to say the committee doesn’t do a good job, or 10 people that don’t have any basketball experience can’t do a good job. It’s that the best possible job could be done by 10 people with significant basketball experience.
Dan Guerrero has been on the committee. Dan’s a terrific guy and really smart and a great administrator. He’s a baseball guy. I’ve spent my whole life around basketball. If I were put on a committee to pick baseball teams, I think I could study and do fine. I don’t think I’d be a complete idiot on the committee. But I think Dan Guerrero would do a better job. So if I wanted a committee on picking the best mechanics, I’d want 10 mechanics on it. If I wanted a committee picking the best doctor, I’d want 10 doctors on it. If I wanted to pick the best basketball teams, I’d want 10 basketball people on it.
The problem is — Bob Knight has said this before — it’s a plum job within the NCAA. They’re responsible for picking the games, it’s responsible for all the sites, it’s responsible for picking the officials. Now, I think John Adams is the one who does that, but the committee has a responsibility and they say that they watch games and they evaluate officials. They’ve got their own evaluation, their own thoughts on it. Well, that’s kind of frightening. They’re doing that, too?
Look, it’s not my intention or my goal — that sounds kind of insulting. “Hey, we need basketball people?” But if you want to do the best possible job, why wouldn’t you have the people who have the most experience in the game? I think that’s pretty simple to understand. But I understand the way it works, and I actually think, by and large, they do a pretty good job overall. We could probably complain more about seeding than we do. We end up having our largest brouhahas which, when you think about it, we’re arguing over 37 and 38 and who really cares. The seeding often times can be a bigger thing.
One more thing before I forget. Our discussion of the major/mid-major thing, if I had any input in it, one thing I would strive to change is, even it violated one of these conference rules, anytime that there are two majors playing each other when there are two mid-majors playing against each other, I would have the mid-major and the major play. There’s no sense in having two mid-majors play against each other when we can fix it. If we all say they don’t get a fair chance to gain that access in the regular season, then let’s do it in the tournament for the good of the game and the good of the tournament.
I’d love to just seed it 1 through 64, or 1 through 68 now, and then just do it that way without regard for any of this, but if they’re going to have all these bracketing rules, another rule won’t kill us just to make sure the little guy gets a shot. If that means all the little guys are out a little earlier because one can’t advance by playing another? I think all of them would take that risk.
SI.com: The Mountain West is going to be a very interesting test case [between eyeballs and analysis] … Where do you stand on the subjective versus the objective resume versus quantitative advanced stats when it comes evaluating teams either for selection or seeding?
First of all, I think the only objective standard in sports is winning. So the teams that win, if you want to do it by counting quality wins, that’s fine. We need one standard and stick with that so everyone knows what the standard is. Once you get down to separating two teams who you find to be equal, I think the Sabermetrics, whether it’s KenPom.com or Basketball Prospectus or all these things, are really good things to use. I think we should use them more. The committee should use them. They should be part of the process.
I don’t like the RPI. I think the RPI should be retired, and other metrics should be used to organize information.
I’ll take you back to a couple years ago when I was in the middle of that — or maybe the starter of it — the VCU-UAB [discussion]. It didn’t have to do with how a team would perform in the tournament, it was whether that team should have been selected based on their performance during the season.
Now, my tone may have been wrong, but I don’t think I was wrong. Just because UAB lost didn’t make me right about UAB. And just because VCU won didn’t make me wrong about VCU. I think there’s been too much from the committee, and I’ve heard some of them say that they felt vindicated when VCU won. Well, if you really thought VCU was that good, why did you seed them where you did?
We can’t have this both ways all the time. Selection is not about predicting performance in the tournament. This year, by the end of the season, say Gonzaga wins out the rest of the season by 50 points, and they are the recognized No. 1 seed, and then they lose in the first round. That doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve the No. 1 seed.
I think the committee every two weeks [during the season] should put out their top 68. Vote. Let everybody know where they stand. What’s wrong with that?
SI.com: I’ve always believed the selection committee should have a neutral third-party in the selection room. Do you agree or disagree with that?
JB: I do agree. Similar to NCAA enforcement, I don’t think interested parties should be the sole arbiter of these things. Listen, those are two very different things. I realize that, they’re not equal in nature. But I think it would be great. They have made the process more transparent and I think it’s helped all of us better understand it. It’s not like it used to be where there was more sort-of backroom things going on.
I think they do a really good job of things now, but I think it would be great having neutral third-parties involved in it. There’s so much that goes into all these things. So much money at stake, jobs are at stake. It’s a big deal. That’s why having more “basketball people” involved would be a good thing. I certainly don’t think it would be bad.