Real Talk with ESPN Basketball Analyst Jay Bilas [Interview]
If you’re even tangentially affiliated with college basketball, Atlanta is the place to be for this weekend’s Final Four. Walk down the streets of downtown and you’re sure to see a lot of tall men with familiar faces. No face is more familiar to college hoops fans than Jay Bilas, ESPN’s outspoken college basketball analyst and noted Young Jeezy enthusiast.
Bilas’ face is also getting more exposure beyond the sidelines thanks to a new campaign for Dove Men+ Care which debuted at the start of this year’s NCAA Tournament. The funny commercials show Bilas in real moments with his son and daughter, highlighting his self-effacing personality off the court. We caught up with Bilas before Saturday’s night’s Final Four to talk about the Final Four, the controversy at Rutgers, music and his Twitter game.
What’s been the standout story of this year’s NCAA tournament so far?
Wichita State. To have a team out of the Missouri Valley Conference for the first time since 1979 and it was essentially a new team from last year. They were really good last year and lost [Joe] Ragland and [Garrett] Stutz and Toure’ Murry, they lost a lot of good players. If last year’s team had done this, I don’t think I would have been surprised. I was really surprised at this.
Speaking of the Shockers, what’s the key to a potential Wichita State upset of Louisville?
Take care of the ball. Louisville’s pressure is so difficult to deal with because it comes at you from all areas and there’s no discernible pattern to it, it’s not like it’s a typical 2-2-1 press and you throw to the middle and look for a diagonal pass. You have to space it out and beat it with the dribble, but that’s hard to do because they come from behind. Even if you get past them, you’re still not out of trouble. It requires multiple guys to be able to handle the ball. What Pitino’s always done is get the ball out of the hands of the primary handler and into the hands of a guy that doesn’t handle the ball that much. They can’t cough it up, that’s all there is to it. If they turn it over 15 times, they’re going to lose.
What matchup are you most looking forward to watching in the Michigan-Syracuse game?
The guards. Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke. Even though because of the zone they don’t necessarily guard each other, that’s the matchup that will be the most fun because Burke is the player of the year. He’s a smaller guard, and he’s the type of guard that can penetrate and get into the gaps of the zone which not everybody can do and can do well. He’s got so many weapons around him that can shoot it. If he finds open guys it will be fun to watch. And then Carter-Williams is one of the top assist guys in the country, he’s good in transition, he’s long, lanky, tall. He doesn’t shoot it particularly well, but he can get in the lane and make plays, and I think he’ll look at this game as, “I’m better than the player of the year. Look at me.” Not in a selfish way but in a chip on your shoulder way. I think that’ll be a blast to watch.
What are your picks?
I think Syracuse will win the late game, but that’s a coin flip. If we knew who was going to win these games, we’d go to Vegas, I wouldn’t be doing this. And I think Louisville. I think Louisville’s the best team and will win the whole thing. But how many times have we come to these things thinking “Well, that’s the best team” and they don’t win. This one and out thing. If other sports had to do this — if the NBA had to do this, the results would be way different. That’s why wildcard teams win the Super Bowl. Everybody says parity. Is it really? Or did you just not let those teams in before. You can have weird results in a one and out situation. Every single this year, there’s something weird that happens because of the one and out scenario.
We’ve had a few 15-2 upsets the past few years in the tournament. Do you think we’ll see a 16-1?
Yes, but the margin keeps growing, that’s the problem. We’ve had 15-2s, but they’re upsets. I don’t think they indicate any larger uprising some tectonic shift in the game. What it signals is that Florida Gulf Coast played really well, and Georgetown was horrible. The combination of those two things, you had an upset. That’s what you had the year before with Lehigh-Duke. Lehigh had a great player, C.J. McCollum and Duke sucked. And the same thing with Missouri and Norfolk State. Missouri gave up 90 points and then Norfolk State turned around and got blasted by Florida. That’s the difference between do we have an upset or is this team better? I think we get lost in this a little bit. There’s a difference between the better team and an upset. Because if we think that Florida Gulf Coast was better than Georgetown, then we need to march into the committee room and say, “How did you guys screw up so bad, how did you put them as a 15 when they’re better?” And not everybody’s equal or otherwise do we say to Florida Gulf Coast, “How could you lose in the Sweet 16?” We would never say that. But that’s what’s great about the tournament. All of a sudden a team does something amazing. And it was amazing. And what Wichita State has done is amazing. People try to build this into a larger narrative and stretch it into something that it isn’t.
How does Dove+ Men’s Care help you?
I will tell you honestly, the biggest problem I’ve had as I’ve gotten to be an adult has been paying attention to grooming. Not that I don’t take showers, but I haven’t always taken care of my skin. My wife is religious about it. She’s always told me that I need to pay attention to this. I need to put sunscreen on, and I need to put lotion on my face. And now that your forehead has turned into a five-head and a six-head and you have no coverage above your eyebrows, start putting something on. So with all the Dove+ Men’s Care products that has been really helpful for me. They’ve not got much to work with but it’s actually gotten better.
How does being a lawyer help you in your role as a college basketball analyst?
I think it’s really helpful. Law school for me was not so much about having the right answer as feeling like you could find it. And it provided me with a different way of thinking and approaching practical problems to find a solution. That’s been really helpful on the basketball side. I was a commercial litigator and you’ve got to make a coherent argument in a relatively short amount of time or you’re going to lose the judge, it’s really helpful in putting together an argument and stating it coherently, concisely and quickly. And being able to think on your feet. You’d better have the right answers when you’re being peppered with questions. Nothing I’ve done in TV has been as nerve-wracking as that.
Basketball coach Mike Rice and the athletic director are out at Rutgers after tape became public showing him physically abusing his players during practice. What lessons can other programs learn from the way Rutgers mishandled this situation?
In any organization, in any family, in any team, you can have people that let you down that you trusted, that violate that trust. I think Mike Rice let Rutgers down and violated the trust. But there were significant failures of leadership surrounding that — the Athletic Director, the President. And we are in a business that moralizes and preaches accountability and integrity and when the leaders that preach that don’t live up to it, I find that profoundly disturbing. And I found that profoundly disturbing with Rutgers. The first statement you heard from Tim Pernetti on Outside the Lines was one of defiance. The first statement you heard from Robert Barchi was one of passing the buck and suggesting that there’s a lot going on as a university president, you can’t expect me to know what’s happening. You shake your head and say, “Are you kidding me?” Whether it’s the president of the NCAA having a defiant press conference and trying to dismiss criticism by saying any time there’s change there’s criticism as if criticisms are invalid somehow. When you say that with change comes criticism, one would think that means you don’t get offended by the criticism you deal with it. You have to understand that criticism will come so you deal with it. But instead, he is offended by it, and he’s defiant in the face of it. And that’s not befitting a leader of an organization that moralizes so much about integrity and accountability and the like yet shows very little accountability.
From these situations, whether it’s the Pac-12 officiating controversy or Rutgers or Penn State, you’re left wondering who is going to stand up and say, “This was my responsibility.” If Robert Barchi had stood up at his press conference and said, “This is my responsibility, I should have looked at this tape. I failed here. I’m accountable. I’m the one. And I pledge going forward that this will be handled the right way and my attention will be fully on this and I will not be asleep on the job as I was then.” Then you’d say, “Ok, I can roll with this guy.” But that’s not what was said and you were left with inappropriate jokes during a press conference like that, I couldn’t believe it. I was left with my jaw on the floor saying, “Do these guys get it?” And the answer is regrettably and clearly no.
These presidents say they’re in charge of intercollegiate athletics. But then you find out they’re not in charge of intercollegiate athletics on their own campus, how could they possibly be in charge of the whole thing? It saddens me. These sports are great. But they’re just sports. We’re not manufacturing pharmaceuticals where there’s a risk to the public if they’re not done right. We’re playing ball.
Without naming names, have you ever witnessed a coach take things too far with players?
Every player that has played in college or professionally has seen a coach in the heat of the moment maybe say something or address a player in a disrespectful manner here or there. Never in a repeated fashion like that. What I saw on that Rutgers tape, I’ve never seen anything like it. I can tell you I have seen Mike Rice act inappropriately, but not like that. You’d say hey you shouldn’t use that kind of language in this setting with your team, but that’s not what happened here. If I ever saw a coach put his hands on a player like that, I’d report him. I’d march into the AD’s office. Tim Pernetti would have had a line outside his door if I’d seen that. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere.
You’ve written a new book called “Toughness.” What does “toughness” mean to you?
Toughness is taking the harder right over the easier wrong. It has less to do with physical toughness or bravado or macho than it does getting up in the morning and taking the right path. You can be the nicest person in the world and still the toughest person in the world. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
What’s your guilty pleasure song on your iPod you hope nobody finds out about?
I have a lot of Young Jeezy on my iPod that is not always appropriate given the audience. I have to make sure I’ve got my earbuds in rather than listen out loud.
What’s up with you and Young Jeezy? Where’d that come from?
We were doing College GameDay at Michigan State and we did a thing called “Know Your Teammate.” Draymond Green of Michigan State was one of the subjects of it and I think Rece Davis asked him what was on his iPod. And he said, “Young Jeezy.” Hubert Davis then made a joke, “Is that on your iPod?” And I said, “Actually it is.” Some people didn’t believe it so I tweeted out some lyrics to say it was. Then I answered a couple more and then I literally had to go to work. So I tweeted one back out saying, “I gotta go to work.” It got a response, and I did it the next morning and it just sort of caught fire. I have diverse tastes in music. I don’t exclusively listen to Jeezy, but I listen to it a lot. If I only had one thing to listen to the rest of my life, I’d probably choose the Rolling Stones.
What’s the oddest sports memento you’ve held onto?
I don’t know that it’s odd. I worked one summer for ABC Sports as a production runner and was down on the field for batting practice for a Monday Night Baseball assignment and I — borrowed? stole? – I took a baseball and got Reggie Jackson to sign it on the field. I’m sure that was horribly inappropriate but I still have it. It was 1983 and I’ve still got it in my office. I think the statute of limitations has run on that felonious act.
Let’s talk about your Twitter game. How do you approach your Twitter feed?
It’s the same way I decide what I’m going to talk about if I meet someone at dinner. When I first started using it, I did it because my wife thought I should. When I first heard of Twitter, I thought, “Well that’s one big bathroom wall.” Even though really good things could be written on a bathroom wall, like Shakespeare could write something really good. I thought I don’t need to get involved in that. My wife got on me and said, “It’s the way people are communicating, it’s the way younger people are communicating. You sound like an old man who’s not going to give up his rotary phone for those newfangled cell phones. You need to use this. People need to see you’re more than just this x and o geek who only watches tape in his basement. You’ve got a sense of humor and a personality.”
When I first started using, it started as a joke machine. I’d tweet out a funny picture or something I got a kick out of. I didn’t take time to sit down and think about how it worked, how you can get news off the timeline and how the follow thing worked. If someone said, “I’m unfollowing you” I would jokingly go after them because why would you tell someone you’re unfollowing them? Just unfollow them. I just thought it was really funny so I would hit them back in jest. I started getting criticized for not following anybody and thought this is too funny I can’t let this go, so I started with this persona of arrogance. People would ask, “Why don’t you follow anyone?” Because they won’t let me follow myself and what’s the point? So it’s more of a joke than anything.