In the early 1990’s, there were few college basketball players as accomplished as Duke star Grant Hill.
Hill won two national titles at Duke as a freshman and sophomore before embarking on a lengthy career in the NBA. In fact, Hill’s final college game came in the 1994 national championship in Charlotte, a game the Blue Devils lost to Arkansas.
This weekend, Hill will be back in Charlotte, this time as a Turner Sports analyst for the opening rounds of the 2018 NCAA tournament. The Observer caught up with him to discuss this current Blue Devils team, his thoughts on the one-and-done rule, and to rehash one of his greatest March Madness memories.
Q. What do you think of the current Duke team, and which players have stood out to you?
A. It’s a very talented team. Very young. I think about Marvin Bagley, who as a freshman has just really been spectacular this year – all-freshman in the ACC, ACC Player of the Year, player of the year. He’s really been unguardable throughout the season. Grayson Allen I think has really finished the second half of the ACC season well. He really came on strong. You have Wendell Carter, you have Gary Trent Jr. You have a very talented group, and they’re very capable.
Duke is good enough to win it, but also young enough to where they may struggle. It’ll be interesting to see.
Q. How big of a factor is having prior experience in the tournament, based on your experiences?
A. My experience was many years ago, a different environment than now. (laughs) But you look at last year, (North) Carolina had a team that was really a bunch of juniors and seniors who played prominent roles. They had experience, guys who had been tested, been through many tournament games. The year before that Villanova won with the same sort of thing, although they had a few young guys who did play. That team was led by some older guys who had had the college experience.
With that said, the year before that, in 2015, Duke won. And their two best players were freshman. And they had Grayson Allen, who was a freshman and had a great finish there against Wisconsin. That goes against the theory of experience, but it does help. What I think is most important is just teams coming together, gelling, playing good basketball at the right time. And there’s an element of luck you’ve got to have. You can’t get in foul trouble, you can’t have one off game. You have to be at your best for six games. You have to go on a six-game win streak, and as that win streak continues, the level of play and the level of competition increases, and that’s not an easy thing to do. You know, it’s hard to win six games in a row agains the best teams in college basketball.
Q. Other than the Blue Devils, are there any other teams in the bracket that really stand out to you?
A. When I look at this year’s brackets and the teams that made it, there’s a lot of parity. I don’t see a dominant team that I’m automatically going to pencil in. Obviously the No. 1 seed (Virginia), there’s a reason they’re the No. 1 seed, but it’s also possible they don’t make it to San Antonio.
But I like Villanova, I like Kansas, I like Michigan State. Michigan has been playing really good basketball as of late. Arizona is very capable. UVA, can they have that sort of tournament run that’s eluded them during Tony Bennett’s reign as coach? There’s a lot of teams that are capable, but I don’t have just one team. I just think there’s parity, real parity right now, and it could be any of a number of teams that have a chance at winning.
Q. A number of the current Duke players you mentioned – Bagley, Carter, Trent – have the potential to leave college after their freshman season. What do you think of the ‘one-and-done’ rule? Should it be allowed to continue, or should there be more of a return to how things were when you played (and players stayed all four years)?
A. Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen, in terms of returning to what it was like when I played. That was a whole different sort of era and generation. I think in terms of the one-and-done rule, that’s a rule that the NBA has. The NCAA doesn’t control that. I think there’s been some talks, (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver came out last week and mentioned the idea of eliminating the one-and-done and going back to letting high school kids enter (the NBA) directly before college. I think that will change the landscape a little bit, but it’s also sort of part of the times.
People weren’t thinking about the NBA their junior year in high school in the 1980s, and now they are. That’s just the reality. The thing that I will say is regardless of one-and-done or guys leaving right out of high school like in the late 1990s, early 2000’s, is that the game has survived. The actual game, none of this stuff on the periphery that needs to be cleaned up. But the games, the passion, the spirit, the relationship with alumni and fans, it continues to be amazing. And I think that will continue on regardless.
Q. So if the one-and-done rule had existed when you starred at Duke (1990-1994), is that something you would have considered?
A. I actually haven’t really thought about it. I just know I had a great experience in my four years in school, played on some great teams, played with some great people, went to a great school, have friends for life who were classmates of mine. I don’t even know. It was such a different time, and I know I probably wasn’t ready for that. I don’t think anybody really was back then. The idea of it just seemed so foreign. These kids now, they see it from when they’re very young and they think about it and they dream about it and it’s a reality. That wasn’t the case back in the day. I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about that. I’m glad I could just play and be in school for four years and have some great experiences and great memories.
Q. What is your most vivid NCAA tournament memory?
A. There’s some good ones and some bad ones. (laughs) I’d say beating UNLV, beating Kansas my freshman year to win the championship. The Kentucky game, too. Those were all pretty historic, maybe some even iconic moments, in the tournament. But also losing to Jason Kidd, losing to California (in 1993). I remember that. That was the first time I had lost in the NCAA tournament. I was 13-0 going into that game, and then we lost. And my last run, my last win was against Florida in the semifinals and then obviously losing to Arkansas. I was fortunate to have a lot of memories.
What really sticks out, though, my experiences were just the times with my teammates. You know, on the bus on the way to the game. In the locker room before and after the game. In the hotel, the preparation, all of that stuff – those are the things. Yes, you remember cutting down the nets, but those are the things that kind of stick out and you really hold onto and recall and let you reflect. Those were some great, great times.
Q. I’ve got to ask about that Kentucky game (when Hill threw a full-court pass to Christian Laettner to win at the buzzer), since it is one of the most iconic moments in tournament history. Can you tell me what was going on in your head at the end of that game?
A. I don’t know if I really can. I just know that in the timeout, Coach K had us believing that we were going to win, that we were going to execute. Once I got on the court, it’s instinctive. I did notice that nobody was on me, and once the ref gave me the ball, it was sort of like, ‘Let me just try to throw it. Let me try to do my part.’ I do know that when Christian caught the ball, he caught it and took a bounce. He dribbled it... you know, with two seconds on the clock. I’m thinking, ‘Why is he dribbling?’ But he kind of used that to gather himself and get some rhythym.
I do remember the ball being shot. It seemed like the ball was in the air forever. But when I look back, that’s what I think about, that’s what I see. That’s what I remember.
Q. Coach K actually told you guys in the huddle, down one in overtime with two seconds left, that you were going to win?
A. Yeah. He really mastered the huddle and had us believing in that moment – after their guy hits the shot, we’re all dejected, two seconds left, we have to go the length of the court – that we were going to win. He asked us instead of telling us. Instead of saying Grant, you’ll make the pass, he asked me, ‘Grant, can you deliver the pass?’ And I said yes. The leadership there was great. Instead of telling somebody what they’re going to do, he’s going to ask. I took ownership that hey, I can do it. I’m going to do it.
In a weird way, in that moment, having that presence of mind and demonstrating that kind of leadership to ask somebody if they could do it – and maybe I’m reaching a bit – but I just felt that his poise, his confidence, it rubbed off on us. So as we left that huddle, there was just this feeling that, you know what, we’re going to win. That’s what makes him a genius.”