Scott Fowler

ESPN’s Jay Bilas riffs on Duke, UNC, Zion, the NCAA and who will win the Final Four

Duke leaves in tears after Elite Eight loss to Michigan State

The Blue Devils leave the court in tears after losing 68-67 to Michigan State.
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The Blue Devils leave the court in tears after losing 68-67 to Michigan State.

Longtime Charlotte resident Jay Bilas has become one of the leading voices in college basketball. And what better time to hear that voice than on the eve of the Final Four?

Bilas, 55, played at Duke in the 1980s under coach Mike Krzyzewski and now works across all of ESPN’s platforms. Bilas has also been a frequent critic of NCAA policy, balancing that with an obvious love for the game of college basketball.

I interviewed Bilas this week by phone before he left for Minneapolis and the Final Four, getting his take on everything from Zion Williamson to what team he believes will win the NCAA championship Monday night to what he thought about his son Anthony Bilas choosing Dick Vitale as his favorite college hoops announcer. This exclusive Q and A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Let’s start with the Final Four. Who are you picking in Saturday’s games – Auburn vs. Virginia and Texas Tech against Michigan State?

A: I favor Virginia and Michigan State.

Q: And who wins Monday night in the championship game?

A: Michigan State. They have a great point guard in Cassius Winston, but they also have the ability to rebound. The one area where I think Virginia can be a little bit vulnerable is on the glass.

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Q: What went wrong for North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ tournament loss to Auburn?

A: Carolina was playing a team in Auburn that played at the same speed. So usually when Carolina is playing somebody and they get a fast tempo, it’s against a team that doesn’t play that way and so they might hang some fouls on them. Guys get tired. And that didn’t happen against Auburn.

Auburn is not only able to handle that, that’s what they like. And I thought Carolina was a little loose offensively. They took a lot of jump shots that were long twos, that were challenged. And the ball didn’t move. I bet the dribble-to-pass ratio was probably the highest it’s been since December.

Q: What were your thoughts about Duke’s Elite Eight loss to Michigan State?

A: It was pretty much the first time all year where (the Blue Devils’) defense didn’t net them anything. You have to make Duke a half-court team and Michigan State did that. Michigan State usually has turnover issues. The one area you can attack them is they tend to turn the ball over, but they didn’t against Duke. It was 17-7 – Duke coughed the ball up 17 times.

I thought the key point in the game was Duke was up nine in the first half and Michigan State was not only able to make that up but to take a four-point halftime lead. Duke wasn’t able to generate anything off their defense. They missed switches. They were slow in rotations. They got isolated. And they got nothing off their bench at all.

That whole Cam Reddish thing was a little bit strange, too. (Reddish missed Duke’s Friday night game with tendinitis, then came off the bench for the first time all season against Michigan State on Sunday.)

Duke’s Cam Reddish (2) missed a large part of the second week of NCAA tournament games due to tendinitis, which ESPN’s Jay Bilas said he found “a little bit strange.” Ethan Hyman

He doesn’t play in one game? I’ve never really seen anything like that. Tendinitis is not a debilitating thing — and it’s certainly not something you expect to crop up moments before gametime. So, a little bit odd.

Also, this game was exactly why a lot of us talking heads said the (NCAA selection) committee made a mistake. You don’t put the best No. 1 (seed) in Duke against the best No. 2 in Michigan State. That was poorly conceived by the committee. That game we saw there should have been at Minneapolis (in the Final Four).

Duke star Zion Williamson summarized his first, and what might be his only, season at Duke.

Q: Should Zion Williamson have had the ball more often late in the Michigan State game?

A: In retrospect, you want to see Williamson touch it a little more toward the end — and more, period, during the second half.

Q: You do a lot of analysis for ESPN around the NBA draft in June. Who will be the first three picks of the 2019 draft?

A: Williamson will be the first pick. And then my guess is that it will be (Duke’s) RJ Barrett vs. (Murray State’s) Ja Morant for the second pick. And whoever doesn’t go second will then go third.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas, who lives in Charlotte, believes Zion Williamson will be the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft. Jeff Siner

Q: How do you balance your love for the sport of basketball with your disdain for some of the NCAA’s rules?

A: I look at it like I’m not really critiquing the organization as much as I am the policies. I love the game. And all the money in the game is fine.

The problem is that the players don’t have the same economic rights as literally everyone else. Every other student can have whatever they can command in the marketplace and it doesn’t compromise their status as students.

And so this rhetoric that the NCAA uses is just total nonsense. All I’m doing is just discussing policy issues at the appropriate time. I don’t need to do it in a game.

Similarly, when I’m discussing policy, I don’t say: “Players deserve to be paid, especially Zion Williamson, who does a great job going to his left and has a terrific second jump.” Those things are irrelevant as to whether players deserve the same economic rights.

Zion Williamson was asked if the Elite Eight loss to Michigan State was his last game in a Duke uniform.

Q: We’re talking about players getting paid. But you believe some college basketball players have long been paid, right?

A: Players have been paid forever. All you have to do is go back 30 years ago. Players were paid. Rules were violated like crazy.

Do we think none of these players (in today’s world) have taken anything that’s been offered? Of course they have.

Also, do you think the players don’t notice when they go to a press conference and they’re told what they have to wear? That’s been going on forever, too.

dukeunc1984 2
In 1984, Jay Bilas (right) tried to block a shot taken by Michael Jordan during the ACC tournament. DAVIE HINSHAW

When I was in college (at Duke) and we went to the Final Four, my mother bought me a Polo shirt and sent it to me. And I wore it to a Final Four press conference. And I was told I had to cover it (the logo) up. And this was back in 1986! They’re doing the same thing now.

Q: What about the argument that there’s not enough money to go around and that players are already being paid plenty due to their full-ride scholarships?

A: We’re acting like this is the Little League World Series, with the coach being somebody’s dad who’s normally an insurance salesman. It’s not. No other student is subject to these restrictions. A student journalist could sell a book or a freelance story in the free market. No one cares.

They want to say, “No, we don’t have enough money to pay them. And look at this $80,000 scholarship they’re getting.” Well, where did that money go? It goes to the school. The athletic department pays the school. So they pay themselves!

It’s like me saying, “Well, I’ve got to pay rent for my kids’ bedrooms when they are in high school.” And I take the money out of my right pocket and put it in my left and say, “Look, my right pocket’s empty. I’m broke!”

It’s ludicrous. But people buy that crap.

Q: Your son, Anthony Bilas, told radio host David Glenn recently that his favorite college basketball announcer is Dick Vitale. How’d you take that?

A: Yes, he did say that. And we’re going to miss my son when he decides he wants to come home. It’s unfortunate he won’t have anywhere to sleep from now on.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”