March Madness is upon us and everybody is doing their best to analyze each team, rank the conferences, and predict who gets in and gets left out of the NCAA Tournament. So to help figure out where we are at this point in college basketball and how this might all play out, ESPN’s Jay Williams spent some time with us and gave his insights into these topics.
What conference do you think is hitting its stride right now headed into the postseason?
Jay Williams: “I think the ACC is moving in the right direction. All year long we have been questioning the middle of the pack in that conference. It’s still top-heavy with Duke, UNC, who’s been trending upwards, Syracuse, and then Virginia, who is the outright regular season champion. Pittsburgh, as of now, is probably in the NCAA Tournament. But now you have Clemson and Florida State making late surges as well, so I think the ACC is headed in the right direction. I still think the Big 12 and the Big 10 are playing well too.”
If you had your choice of assignments, which conference tournament would you pick to cover first?
JW: “I would watch the Big 12. The Big 10 and the ACC are great leagues and their tournaments should be fun to watch. The Pac 12 is decent too. But the Big 12 intrigues me with the amount of teams that are capable of making some noise in the postseason. You know there’s a team like Oklahoma State, who’s in the “bottom” half of the conference, but is 20-10 and just knocked off Kansas and is starting to regain their footing at the right time. You have Baylor, who’s also in that bottom half at 20-10, but has the talent to beat anybody in the league, as evidenced by their win over Iowa State the other night. So from top to bottom, that tournament should be exciting to watch.”
Looking at the some of the teams you’ve mentioned already, a lot of them have a strong upper-classmen presence on the team. #1 Florida has 4 seniors in their line-up and Wichita State also has upper-classmen being major players in their success. Is having a team of one-and-done freshman a viable strategy now that there is so much parity in college basketball?
JW: “Well, let’s be honest, if you’re asking that question then you’re talking about Kentucky. They’re the only team completely consumed with freshman and a few sophomores that didn’t leave last year. I think it’s always a challenge to put your entire season upon the shoulders of freshmen. It’s a lot for them to buy into. These guys are used to, individually, being deemed successful, primarily by their ability to score the basketball. They haven’t had to be successful on the defensive end of the floor. So now all of a sudden, you’re asking individuals who are used to being “the guy” to rely on their teammates for the first time in their careers. They’re used to being the best scorer, not the best lock-down defender. Calipari won it once this way because Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis were great lock-down defenders. Without that aspect, it will be hard to win.”
Charles Barkley has said in the past that the one-and-done rule is bad for both the NBA and college basketball. What are your thoughts on the rule?
JW: “I think it’s a stupid rule. I think if a player is ready to come out of high school he should be able to do that. I think it cheats the purpose of college and allows guys to cheat the system. You really only have to pass one semester and then you can essentially take a vacation and just play basketball. That just isn’t good for anybody in the long run. I wish it were more like baseball, where if you don’t leave after high school, you have to stay three years. Now what will happen then is that some players will start going the D-League route, similar to what P.J. Hairston did this year. And for some kids that will be the right choice in terms of developing themselves for the pro game. Regardless of what anybody says, the college game and the pro game are completely different. So the kids coming out of high school will have to make sure they’re making the right choice for their development.”
In regards to the development of these high school kids, do you feel like AAU is serving as a teaching venue at this point?
JW: “No. I think AAU is used completely for exposure now. These kids are trying to go all over the country to showcase what they can do. Now, I don’t label every AAU team this way. I supported AAU when I was coming up and I do think there are still some really good coaches who respect the game and want to teach the game to these kids. But because of the relationships some of these AAU coaches have with agents, and as a result being funded by the agents, the whole system has gotten away from its initial purpose. Where over at the USBA, we still emphasize instruction, while also giving the players a chance to get exposure. But the teaching of the fundamental skills they need to excel is the foundation.”
Do you think the NCAA Tournament will be as wide open as the regular season has been?
JW: “That’s the beautiful thing about the tournament. Even the teams who are peaking at the right time can still have an off night and lose. It’s a situation where what you’ve done coming into the tournament matters less than what you do in each game in front of you. It only takes one off game for a #1 seed to lose. And let’s look at those #1 seeds. Wichita State is a potential top seed, but their schedule wasn’t that tough and they almost lost. Now I like the way they play. They play angry. So they could make a run, or they may lose in the second round. Florida is another choice but they’ve had some close calls as well. Kansas was looking good and Syracuse was looking good, but both have lost in the last week. All of the potential top seeds have shown some vulnerability.”
At the other end of the spectrum, what team do you think is expecting to be in the tournament and might get left out on Selection Sunday?
JW: “Pittsburgh worries me a lot. I think they are trending in the wrong direction. They’ve lost 6 out of their last 10 games and have a tough game on the road against a Clemson team trying to play their way into the field. Their non-conference strength of schedule is weak and they didn’t beat anybody at that top of the ACC. So I would be nervous if I was Pittsburgh, especially if they lose to Clemson.”
Do you have a team nobody is talking about that you think can make a run?
JW: “Well, I’ve been high all year on Wisconsin. Even when they went on their losing streak I stuck with them. Because they have guys with experience. They can shoot from the perimeter. They can put the ball on the floor and make plays. And their basketball I.Q. is high. Their last two wins on the road at Michigan and at Iowa are big time wins. So I think they can make some noise in the tournament.”
What teams would make your Final Four right now?
JW: “I can’t make those picks yet. And the reason is, until I see what the bracket looks like and what path each team has in front of them to make the Final Four, I don’t make that call. For instance, when Gonzaga was a #1 seed, after I saw their bracket I said they would not make the Final Four. So who you have in your bracket matters.”