Selection Sunday has come and gone, the field of 68 is set, and March Madness has settled in. We spoke with some guys who are very familiar with the Big Dance and got their opinions on some of the biggest storylines heading into the tournament.
Dan Bonner: analyst for the NCAA Tournament; former team captain at Virginia.
Reggie Miller: Turner Sports color commentator and analyst for the NCAA Tournament; Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer; five-time NBA All-Star; All-American and two-time All Pac-10 selection at UCLA.
Grant Hill: Turner Sports color commentator and analyst for the NCAA Tournament, including the Final Four and National Championship game; seven-time NBA All-Star; 1995 NBA Rookie of the Year; two-time NCAA champion at Duke and member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Clark Kellogg: Studio analyst for the NCAA Tournament; maker of food puns as color commentator on NBA 2K series; All-Big Ten player at Most Valuable Player at Ohio State.
Which region would you say is the toughest bracket in the tournament?
Kellogg: "The Midwest. Kentucky's gonna make history. I've been on the record saying this team doesn't have many weaknesses. I don't see any of those teams at the top of the bracket giving Kentucky much of a challenge. Looking at the bottom half of the bracket, I think Wichita State will be a tough game for Kentucky, should they make it to the Elite Eight, but I don't see a team in that bracket that would present anything close to a real challenge for Kentucky."
Bonner: "I think the Midwest region is the toughest bracket. You look at Kansas, the No. 1 RPI, Notre Dame, they beat a No. 1 seed, you look at Maryland, they've had a fantastic season and they've beat a No. 1 seed in Wisconsin. I think Kentucky gets through their region and gets to the Final Four, but they'll have to beat some good teams to get there."
Can anyone beat Kentucky??
Miller: "This is why the rest of these teams may potentially have a shot at beating Kentucky: the one-and-done situation. When you get locked into an NBA series, it's a Best-of-7 series. The cream usually rises to the crop. When you're dealing with a one-and-done, if you have a bad shooting night, if someone turns an ankle, you can be beat. A lot has to go wrong for Kentucky to lose. If I were a betting man, I would take the field over Kentucky. In this case, I'm taking the Wildcats. They have size, length, they have guys that understand their roles, and that's rare for a bunch of McDonald's All-Americans that would be stars on other teams. You have to hope that they're not on their best and still pray for an act from God. You can have the field. I'm taking Kentucky."
Bonner: "To beat Kentucky, you have to score. You're going to have to play great defense. You can't turn the ball over. I don't think it's gonna be anyone in their region, so they'll have to lose in the Final Four. I think Duke can do it, I think Wisconsin can do that."
Kellogg: "You'll have to be solid defensively and compete on the glass, and you have to put the ball in the basket. You have to get good shots against them, you can't have blind fury. You have to sustain play for 40 minutes. I would throw Villanova in there. That's a very good basketball team. They have multiple shot makers and a presence inside in Daniel Ochefu. Obviously the pressure will mount, the stakes are higher. They have been tested a bit, but when you lose, you're done. Because they are so selfless and can win in so many different ways, I think they can weather the storm and handle that pressure."
Miller: "I do want to see if Kentucky gets down in the second half. We saw it against A&M and LSU and Georgia, when they've been tested in close games, they found ways to win. I want to see how they respond when someone gets them down in the second half."
What are your thoughts on St. John's vs. San Diego State?
Bonner: "I think San Diego State is a dangerous team. If they can score at all, they can beat anybody. They have a problem putting the ball in the basket. When they come out on the court they have guys that are big and long and can run. What we saw in the Mountain West final, their offense can desert them completely. This is a game St. John's has a chance to win."
Miller: "St. John's was given a big blow with Obekpa suspended. When we saw San Diego State, all their players are long and athletic. They'll be in the game defensively. I don't know if they'll generate enough offense to beat St. John's. If Steve Lavin and his team can limit mistakes and not turn the ball over, they can move on. But losing the big guy in the middle makes it very difficult."
Who are some of the potential Cinderella teams in the tournament?
Kellogg: "Buffalo, because of how they play and their perimeter skills. Even though it's not a non-power conference team, I would highlight Dayton. I know it's a bit unfair they're gonna play an opening round game on their home court, but that team is very good and got to the Elite Eight last year. I can see them going to the Sweet Sixteen based on their potential matchups."
How does this year's Virginia team stack up against those great Ralph Sampson teams of the 1980s, and how will their style impact the games in March?
Bonner: "I don't know if there's any comparison between this particular team and those Ralph Sampson-era teams. Those teams could really score. Ralph made them very good defensively because if you've got by somebody out on the perimeter, he was back there swatting things away, so they're totally different teams. I think this Virginia team would have a hard time with those teams in the '80s, even though they are so very good defensively, because they struggle to score without a healthy Justin Anderson. Unless he's at full strength, I think that presents some problems for the Cavaliers. They'll be in every game they play because of the way they guard. If they can generate some offense, then they're a real threat, but I don't think they'd be able to stand up against the 1980's Ralph Sampson teams."
Miller: "I agree with Dan and Clark in terms of how do you beat Kentucky, you have to have a team that can score: Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin. I'm kind of gonna go the other way. Virginia limped to the finish line because of Justin Anderson's injury, but defensively they are a veteran team. They have upperclassmen and they are well coached by Tony Bennett. Virginia can put hands on some of these bigs and make it a half court game. I want to see a team put pressure on them, and I think defensively, Virginia can put pressure on Kentucky. Obviously they would have to get there, and I'm not quite sure Virginia has enough offensively to go through the rest of the field and get to the championship game to play Kentucky. Can they? Certainly. But at every level of basketball, they all say 'defense wins championships.' San Diego State and Virginia are two of the best defensive teams in this tournament. To me, it's gonna be the offense. How healthy is Justin Anderson? Even though he's the second-leading scorer, he's their best player. Malcolm Brogdon is gonna have to play fantastic. They are going to have to generate offense, but defensively, if you can muck it up against Kentucky, you have a chance to get there. Virginia is that team to do that."
Kellogg: "Virginia is a team that gets a lot of unfair criticism because of the style they play, which is predicated on defense and valuing possessions and not getting a ton of possessions. I applaud them being who they are and doing what they do because it's successful. It's part of the variety of college basketball. Tony Bennett is on everybody's list as one of the outstanding coaches in our game. One of the elements of being successful is being able to do what you do and force your will and style on your opponent, and Virginia does that exceedingly well. I just don't know what level Justin Anderson can get back to, having missed the time he has because of his finger injury and the situation with his appendectomy. I don't know what level of effectiveness he'll be at. That's a huge issue concerning Virginia being at their best moving forward."
Is Duke hatred just a form of entertainment at this point or is it still something that's real to some people?
Miller: "We all hate Duke. We hate Duke, we hate Christian Laettner, we hate Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley. We hate em all! [laughs]"
Kellogg: "The love is so fake, but the hate is so real. The reluctant respect is sometimes presented as hatred. There's also a bit of enjoyment in cheering against the team that's on top"
Hill: "People love to hate Duke. I think people kind of enjoy it. It speaks to the success of the program and it's a number of factors why. But it's amusing to me. It also lets you know the impact of sports and just how powerful sports can be. All of us in some point in time have been fans; fans of college programs, NFL, NBA. You're a fanatic. But that passion we have, the passion the fans have, is what keeps us all in business. We've all been able to experience that passion in a number of forms. There's certain programs, certain franchises that just strike a cord with people and are very divisive and people are on one side of the other, and in college basketball, Duke has been that program."
Miller: "A lot of this is jealousy and people being envious because with winners comes those two attributes. When you win and you're successful and you do things the right way, people want to bring you down from the mountaintop. People can hate all they want. They're envious and they're jealous because they do things the right way. The same way people hate the Yankees or the Patriots, the Cowboys. When you win and you're successful each and every year, you've got to be doing something wrong. No! They're good, they're talented and they play the right way."
Bonner: "When you sign up for Duke, you expect that, but when you sign up for Duke, you know you're gonna get all the calls, so you know you're gonna be successful. Reggie said 'to beat Kentucky, it would take an act of God,' and in college basketball, isn't that Mike Krzyzewski?"
What is your impression of Buffalo head coach Bobby Hurley?
Hill: "I sent him a congratulatory text yesterday. I'm very happy for Bobby. He comes from great stock; his father is a legendary basketball coach. He got an opportunity as an assistant to work with his brother. In such a short period of time, he's done a fantastic job. Anytime you have people who have had success as players that now come back on the coaching side, it's a good story. They have a chance in this first game against West Virginia. They pressure the ball, but Bobby's team doesn't turn the ball over a whole lot. Wouldn't it be amazing if they were to win and match up with Kentucky in the Sweet 16? I don't know if that'll happen, but he's done a wonderful job. We know that 5-12 matchup has had a lot of history, a lot of upsets in the past. It could happen here in Columbus this week."
There's a lot of talk around the NBA about possibly lowering the draft age again. What kind of impact could that potentially have on college basketball?
Hill: "I know our examples of athletes that come out after one year have been extremely successful, even guys that skip college altogether and have had Hall of Fame careers. But for the most part, I think getting that foundation, that experience in college as a student-athlete, is important and critical to the NBA game. Players that leave early are still learning how to play, and a lot of times, (when they arrive in the NBA) they're not playing. One of the best ways to improve is to play. You need to take a hard look at it. I'd like to even follow the football model. I think you'll see improvement not only in the NBA, but also in the college game. You have some fantastic freshman in college now that are some of the best players in the game. I'd love, for the sake of college basketball, for the fans that are associated with their university, to get to know these players better, and for the players themselves to develop on the court and really be primed and ready when the opportunity comes to play professionally."
Kellogg: "Some times when we talk about making changes, what looks good on paper doesn't quite work out as intended. Being one year removed from high school and 19 years old before being drafted sounds really good at the time, but (in some cases) it hasn't quite worked out that way. I'm in the camp where I think guys should be able to leave after high school if they choose to do so. Also, if you do commit to college, there should be some standard commitment in turn, be it 2 or 3 years. I would love to see that be where we land. It's not a huge number of kids, but I think kids, if they desire to move forward and pursue a professional playing career, they should have that option. They also should have the option of dealing with the consequences of that choice, good or bad. For the good of the game, I would love to see the NBA be conscious of what they can do to help the entire game, college or pro, but I don't know if they necessarily have an obligation to do so."
Give a recipe for beating Kentucky, 3 or 4 things a team has to do in order to spring that monumental upset.
Kellogg: "You've got to rebound. You've got to be able to compete on the glass."
Hill: "You have to value the ball. You've got to be able to not make mistakes on the offensive end. You have to get quality shots at the basket every possession. You have to stick to whatever your game plan is and not deviate from that, not be seduced into playing their style, or not be rattled by sensational plays throughout the course of the game. It's a make or miss league, and when the opportunity comes, you've got to be able to hit shots and make plays. You can't be caught up in the hype. You have to truly believe that you can beat them, and you have to go out there collectively and have that mindset and that approach in order to do that. When you're a dominant team like Kentucky, most of the competition they face during the season is in awe or intimidated. But if you have the talent, you have the other ingredients, you might have a shot."
What is the perfect tournament? Do you want to see tons of upsets or those great teams getting to the Final Four?
Kellogg: "I don't know if there is one for me. I enjoy the variety, the unpredictability, the brand names, the non-brand names, the stories that show up from places you least expect it, the stories that show up from places like blue blood programs - Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, UCLA, whoever it might be. I don't know if I can design a perfect tournament. Certainly you would love to have competitive games, enough of those that not only are competitive, but keep you on the edge of your seat in terms of buzzer-beaters and close finishes. But I couldn't diagram a perfect tournament. I think it's pretty close to perfect the way it unfolds over these next three weeks."
Hill: "The beauty of the tournament every year is pressure. Every team has it. It's unscripted. In the NBA format, usually the best team advances. That doesn't always happen in college. I'm just amazed at the level of play, the buzzer-beaters, the talent. For three weeks, you don't know what's gonna happen, and that's the beauty of the NCAA Tournament."