The budding resurgence of erratic weather forecasts and increased usage of the term “upset” can only mean one thing: This is March. CBS and Turner Sports hosted the NCAA Tournament Media Day on Tuesday, and the Madness is set to spread with ample fever.
Big East Coast Bias caught up with your favorite commentators and reporters about the state of the conference and pressing issues universally affecting college basketball.
The Big East, reflecting the overall undertone of college basketball, finished the season with wild wins and puzzling losses all across the board. Amid the flurry of hotly-contested games, the conference is teeming with potential post-season influence.
St. John’s season embodies the unpredictable nature of the Big East. The Johnnies, who were 0-11 at the start of conference play, managed to memorably topple then No. 5 Duke and No. 2 Villanova consecutively in early February. “St. John’s is sneaky. With [a healthy] Shamorie Ponds, they can take out one or teams,” CBS Sports reporter Jamie Erdahl commented.
“90% of college basketball is peaking at the right time—it’s all about hitting your stride at the right time,” fellow CBS Sports reporter Allie LaForce said. In continuing to build a team’s momentum into the post-season, “being young and naive helps,” LaForce added.
Villanova certainly understands the importance of timing. After four season losses, all to Big East teams, the Wildcats are now eyeing post-season redemption. Their ticket to a deep run? NCAA National Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson.
“We’ve said all year long, he was really under the radar in terms of perception and recognition. There are some spectacular competitors and people remember them. But [Brunson] isn’t showy; he doesn’t react to things. He’s just calm and cool,” FOX Sports analyst Bill Raftery described.
Distinguishing Brunson from Oklahoma’s fellow NPOY-hopefuly Trae Young, Erdahl explained “I’m not saying that Brunson isn’t flashy. Or that Young isn’t consistent. But I’d want Jalen Brunson on my team.”
As for Big East team’s tip-toeing around the ever-elusive Tournament “bubble,” Raftery stated that “the league will be interesting if somebody gets better. Like Providence or Creighton, so if they get in the Tournament, they can do some damage.”
Erdahl pointed the distinction between teams simply making the Tournament, and flourishing within the bracket. Citing Seton Hall’s Big East Championship in 2016 and corresponding quick March Madness exit, Erdahl noted that Big East teams “Kill each other on the way there. [The Big East] is one of those conferences you have to watch out for that. I’m interested to see how the Big 10 handles being down 12 days, as opposed to Big East teams crawling over each other to play, and then having to move on and play in the Tournament.”
Rising from the conference chaos, the most important questions looms: who will remain standing for the Big Dance? Xavier and Villanova have spent this season atop the national polls, and many analysts believe they possess the longevity to make deep tournament runs.
While CBS anchor Dana Jacobson doesn’t have Villanova in her Final Four, she was quick to comment on ‘Nova’s post-season spark. “I love what I saw from them early, and there’s something about Jay Wright and the ‘Izzo impact’ everybody always talks about come March. There’s a click of a gear. And especially because they have been there before and they know what they’re doing.”
To credit Xavier’s season-long hustle, Villanova may no longer be the Big East’s solo marquee team on the national stage. Highlighting Xavier’s run to the Elite Eight last year, Bill Raftery could envision shared 1-seeds for the Musketeers and Wildcats. “Look at what Xavier did last year. [Villanova and Xavier] are two powerful teams that are recognized, and rightfully so.”
“Villanova started the season so well. It was ‘Nova, ‘Nova, ‘Nova. And they had a little drop-off, and that’s where Xavier has stepped up their game,” said Dana Jacobson.
Inside the NBA anchor Ernie Johnson even dropped Xavier as Final Four contender, while CBS commentator Greg Gumbel took a broader approach. “You need to look at the entire landscape. You’d be crazy to overlook a Villanova. Or a Virginia. Or a Xavier. Or a Michigan. Or a Michigan State. Or a Purdue,” Gumbel listed.
Beyond the projected metrics of individual school seeding and bracket composition, college basketball currently remains under immense, scandal-clad scrutiny. Hall of Famer and Inside the NBA co-host Charles Barkely spoke candidly of coaching pressures, stating that “People cheat ‘cause they want to keep their job and win . . . [n]obody wants to get fired. I mean, nobody has patience with these coaches anymore. If you don’t win, you’re going to get fired. It’s plain and simple.”
“It’s crazy now, I would not want to be a coach in today’s society,” Barkley noted. “Especially now with the one-and-dones. Because these kids, they’re all going to the same schools now. They want to be seen on TV every week. And the problem is, if you do get a really good player, you get them for one year.”
The NCAA’s controversies, however, do not end with the current FBI investigation. Discussing the logistics of the payment of student-athletes, Barkley expressed “everybody acts like it’s an easily solvable problem. It’s not easily solved.”
“They say ‘pay the players.’ Then who are we paying? Are we paying the men’s basketball team? The football team? You got to pay the swimming team. You got to pay the diving team. You got to pay the women’s team. Now all this money we’re talking about is going to go real quickly if we start paying everybody.”
Barkley further jokingly noted his disdain for student-athletes profiting from their image: “There’s a couple people who say you should be able to use your likeness. As a big, old fat offensive linemen, if the quarterback is selling his jersey, and the running back is selling his jersey, and they're making an extra four or five hundred thousand dollars a year and I’m not getting a dime of it—I’m not going to be really happy with that. Think about that. Nobody is buying big, old fat offensive lineman jerseys. But I’m doing all the damn work. And the pretty boy running back and quarterback, they’re making a nice extra half million dollars on their jersey—I ain’t blocking for their ass. I’m not.”
No matter the flavor of the controversy, Greg Gumbel believes fans will not be dissuaded from tuning into the Tournament. Emphasizing the positive magnitude of the event for fans of the sport, Gumbel firmly stated: “I don’t think for a minute that college basketball viewers are not going to watch the tournament because someone may or may not have been wiretapped or may or may not have paid players under the table.”