If you want to hear a clear and insightful commentary on college basketball in general and Kentucky in particular, listen to Kyle Tucker’s podcast interview with Jay Bilas.
Tucker, a longtime UK beat writer at The Courier-Journal, now writes about Kentucky sports for the website SEC Country. He calls his new show, “Everybody’s Superpod.” Anyone who has followed Kentucky sports in the John Calipari era understands that reference.
In my mind, Bilas is the most refreshing voice on sports television. He’s razor smart, thoughtful and articulate, a true college basketball insider with a Duke basketball pedigree and a Duke Law School education, and sure of his opinions. (In other words, he doesn’t flip back and forth along with the score of the game, like Dickie V.)
Think Bill Walton before Walton fell in love with his own voice and realized that anything he said – the more outrageous the better – was the key to TV celebrity. One suspects Bilas won’t chase that siren – maybe for no other reason than Walton was always the center of his basketball world, while Bilas, as an athlete, was a good but marginal role player.
Anyway, here are some of the intriguing things he talked about with Tucker, and some of his provocative observations of Calipari and UK basketball.
How good is this team?
They’re as good as anybody in the country. Some other teams – like Villanova and North Carolina are older and have been there before, which can be important in the tournament.
Look, every team has an area of vulnerability. Kentucky is not a great perimeter-shooting team. There are a couple of guys – Malik Monk and maybe Derek Willis – but they’d better be on. If they’re not, other teams can pack it in on them and make them play half-court.
But they’re getting better defensively, playing more connected, becoming more difficult to score against.
How good are De’Aaron Fox and Monk?
Their athleticism is off the charts. No freshman backcourt has ever put up those kinds of numbers. If it were not for how good Monk has been, we’d be raving about how good Fox has been. He’s the fastest player in college basketball. In fact, I’d put him up against most NBA guards.
So there’s probably not a better backcourt in the country. Kansas’ backcourt (Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason III) is really good, but they’re older. They weren’t this good as freshmen, and you have to think these Kentucky guards will be better in two or three years. Unfortunately for Kentucky, they won’t be here then.
Given his teammates’ attention, is Isaiah Briscoe getting overlooked?
Maybe. But I think that if Briscoe were playing somewhere else, we wouldn’t be talking about him at all. He’s a really good college player and getting better, but if it were just him I think we’d be focusing in on his limitations. The reason Kentucky is ranked is its freshman guard tandem, and Bam Adebayo inside.
Briscoe came back for his sophomore season, and it was good for him that he did. You know, there’s the feeling that Archie Goodwin went pro after his freshman season because he wasn’t sure he’d get the playing time on his college team the following year. I think it’s good that Briscoe came back and competed, and he has improved a lot.
You have this Kentucky team ranked No. 3. How would you see this team, head to head, against some of the other leading teams on a neutral court in the tournament?
Villanova? I’d take Villanova, but just by a hair. They’re older and they have great leadership. They, too, have been there before. But I think it would be an awfully close game.
Kansas? I’d take Kentucky. Kansas has those great guards, but their big guys are not great. Kansas’ record is better than the team has performed. If not for their guards, they’d have suffered four losses or more.
Duke? I’d take Kentucky. I expected Duke to be great, but they have not been. They’ve not been healthy, which I imagine most Kentucky fans would take as an excuse. This whole Grayson Allen business has been the oddest thing I’ve seen. And now Coach K is out. The thing is, Duke does not have a true point guard, and I happen to think that’s becoming obvious.
UCLA? I’d put UCLA ahead right now, it scores the ball so easily. I used to be one of those guys who thought defense won championships. But in today’s game, everyone can score the ball so easily, you’d better be able to score yourself. You have to be efficient on offense because you can’s stop other teams from scoring.
Louisville? I’d take Kentucky. Louisville played a great game at the Yum! Center, partly because it shot so well. But that’s not been its game during the course of the year. It plays fabulous defense, but scoring is a question.
What do you think of John Calipari?
I’m one of those people who thinks he’s one of the truly great coaches ever. When he got there in 2009 and brought in all those high-powered freshmen [Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, Orton, Dodson], I didn’t think it was possible to coach freshmen and have consistent success without any ups and downs. What he’s done has been absolutely remarkable.
And he can adjust to his teams. People think he’s always been this way [flying up and down the court, killing teams in transition]. When he was at UMass, he coached half-court, blue-collar,smash-mouth defensive teams, until he brought in Marcus Camby.
How will history remember Kentucky’s 2014-15 team?
As one of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time. Nobody has ever won 38 straight games in a single season. If they had beaten Wisconsin, I think they were better than that Duke team that beat Wisconsin and won the championship.
You know, though, I’m probably biased. I played on a team that lost in the championship game. We were No. 1 in 1986 going into the finals. We’d won 37 games. If we’d beaten Louisville that night, we’d have been 38-2 and we’d have gone down with the greatest teams ever. Instead, we lost and became a footnote in history.
There are certain things that history doesn’t remember, but people who pay attention to the nuances of our sport, they remember. That Kentucky team was one of the great teams of all time.
However, for great Kentucky teams of all time, how about that team in 1996-1997-1998? It came within an overtime period of a threepeat! Three years, three title games, under two different coaches.
And here’s the thing. If Derek Anderson had been healthy [in the 1997 championship game], forget about it. Kentucky was better than that Arizona team. That would have been one of the great accomplishments in history.