Waxing Philosophical with Jay Bilas

Former Duke basketball player and current ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas cut a strong presence at SEC basketball media days this past Wednesday. Bilas took some time to speak to Hall & Arena and provide his thoughts on the status of college basketball.

H&A: Jay, let’s talk about the diminished role of the center in the college basketball ecosystem…how much has the 3-pointer affected them?

Bilas: It’s affected it a lot. It’s an asymmetrical threat. It’s the difference between a field goal and a touchdown in football. You’re going to go for the touchdown.

Since [the three-pointer] came in in 1987, I think coaches have learned how to better use it. You hear people saying, well a 15-footer is not a good shot anymore—and they’re right. It’s not as valuable a shot as a layup or a 3. The game has changed on every level. But that does not mean that big guys are not really valuable; they’re still incredibly valuable. But the ones who are most valuable are the big guys who can hit the 3.

In years past, you can put a big guy down in the post and play around him. Might have three around two or four around one…that’s looked upon now as clogging things up.

But ask North Carolina if the big guys are still valuable. They’ve been to two national championships the last three years. They won the title in ’17 and lost to Villanova in ’16 and they played two big guys all the time and rotate four. Kansas has done it with big guys, they’ve done it without. Duke had two lottery pick big guys last year and went all the way to the Elite Eight before Kansas beat them with their big guys. They are still valuable…I think the teams that don’t have them have taken a little bit better job of taking advantage of not having size and exploiting the matchup advantage of being smaller.

The game has changed but it’s not all of a sudden that the big guy’s obsolete…they’re not. There’s no 6-10 guy that’s being turned down for a scholarship.

H&A: Is there too much reliance on the 3 and should the 3-point line be moved back?

Bilas: It should be moved back but not because of too many 3s being taken. The reason the 3-point line should be moved back…I think we are moving toward that…is for reasons of spacing of the floor. We talk about freedom of movement and spacing and cutting and all of that because it’s a more enjoyable game to play, it’s a more enjoyable game to watch. We don’t want to watch clutch- and grab-games like we had four or five years ago.

Players are going to play to that line. Offenses are going to be spaced to that line. So if you move it back another foot, or whatever it is to get to the international distance, you are going to have more space to operate. Even more space for a big guy to post up, more room to cut. It’s going to be spaced out for officials to see grabbing and all that stuff, which used to be a staple of defense four or five years ago when defense was just organized fouling. And we’ve cleaned a lot of that up. The officials deserve a lot of credit—the supervisors but also the rules committee—for making changes.

So I don’t think there are too many 3s. When you have a smaller team, they can compete with anybody if they make shots. When you have a bigger team, it’s easier to get the ball inside when you make shots. I think that line is fantastic, but we need to continue to evolve. And these guys can make shots way out there, and we should move it back. It’s just better for the game. We’ve seen it on every level. College players can play with an NBA line in a heartbeat.

H&A: Let’s talk about when college basketball starts. Here we are, mid-October and we are getting ready for college basketball. But we are right in the middle of college football season, in the middle of the baseball playoffs, and the middle of the NFL season. Should the start of college basketball season be moved?

Bilas: It doesn’t matter. College basketball will never be as big as college football–ever. Unless concussions decimate college football. So I don’t see college basketball competing against college football. I think you cater to the audience that you have and try to grow it the best you can. And you grow it by making it visible.

I don’t think the starting time is a problem. So if you say, “let’s avoid football,” and started in December that means we push back the Final Four. And that means the Final Four is going to go back to April, May. School’s over at a lot of places. And I don’t know if that’s worthwhile or not—then it’s in baseball season.

You know, it seems like it’s got a pretty good vibe in March. But the thing is, people say, most people don’t care about it until we get to March. That may be true, but I can tell you, what I would do—instead of messing with when the season starts—right now Nov. 6 is our opening day. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter if we call it opening day or what. We are not going to get anybody to watch because of that. The reason people are going to watch is that Duke plays Kentucky on that day.

So what we need to start doing is having more intersectional matchups later in the season. Years ago, before the SEC/Big 12 challenge, you would have had Kansas and Kentucky playing in December, when everybody’s invested in football. The SEC and Big 12 did a good thing. They are putting their marquee game in mid-January, where people are most engaged. So let’s take our best inventory in the nonconference, and carve out space for it in conference season. Let’s take our inventory that’s not as valuable in conference season and move it to December. So let’s take an SEC game that may not as compelling and move those games earlier.

What’s best for growing the sport is, if you can’t get the audience to come to you, go to the audience. We should have better inventory there, and having intersectional games against our best teams. It’s like when baseball went to interleague play. Move it to the spot in the season where people are watching the most. That just seems like simple math to me, but change is not easy in college sports. In other words, acknowledging problems that we are seeing. We need to think outside the box on things we are doing to grow the game. ‘Cause we’re not going to make people turn the football game off to watch a basketball game in November. They’re going to watch Duke/Kentucky. They’re going to watch Michigan State/Kansas, and they are going to watch some others. But just because you put some games on doesn’t mean people are going to watch if you are opposite of football.” H&A

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