The most exciting month of the year has arrived for college basketball fans everywhere. The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is just around the corner and as a treat for readers, there's a little something extra this year on Bleacher Report's 2010 coverage.
ESPN College Basketball analyst and former Duke Blue Devil Jay Williams was kind enough to spend a few minutes breaking down some of the things to look out for this year, as well as providing his take on possible upsets, sleepers, and potential Final Four teams, among other topics.
While at Duke, Williams was named ACC Rookie of the Year and National Freshman of the Year by The Sporting News in 1999 while averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game.
He started all 39 games his sophomore year, leading the Blue Devils to the 2001 NCAA National Championship and breaking Dick Groat’s 49-year-old record for points in a season with 841 points.
In 2002, Williams earned the Naismith Award and Wooden Award as College Basketball’s Player of the Year. He finished his career at Duke with 2,079 points, sixth all-time, and had his No. 22 jersey retired on Senior Day.
When it comes to college basketball there are few players who have accomplished as much as Williams.
As an analyst for ESPN, he is also one of the most respected and highly noted professionals in the business. He knows this league in-and-out and had some very interesting things to say in the interview, including insight into his own experience as a player and national champion.
With that regard, his quotes have been left unaltered in their original, full-length format; it’s lengthy, but well worth the read.
Q: What stands out to you as being noticeably different about this year's Tournament as opposed to previous years?
A: The one thing thing that always stands out in the Tournament is the fact that it's always wide open, but this year more so than the past couple years, it's even more wide open.
You look at the top seeds, you have Kansas, you have Kentucky, you have Syracuse, and you have Duke. Duke is the last number one seed in the West, pending that they win the ACC tourney.
All these teams are so vulnerable.
Kentucky lost to Tennessee, lost to South Carolina, and they almost lost about four or five other games. They almost lost to Georgia, they almost lost to Miami of Ohio at the beginning of the year, almost lost to Stanford, and the two late games they almost lost were Michigan State and Vanderbilt. Those were back to back road games.
Kansas. Kansas almost lost to Colorado, they almost lost to K State. They even looked more vulnerable on the road, even though I would say they're the most bounded team.
Syracuse got swept by Louisville. Duke has taken its losses on the road as well.
It’s just one of those years where you have a lot of smaller schools, for example, Wofford. They played a really good schedule. They beat Georgia at Georgia, they beat South Carolina, and then they almost won at Pitt; lost by three.
It’s that kind of year where I can see huge, huge upsets in the first round and even in the Conference Tournaments its going be such an exciting time to watch it.
Q: What are some teams that you see exceeding expectations? Do you have a Cinderella pick?
A:I like Siena. Siena's a team with Fran McCaffery that has experience and they got into the Tourney last night. Edwin Ubiles is a 6'7", 6'8" power forward who's pretty athletic, Ryan Rossiter, they have Alex Frankilin, guys who can score the basketball. I think Siena could be a team.
I really like Cornell. Cornell has Ryan Wittman and Foote down low. They almost walked into Lawrence, Kansas and beat KU, put them in a really close game. And they beat St. John's.
Wofford's a team that can come out and surprise some people. Murry State has kind of punched their ticket in already.
I like those four teams right there to cause some trouble in the first round. They can catch you going to sleep and put you to bed always.
Q: What are some under the radar players you expect to have big showings in the Tournament?
A: I really like James Anderson of Oklahoma State. He is kind of under the radar for what he’s been doing. This is a team that just got in; they’re the last team in the Big 12. But this is a kid that’s going to be a top-15 pick and nobody really talks about.
Adam Koch from Northern Iowa, he’s a very good basketball player and Northern Iowa is another team that can cause some trouble in the Tournament.
Jason Love from Xavier, and some guys from Richmond, David Gonzalves and Kevin Anderson are two guys that can give you a lot of trouble.
And from UTEP, Randy Culpepper; he’s a guy that’s about 6'0 and has 43-inch vertical. He’s one of the most explosive guys I’ve seen in a long time for somebody his size. He reminds me of Nate Robinson, but a little bit faster, and little bit more athletic.
He’s on a different level.
Q: What team do you think will disappoint the most in the Tournament?
A: I think Villanova is a really good basketball team and Jay Wright’s a great coach. I clap my hands to Scottie Reynolds and what he’s been able to accomplish. He’s a heck of a basketball player and they have a heck of a back court with Corey Fisher and Reynolds together.
The one thing you need in the tourney is guard play takes you really far, but you also need a low post presence. You need somebody that can slow the half court down, they can get the ball down low, and they can actually draw some attention.
That relieves a tone of pressure on the guards and lets them knock down shots. I just don’t think Villanova has that. They have a lot of young players in that role.
Another team that I think is possible is Kentucky.
Kentucky is a phenomenal basketball team, they’re really, really good, and they’ve found ways to win close games the entire year. But my thing is that that stuff eventually catches up to you. They’re very young at some critical parts and if John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins lose it for a little while or get into foul trouble, you can see them potentially getting upset pretty early.
In my opinion the only teams that are a lock or a wash to make it to the elite eight are Kansas and Syracuse.
Everybody after that is very, very vulnerable.
Q: If you had to pick your Final Four teams today, who would they be?
A: A lot of its subjective because it’s based upon the brackets. But I like Kansas, they’re battled tested, they’ve been there; I think they’ve handled it and been able to step up.
I like Syracuse, even though they lost to Louisville, but I like their scoring guards even though Wesley Johnson needs to step it up a little bit.
Other than that the crazy things is it’s kind of a crapshoot for me, man. I think it's wide open. I’ve been asked this question a lot and I’ve been going through the list every single day and I can literally give you like ten teams that have the potential to make the Final Four.
I think Ohio State has a good chance; they’ll ride the back of Evan Turner. And I would still say Kentucky. I think they’re a team that can go out and get upset pretty early but at the same time if they play well together they definitely have the talent to make it to the Final Four.
Q: As a former National Champion, what would you say is the single most important characteristic that separates champions from the rest of the herd in the Tournament?
A: The best thing that I see in a lot of champions is obviously the way they approach the tournament in the first couple round games, teams that set the tone right out of the gate. I always get nervous about teams that are potentially higher seeds and maybe struggled in the first two rounds to get by.
The year we won in 2001, I look at that team and our first two opponents.
We beat them by 15 or 20 points and we set the tone of our energy and our style, and our kind of enthusiasm that we were going to play with every single game.
That’s what I like to see out of teams that have a good chance to win is just their defensive mentality. Are they getting after every possession or do they think that just because they’re a higher seed, they’re going to be able to walk all over a lower seed?
Q: In your time at Duke you had the opportunity to play for Coach Mike Krzyzewski. What kind of difference does a coach with that much experience and knowledge make for the players down the stretch in the Tournament?
A: The great thing about Coach K that the better coaches do, but not every coach does obviously, he really taught us. In my freshman year, I came in ‘99 and we had just lost William Avery, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Trajan Langdon—four guys to the NBA Draft.
I came in and I had never played the point before in my entire life; I was always a two or a three. So all of sudden I walk up to Duke, a team that has just lost the National Championship to UCONN, and I’m the starting point guard for a team preseason ranked top five.
I’m like what is going on; I’ve never played point guard in my entire life. But as we get to the Tournament, Coach K sits me down and really breaks down how I can get rest and to play in spurts throughout the NCAA Tournament.
So he broke it down for me like this: every four minutes you’re going to get a break, it’s a sprint, [between] TV timeouts. So you got to look at the game like this, 16, 12, eight, and four.
Play in sprints.
You never want to go more than that, if you feel a little bit tired, ok come out, but understand you have a sprint ahead.
If there’s a random timeout, ok look at the clock, now we’re at 17, now we have a minute sprint. So [Coach K] taught us to always to play with tenacity defensively and never give up.
[We] understood the game like that with time and situation and it was more than a lot of kids do.
The next thing was just playing lose, letting go.
I think a lot of times these kids play so uptight because they’re so worried about it. We always approached the game as we have to be the aggressor. We never wanted to be the hunted; we wanted to be the hunter.
He would teach us things about finding ways to get angry at opposing teams.
Even if teams didn’t say anything, even if a team was so politically correct before a game and approached the game in the right manner, [Coach K] knew how to motivate each of us individually.
For me personally, I played better when I was angry.
So he would do little things like let’s watch games, and he would pick out about five or six plays of the guy I was guarding. [Coach K] would point out a couple of things that were cocky or arrogant [my opponent] did throughout the regular season that would get me a little pumped up and a little annoyed to guard this guy.
[Coach K] understood how to motivate each individual, and I think at times some [other] coaches don’t try to motivate the individual; they try to motivate the whole team.
If you have a team that believes in one another that’s ok, but you still need that individual motivation.
Q: How do you think Duke will fare in the NCAA Tournament?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised if Duke got to the Final Four.
Once again all this depends upon pairings and brackets, but I tell you they have really good guard play: Kyle Singler, Noah Smith, and Jon Scheyer. Jon Scheyer’s been great, he’s deserving of being the NCAA Player of the Year, maybe a co-Player of the Year with Greivis Vasquez.
I think Duke goes as far as their big-men take them.
Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, which is about All-Defensive team for the ACC, Mason and Miles Plumlee, these guys are going to be huge for Duke in order to make a run.
They get offensive rebounds and when they get offensive rebounds they have two options. They can score or they can look to kick it out to guys like the big three to knockdown perimeter shots.
Their big guys are going to be so critical if they’re going to make the Final Four, but I think they have the talent, I think they have the bank, and I think they have the leadership with Coach K and the solid senior leader in Jon Scheyer.