Who is at the top of your list for player of the year?
Charles Barkley: You know, that’s a loaded question, because the best player is the kid from Arizona [ed note: Deandre Ayton]. He’s the best player. You know, Trae Young’s had a terrific year, and he didn’t even win player of the year in his own conference! But I don’t have a vote—I’m glad I don’t have to vote on that.
Jim Nantz: Unlike college football where there’s the Heisman, college basketball is a unique situation. There are like a hundred different awards for player of the year out there. And to Charles’ point, this year more than any others, there’s not one guy that stands out. There’s a lot of really good players, but there’s not an obvious pick right now!
Most of these things are decided on before the NCAA tournament games factored in, so it’ll be interesting to see. I truly don’t have one guy I’d like to single out, because I think there are a lot of great players out there.
Do you feel the same about Coach of the Year, or do you think there’s a coach who has really done an amazing job?
CB: I have to say, I love what Bruce Pearl did at Auburn this year. To lose his two best players and win the SCC has been remarkable, especially with the stress they’ve been under with the NCAA investigation. I mean, they were picked 11th. Like I said, I’m biased—for them to win the conference, that’s coach of the year material!
How far did you get when you were at Auburn?
CB: We made it to March Madness! I’m proud, it’s cool for me. It’s the first time (as an announcer) that I have ever had a chance to say, Auburn’s going to be in the NCAA tournament!
Is that pulling on your heartstrings? How is it going to feel to cover that?
CB: Well it’s amazing for me! I mean it’s the greatest season in Auburn history, in my opinion.
JN: So, when you’re in the studio leading into the game, are you going to talk “we” and “us,” or are you going to talk about Auburn Tigers won or Auburn Tigers lost?
CB: It’s going to be “we won” or “they lost.”
JN: That’s a tough situation to be put in! I’ve never been in that situation. My alma mater is Houston, and we’re going to be in the tournament for the first time ever! My basketball program got me into the business, by the way. I was the PA announcer for the basketball team back in the Phi Slama Jama days, so that’s my foundation. I’m really close to it, and I’m ready for the challenge of broadcasting them on the air for the first time, and really coming off as neutral. Gotta fight those emotions, but it’ll be a thrill if that happens.
Charles, what do you think about one and done? It sounds like Adam Silver is thinking about getting rid of one and done and changing it.
CB: I’ve never liked one and done. It hurts the NBA. These kids are not ready for the NBA. You go and look at the NBA landscape, none of these one and dones are really helping these teams the last three years, and it’s hurting our project. I don’t think it’s fair to our fans in the NBA. If you’ve got a bad team, you used to get someone who was going to make your team better right away. Now you’re getting a kid who might be good in three or four years. If I’m a fan, I don’t want that.
So you think they should stay in college longer?
CB: I think they should stay in college for two years.
In today’s world, how important is it for players to be involved in and speak out about social justice issues?
CB: Players have always spoken out! It’s just more visible now because of social media. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, those guys all spoke out. Those guys were always talking about social justice! So the only difference now, is that everybody has Twitter, Facebook and all that other crap.
What do you think of the lack of a definitive favorite in this year’s tournament?
CB: I’m not just blowing smoke, but this is probably the craziest [season] I’ve ever seen! This form of competitive balance. I’ve said who my number one team was five times, and they all lost the next two games! If a Cinderella is ever going to win March Madness, this is the year. I thought Villanova was really good, and they lost. I thought Michigan State was really good, then they lost. Virginia have probably been the most consistent team all year, but their style of play is dangerous. A friend of mine called me, he coaches for the Pelicans, and he said “If Virginia’s going to do it, this is their year.” But man, it is totally up for grabs!
JN: It’s so true and what’s interesting is that the “blue bloods” of the sport, like Kentucky and teams on that level who have the tradition, just haven’t made it. If you take the top 16 teams in the country, the top four seeds in each region, Kentucky is outside of that. Kentucky’s a five seed. Then you look at some of the other programs that are going to be seeded outside of what their normal placement is. Louisville didn’t make it. Syracuse makes the First Four. UCLA makes the First Four. So it’s all kind of upside down! Xavier’s a number one seed, Auburn’s got a good seed, Tennessee has a high seed. These programs that don’t traditionally dominate college basketball are on the top, and a lot of the major programs that have the history and the pedigree are outside of the Sweet 16 seed. So, it’s going to be a year where it’s going to look different.
CB: I think coaching is going to be really important. What I mean by that is, most of the time one team outshines all the other teams. This year the playing field is different—it’s tighter and more level. If a coach can make a couple subtle adjustments, they can beat a team. Coaching is going to be more important than it’s ever been in this tournament. You can make a little adjustment here or there, and a number 12 seed can beat a 5 seed. That’s why I think coaching is going to be really important this tournament!
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Jim Nantz, a three-time Emmy Award winner and five-time National Sportscaster of the Year, has covered virtually every sport for the CBS Television Network since joining it in 1985. This year marked Nantz’s 32nd covering the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship and Final Four.
NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley also serves as a studio analyst for CBS and Turner’s NCAA Division I Men’s Championship coverage. “Chuck” is also in his 18th full season as an NBA studio analyst for TNT’s Emmy award-winning studio show Inside the NBA.