Like the late-great Brooklyn rapper B.I.G, who was shot and killed 18 years ago this month, Grant Hill had a story to tell TSL.
In this exclusive sit down at CBS and Turner Sports’ media conference, Hill reflects on Duke upsetting undefeated UNLV in ’91 and says Wisconsin can beat Kentucky.
Gambler: Does the NCAA need a complete overhaul of its system and policies and philosophy in dealing with coaches, players, infractions and possible monetary compensation?
Hill: There’s been infractions of late, but there were infractions 20 years ago when I played...It’s unfortunate that happens. It’s like…this is a bit of a stretch as an analogy but your question is like asking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have crime?”
I think the desire to win and be successful can sometimes compromise even good people. So I think it’s unfortunate and it becomes a bit of a black eye, but I think college basketball is all about the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, when we get to this point everyone is mesmerized and immersed into these three weeks of basketball. The format, the passion, the wins, the losses, the upsets and all that goes on, is made-for-TV theatre. That’s what makes it beautiful.
I know I’m supposed to be objective but I was doing studio work in last year’s NCAA Tournament and Duke lost. I wasn't happy. That’s my team, but I still enjoyed the tournament. Even the story of Mercer. It was a great story, but I got tired of the kid dancing, but the story line was great.
Even If you don’t have a stake in the game, you are still a fan of what’s happening. I don’t think there’s any other sporting event that is quite like that. So regardless of any negativity that occurs prior too, we just put that aside and enjoy the ride.
Gambler: How about those ACC squads entering the tournament?
Hill: Duke has pretty much righted its ship. If it can figure out Notre Dame they’d be OK. They’ve been playing much better basketball. Virginia, last year’s ACC champs, was missing their star Justin Anderson, but they’re still capable of going far. Especially when conference teams face each other in the NCAA Tournament. It's anybody's game. These teams know each other and play against each other. That’s how good all of these ACC teams are. I think we get caught up sometimes in how well Duke is playing
Gambler: Teams that really stand out to you as legitimate contenders to stop Kentucky’s McDonald’s All-American Gang.
Hill: I said it at the start of the year and I still feel this way—Wisconsin. They had a couple of losses early but they’re hitting their stride now. They lost their starting point guard but he’s on the bench and will play a role for them in the tournament. Even without him, they held their own. Wisconsin’s an experienced team that was one Harrison three-pointer away from being in the NCAA Finals last season. And not to take anything away from 2014 Champion UConn, but I actually think that Wisconsin might have matched up better with UConn than Kentucky did. So it’s conceivable that they could of won it last year.
Gambler: Really ?
Hill: Woulda, coulda, shoulda…I know you don’t play that game but they are seasoned, they can defend, they can win with a number of different styles. So I really like Wisconsin as a team that with the success of Kentucky has kind of flown under the radar is that’s possible, but they can get there. As we’ve learned from the tournament anything can happen and I hate making predictions, but I think you have to point your finger at the top seeds because there is a reason those teams were seeded that high.
Gambler: You were part of back-to-back National Title runs at Duke in the 90s. You dismantled supposed juggernauts along the way. What is Kentucky’s greatest challenge as they try to complete an undefeated season?
Hill: I think complacency is the greatest challenge. I’ve never been in a situation where I was playing for an undefeated season, I can only imagine. It’s hard enough just to win a championship.
The added pressure of going undefeated has got to become a bit of a distraction in some respect. I feel like some of the greatest learning opportunities were in defeats. Even in 1992 when we won the back-to-backs, we went through some injuries and lost a couple of games, but we were able to recalibrate. You know, if you win 16 or 17 in a row, even if there is slippage in your performance, in your mind you’re like, “We’re winning...ya know. It’s all good. We’re No. 1”
You're 19 years old so you have that attitude that you are invincible and now the scrutiny on Kentucky and everything being magnified as they make this run...it's got to be tough. When we lost, that was an opportunity for Coach K to say, “You’re not as good as you think you are. Let’s watch film. The last five games have been rough." You tend not to tune him out as much as you would if you never lost.
That’s what worked for me. I have to give Coach John Calipari a huge amount of credit. He probably did his best coaching job this year, just getting all of those guys to buy in. It just takes one bad half. It takes a bad match-up. It’s all about match-ups in the NCAA Tournament. All about a team that may be experienced or gets hot or has a tremendous game plan.
Gambler: So losing a couple of games actually gave you an advantage over a squad that didn't lose until meeting you guys in that classic 1991 NCAA Finals?
Hill: When we played UNLV in '91 our game plan was to keep it close. Lets come out early and hit em’ a little bit, but let’s manage the game. Let’s not let them get on a spurt. Let’s value the ball and get back in transition. We had been in close games all season, but we won some and loss some and learned from those moments.
Kentucky hasn’t been in close games so when it gets down to two minutes and its tied up and it’s a two-point game; they’re going to be the ones who are tight because they’re supposed to win. That was our game plan. We had a week to prepare for it. We came out in the first title game in the first five minutes and it was a close game. By halftime it was a close game and we were like, “OK, this is going to work. This is really going to work.” Then down the stretch we executed and did what we had to do and they didn’t.
Look...we could have played them four more times and they would have beaten us, but in that particular game and at that moment we were the better team. It just takes that one game and that one moment.
Gambler: If Kentucky does win it all, what does that say about one-and-done players?
Hill: People may not agree, but Kentucky winning the National Championship would be good for college basketball. It defies the narrative about these one-and-done guys being undisciplined or selfish or unable to show humility on the court and function within a team framework. All of these guys have been willing to do what’s necessary to win. I think that’s a huge and important message that needs to be sent out there, so if it was to happen I don’t think anything would be wrong with that.
Gambler: When’s the next Tamia album dropping?
Hill: Well she has a single coming out right now and will be out on iTunes in May 2015.