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LAWRENCE — Jay Bilas has said before that Allen Fieldhouse has a soul.
It’s a feeling that came over him the first time he walked inside. Bilas, who was recruited to play college basketball at Kansas before choosing Duke, calls the Jayhawks’ home the “St. Andrews of college basketball” for a reason. Bilas, who still reveres former Kansas coach Ted Owens, considers Allen Fieldhouse a living museum with traditions unlike anywhere else.
One of Bilas’ favorite times to be there is when he’s early for a practice, when he can sit by himself and look around without even the noise of a ball bouncing. There’s a magic to the place that Bilas feels, although he doesn’t want to get sappy about it, and a moniker of the “cathedral of basketball” he feels is fair. In his mind, Allen Fieldhouse is one of the truly great sport venues in the world.
So when Bilas learned that ESPN’s “College GameDay” would air from Allen Fieldhouse for the Kansas men’s basketball vs. Kentucky game on Saturday, what followed was what he’d describe as irrational excitement that everything would be fabulous. Bilas, an analyst for the show, would be able to experience one of his favorite college towns again. It’s the first on-site edition of the show for the 2021-22 season.
“The truth is, our biggest — one of our biggest problems with the decision-makers on where ‘GameDay’ goes is, like, how many times can we go there?” Bilas said Thursday. “You’d want to go there every week, but you can’t. It’s the atmosphere. Our feedback from there is always great for people who watch it. It’s wonderful. So, nobody has to twist your arm to go there.”
— Kansas Men’s Basketball (@KUHoops) January 27, 2022
The Jayhawks (17-2, 6-1 in Big 12 Conference) and Wildcats (16-4, 6-2 in Southeastern Conference) are both ranked in the top 15 of the latest coaches poll. Kansas is fifth, and Kentucky 13th.
Bilas can’t remember exactly when it happened, but one time he was joking around with someone who was talking about how difficult it was to win at Allen Fieldhouse. Bilas replied, “I think it’s easy to win here, it’s just when you come here they make you play Kansas. Like, if you didn’t have to play Kansas this place is easy to win in.”
The Jayhawks, led by head coach Bill Self, are undefeated at home so far this season. But before the two sides face off, and Wildcats head coach John Calipari has a chance to end that winning streak, Bilas took some time with The Topeka Capital-Journal to preview the upcoming matchup and more in this Q&A.
Question: When you think about, you’re going to watch a game that’s John Calipari coaching against Bill Self, what pops into your mind when you think about that? What intrigues you about seeing two teams coached by Hall of Famers go up against each other?
Answer: “Those guys, I’ve seen them play against one another before. … It’s not like we’re going to tell the story for the first time. So, I’m less concerned about those two and more interested in, you’ve got Kentucky-Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. I mean, are you kidding? Those are dream games, and if I remember right the last time we were there for that it was a ‘GameDay’ thing and it was an overtime game and one of the truly great games you’re going to see. And so, you’re anticipating that kind of environment and competition and all that. But, both of those guys have deep, Kansas roots.
“I mean, they were both assistants to Larry Brown. They, in a way, got their start there. And, how many Hall of Famers have Kansas on their resume? A whole bunch. Whether it’s as a player, an assistant, a head coach, whatever it is, I mean it’s (Adolph) Rupp and (Dean) Smith and you can go down the list. And then, but it’s also Self and Calipari and that’s pretty compelling.”
Q: Do you let yourself start thinking about, like, this could be a preview of a late-March tournament game? Or, do you feel like it’s still too soon to start thinking about something so far down the road?
A: “It’s always that way. I mean, there’s never a time where you don’t see Kansas and Kentucky, or Duke and Michigan State, or Duke and Kentucky, or Duke and Kansas, or whatever if they play, and you’re going, ‘Hey, this could be a preview of the end of the year.’ But the truth is … to have them play at the end of the year in a tournament setting, a lot has to happen for that to happen. Because they’re so good, they’re not going to be in the same bracket. So, you’re talking about them playing in the Final Four. They’re not going to play in an Elite Eight game, absent somebody getting injured and losing some games. So, you’re not going to see them. It’s unlikely, anyway, that you see them in the same bracket. But if they do play, it’s going to be Elite Eight or Final Four.”
Bilas added that he doesn’t worry about it too much, because it’ll work itself out. He pointed out this game doesn’t hold any significance in the races for either the Big 12 or SEC regular season titles. It may not even have a major effect on where either team is seeded for the NCAA tournament.
Where Bilas’ mind is, is enjoying what’s in front of him. This is a game where the coaches and players can enjoy an unforgettable experience, one they’ll look back on for the rest of their lives. He doesn’t mean to be dismissive of other games, but this is “the game” and the type of game players talk about when they get together decades later.
Every game is important, Bilas said, but not every game is big.
Q: If Kansas makes a run like that, deep into the tournament, it makes sense that Ochai (Agbaji) would be a key reason why. When he decided to come back for his senior year, what did you expect from him? And how does that measure up to what he’s doing now?
A: “It’s beyond what I think anybody could have expected. Like, he hasn’t been very good, he’s been great. And I don’t know how many people were thinking about him before the first ball was bounced in a game this year, that he would be in the conversation for national player of the year at this time. But he is, and he’s been clutch, he’s been efficient, he’s added to his game. He’s not just a jump-shooter. He’s … shooting mid-range stuff, getting to the rim and making plays on both ends. He’s had a mature, kind of, old-school development as a player. He’s good as a freshman and you saw some great potential, and better as a sophomore. He’s very good, and great … It’s almost like he’s a player in the ‘80s.”
Bilas added that Agbaji is such a good athlete, and a quality person as well. He’s enjoyed watching Agbaji progress.
Q: Who do you look to next for Kansas, outside of (Agbaji)? If this team’s going to accomplish what it wants to, is there someone else on your mind who you figure needs to be at his best as well, more so than anyone else on that roster?
A: “They all do. They all have to be at their best, because it’s not a team that has multiple players that can go off on their own. They’re not going to win that way, and so, it’s a collective effort and you’ve got guys that have been accepting of different roles. Like, Remy Martin’s been coming off the bench and Dajuan Harris (Jr.) is starting, and Harris is not a primary scorer but he’s really done a good job sort of as a floor leader and defender, passer. But they’re not a team that is just going to throw it to one or two guys and say, ‘Go get a bucket.’ That’s not the way they operate.”
Bilas added Kansas isn’t a team that’s full of lottery picks like it has been at times in the past. It’s not just about someone like Christian Braun playing great in addition to Agbaji.
Q: What’s something about this Kansas team that you feel makes it dangerous, but also something else that you still feel like you’re looking to see that you haven’t seen yet from this group?
A: “There’s not any one thing I would say you need to see from them, because they’re going to continue to improve collectively. They just need consistent performances out of their key guys, and really all their starters are key guys. So, have a Jalen Wilson continue to progress. He had a stop-start season, or start-stop season, at the beginning, and it is not easy. Whether it’s injury or other reasons, when you’re not in there getting back and having things go seamlessly, it’s not easy. But he keeps getting better and he’s more assertive and he gives them a little bit of a different dimension because he can grab a rebound. He’s their best rebounder, in my view. He can grab a rebound and bring it up himself and he’s a good passer and he’s become more assertive as a scorer.”
Bilas added he thinks Kansas is good enough to beat anyone, and when a team’s that good it’s just about being able to be consistent enough doing that down the stretch. When the time comes for the NCAA tournament, he described it as the Jayhawks going and winning a four-team tournament three separate times. And that last, four-team tournament, of course, is the Final Four.
Bilas said it’s easier to process it that way. Kansas doesn’t have to beat the whole bracket, just two teams, then two more teams and two more teams after that.
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: ESPN's Jay Bilas talks Kansas vs. Kentucky game, Ochai Agbaji and more