ESPN’s Jay Bilas talks Michigan State, Big Ten and college basketball FBI investigation

PORTLAND, Ore. — Forgive Jay Bilas if he looks tired during any game broadcasts this weekend. 

The ESPN analyst is in the midst of a 10-day, 13-game, nearly 9,000-mile trek to broadcast some of college basketball’s marquee early season games. 

After spending the early portion of this week in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational, Bilas is here to broadcast the 16-team Phil Knight Invitational, where No. 4 Michigan State is playing a Sunday championship game against No. 9 North Carolina (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).  

Bilas took some time on Friday morning at the Moda Center to answer a few questions about the Spartans, the Big Ten and college basketball: 

Q: What’s your take on the uniqueness of this event? 

A: I think it’s awesome. David Worlock is here with the NCAA is here doing stats for us and is a great guy, was saying it’s like two regional sites. You’ve got eight teams, the logistics of it is remarkable. But to have this kind of event early in the season, it’s what we should do. (Michigan State athletic director Mark) Hollis gets it. The players don’t want to play directional state. I’m 54, I was lucky enough to play in college and when my teammates and I get together we don’t talk about the good old days of playing directional state. They don’t want to play those. The players want to play in big games. The fans want to see big games. It’s not hard to figure out the games players want to play in, it’s the games we want to watch. Why not do those more often? I think it’s fantastic. I’ve loved every second of it. 

Q: What’s been your take on this Michigan State team? 

A: I think they’re really good, and I think they’re good enough to win the whole thing. They are good enough, I think that’s an objective fact, they are good enough to win the whole thing. They’ve run into a couple of injuries that are not sort of season-changing. Bridges, I think he’s going to play today (Friday), but I’m not sure, and Goins is out. It affects their rotation, their depth, but they’re really good. I was really impressed, even though they lost to Duke in the Champions Classic, things happened in that game that you never see happen to them. They got outrebounded, you have seen them turn the ball over, they turned the ball over like crazy. You deal with those issues and they’re legit, they’re good. 

Q: How high is the ceiling for Michigan State and Duke? 

A: Both of them are going to get a lot better, because Michigan State’s young. They’re not as young as Duke, like Duke’s ceiling is higher because they’ve got more lottery picks. Duke’s ridiculously talented. They’re by far the most talented team, by far. But they’re really young, you could see that against Portland State, but over the course of 40 minutes, if those guys stay healthy, it’s frightening. But I don’t think Michigan State’s as good as they were in 2000, 2001, because they were older then, but they’re good enough to win this thing, and they’re as good as they’ve been in a few years I think. 

Q: Is there anybody else besides Michigan State you like in the Big Ten? 

A: Minnesota. I like Minnesota a lot. I don’t think the Big Ten’s as good this year as it’s been. Michigan State is, but the depth of the league is not where it’s been. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, you look at Indiana’s not as good as they’ve been, there are a bunch of other teams. I think Purdue’s legit, despite the two losses, they’re really good. Michigan State’s really good. Minnesota’s really good. But the bottom of the league is not as good. Some teams are better, Penn State is better. Iowa has not played like I thought they would play. It’s still a little bit early to start writing obituaries on teams, but you can tell just by watching It’s not as good as it’s been.” 

Q: Where do you see the excitement level for this college basketball season and how many teams do you see as national title contenders? 

A: I don’t think it’s any different than any other year as far as the number of teams. When you think about teams that could make a run, as if that’s title contention and it’s not. Last year I wrote something saying for people who are saying, like, 20 teams can win this thing, they can’t. There’s seven. Carolina’s obviously one of those seven. I didn’t even have Kentucky in there. I didn’t think they could win it last year. I didn’t think UCLA could win it. They could go on a run in the tournament and maybe get to Phoenix, but winning six games you’ve got to be legit. Nobody wins that by accident. That never happens. 

So I don’t think there’s a long list of those teams. If somebody falls down in your bracket, that’s always what happens when somebody sneaks through, somebody falls down in your bracket. That’s what it is. I don’t think it’s any different in the number of teams. What I do think is different, I think once the games started, and I figured this would happen, we’re talking about the games. We’re talking about who we like and who’s playing well and how good is DeAndre Ayton and when’s Bridges going to be back. 

We had the backdrop of this thing, this FBI and US Attorney’s thing, and that’s going to continue a little bit. Once the games started, the ratings for the Champions Classic was up 30 percent. People weren’t worried about the investigation then. I saw a thing on television this morning, I was flipping channels around trying to find SportsCenter and I stopped on this 30 for 30 on Major League Baseball in the 80’s and the drug trials, the Pittsburgh Pirates thing. I was in high school when all of that was going on. It cast a pall, but it didn’t destroy baseball. They still play the games and people are still going. It’s just our latest scandal, we’ll get through it. 

Q: Who’s a better golfer, you or Dan Dakich? 

A: I don’t think it’s close, it’s me. It’s not close. Dakich is a very good caddy, though. You don’t have to tip him. We had a blast over there, he’s funnier than all get out. And he’s not a very good outrigger canoer. I was very disappointed. A lot of drag provided by Dakich.