It’s that time of year again: March Madness. The bracket is set and 68 teams — not to mention college basketball fans across the country — eagerly await the start of the NCAA Tournament tomorrow afternoon. Some teams, such as CSU Bakersfield and Stony Brook, will make their first-ever trip to the big dance. Others, like No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, are comfortable appearing in the tournament. (This is Kansas’ record-tying 27th consecutive showing.)
But there’s also a select group of former college and NBA players who will have the chance to experience the madness again – this time as commentators or sideline analysts. Last week, SI Kids spoke to members of the Turner Sports and CBS Sports team broadcasting the game — Hall of Famer Reggie Miller (UCLA), Kenny Smith (UNC), and Grant Hill (Duke) — about tournament thrills, this year’s talented teams, and the greatest March Madness moments of all-time.
You’ve all experienced NCAA tournament as players and now as commentators or analysts, so what do you appreciate the most about March Madness?
Reggie Miller: Oh man, the fans, the cheerleaders, the camaraderie of the guys on the bus, the win or go home atmosphere. That’s the beauty of what makes collegiate basketball in the tournament different from the NBA. The cream always rises to the top in the pros because it’s usually a best-of-seven series. You may lose a home game, but you might be able to get that home game back on the road or later in the series. In college, if your best player twists his ankle or has a bad shooting night, or if your coach isn’t making the right decisions and you lose that game, you’re going home. So you have to be perfect for all of your games.
Kenny Smith: My favorite part is the competition and the fact that you never know who is going to win. You have a level playing field, and there aren’t typically odds-on favorites most years. Pro basketball is different because for the players in the league basketball is their profession. In college basketball, you have 68 teams with kids who might have a calculus test the next day. So that lends to the unpredictability.
Grant Hill: Well, back then, I could run and jump without being in pain, but just the overall madness: the electricity, the excitement, and the idea that you’re living the dream. All the hard work and sacrifice that kids put in and now they’re on a stage where the whole country and world can see. If you’re 19 or 20 years old, that’s pretty exciting.
What do you expect to see this year in terms of talent in the field of 68?
Miller: What I love in this year in particular, along with the young guns of Kentucky and the experience of Wisconsin, is the 10 to 15 teams on the neutral tournament court that have a really good shot of getting to Houston [for the Final Four]. I would not be surprised if a lower-seeded team makes its way there. It’s so unpredictable, which is beautiful.
Smith: I think North Carolina, from top to bottom, has the top nine players in college basketball. I think my sleeper is probably going to be Indiana. I think Yogi Ferrell has an opportunity to maybe do some of the things similar to what the Connecticut guards did a couple of years ago. I think Maryland is my second sleeper team.
Hill: I don’t know, but it’s going to be totally insane. I’m positive we’re going to see great players, great moments, and great upsets just like we’ve seen year in and year out, since I’ve been a fan or since I’ve been associated with the tournament.
How often do you deal with loyalty issues if you’re former team is playing or doing well in the tournament?
Miller: Well, my loyalty will always lie with UCLA, but you have to be objective when calling games. When I called UCLA during the tournament I was objective, but it was very difficult. My job is to be objective, though. Really it doesn’t matter to me who wins as long as it’s a good game – double, triple overtime, I love it.
Smith: Well, I never want Duke to do well, even though I respect them. I take that back, actually. Last year was the first year I rooted for them because I knew Justise Winslow. I’ve known Justise since he was, like, six years old, and his brother was my personal assistant for years. So Justise has been in my house, he’s eaten my food – I had to root for him. That was an oddity for me. And then they played so well, it worked out great.
It’s easy for fans watching at home to get caught up in the big tournament plays and upsets, but what can kids learn if they pay close attention to the games?
Smith: I think the one thing they can learn from, it’s not even a basketball thing really, is passion. The passion for the game is shown on the sidelines, in the stands, and on the floor. That’s something that can carry you throughout your life. If you’re passionate about your job, your friends, your family, it can help you always. That excitement is something kids can learn from.
Miller: Hard work. Teamwork. Playing together. Winning with grace. Losing with dignity. Good sportsmanship. From the AAU levels to collegiate to the professional ranks, kids should learn that they can always set a good example and be good role models for younger kids.
Hill: You see that these teams are playing hard every game and every possession is do or die. Every possession means something. Just understanding that you can’t take plays off. When you’re in that moment, it’s win or go home. That’s a good lesson for young players out there to see. The passion, all the players diving on the floor, their emotions – all of that is captured during the tournament.
What was the most important part of your game day prep as a player, and what is it now as a commentator?
Miller: Now it’s reading and knowing the material on the teams that are playing, kind of similar to a scouting report. I watch a lot of film and game tapes. It was probably the same thing as when I was playing. I watched a lot of tape on the teams we were going to face. I watch a lot of film especially now though, because there are a lot of teams you’ve never seen or heard of that and you have to watch film on them to get prepared.
Smith: My game day preparation was rest before the game. Staying off of my feet was number one. And then, my father had a saying, “If you look good, you play good.” We had to wear suit jackets, so I used to make sure I picked out my outfit beforehand so that I could feel new going into the arena. I’d lay out my clothes, iron them, and I was ready to go. It was business. By then I had already watched enough film. Coach Smith had more of a golf mentality so we played the course, we didn’t watch a lot of film on the other teams. We watched film on ourselves, on what we were doing and what we did last game. I never knew what Maryland or Duke or anyone were going to do, I never knew their offense. Coach always said that the defenses we’d run would dictate what they would be able to do on offense, but we never did scouting where we ran through and memorized their plays.
What are some of your favorite all-time March Madness moments?
Hill: There have been so many iconic moments that are still stuck in all of our memories throughout the years. When Michael Jordan hit the shot in ‘82 against Georgetown. I think obviously Christian Laettner hit that shot. I’m stuck in the 80s right now. Villanova upsetting Georgetown in 1985 was a magical moment. There are so many. In recent years, I thought when Gordon Hayward almost hit that shot – that was freakish what happened. I thought last year was a great tournament, one of the best we’ve ever had.
Smith: That’s tough. I think that my most memorable as a player would be the ACC tournament games. The ACC tournament and then the NCAA tournament for the first two or three games. I had a couple of game winners, so those moments were always great. As a fan, Georgetown versus North Carolina, that was my real introduction to college basketball. Watching that game and seeing Patrick Ewing… I was a Georgetown fan and a John Thompson fan. Even more than that I was a Dean Smith fan at that time. I was a John Thompson fan, so Georgetown.
Miller: Having a chance to work with Kevin Harlan, who to me is the best in the business as a play-by-play guy, our Florida Gulf Coast upset to me was the best because it’s one of those teams where you don’t think that can happen. And then they beat Georgetown, and just the euphoria in the building that was a highlight, Florida Gulf Coast.
Catch all the March Madness action on the networks of CBS Sports and Turner Sports: TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV. The Final Four will by televised by TBS April 2 and April 4.
Photos: Turner (broadcasting), Elsa/Getty Images (Miller action), Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images (Hill action), D. Art Foxall/NBAE via Getty Images (Smith action)