It’s been a busy week for Dick Vitale. After spending Saturday and Sunday in Nashville for the final two rounds of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Vitale appeared on ESPN remotely from Tennessee for the Selection Show and then headed to New York to spend the first part of Monday on a media tour. The ESPN commentator popped up on everything from local radio shows to Fox and Friends before jetting off again for Las Vegas, Nev.
He landed in Nevada only 25 minutes before he had to go on the air at 8 p.m. for his first appearance on ESPN’s first 24-hour Tournament Challenge Marathon of coverage from Las Vegas. Vitale was due to return to Florida Wednesday night so he could do live appearances from his Manatee County home on ESPN networks throughout the NCAA Tournament coverage.
In between all that, he talked with the Herald about the biggest storylines to follow when the Round of 64 begins with fifth-seeded Notre Dame facing 12th-seeded Princeton at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday in Buffalo.
Q: The Bradenton Herald: Let’s start with the team considered to by many to be the favorite now: Duke. Do you view them as the best team, at least in terms of talent?
Dick Vitale: “Right now, I’m out in Vegas and all the guys in the desert have North Carolina and Duke as two of their favorites to win the whole thing. You look at Duke and they’re playing their best basketball. There’s no question about it. And the reason they’re doing that: They’ve got a healthy team, No. 1, and, No.2, Grayson Allen is being Grayson Allen, the player that he was last year. So with him contributing—joining Luke Kennard, who’s been an All-American all year, made my top five players in the country based on his production, and Jayson Tatum, who I think is as good as any diaper dandy in the country—when you’ve got a terrific trio like that, and then you surround winners like Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and the development of Frank Jackson, the frosh has been unbelievable, so really they have a great chance to win it all.”
Vitale’s Picks East: Duke West: Gonzaga Midwest: Louisville South: North Carolina Champion: North Carolina over Gonzaga
Q: I feel like I’ve been having a harder time finding upsets in the early rounds this year. Whether it’s because of the growing prevalence of transfers or just a deep crop of contenders, do you see this being a more straightforward tournament in the early rounds?
DV: “The parity’s been unbelievable, there’s no doubt about it. Certainly the transfers, impact players who have come aboard have made a difference, there’s no doubt about it, but I think what you’ve got really is going to be a scenario where it’s so tough to predict. I mean the separation of teams is so close, they really are, but there are some interesting matchups and interesting teams that I think that create havoc. For example, double digit seeds: I mean Wichita State is so dangerous as a 10 seed. Middle Tennessee State, though they’re going to have certainly a scenario where Minnesota’s going to be aware of them, not like last year when they snuck up on Michigan State, but they’re a legitimate big time basketball team. That should be a heck of a game. They’re a 12 seed. I think there’s a lot of teams out there that can play and a lot of people will be surprised.”
Q: Louisville is a team with ties to the Bradenton-Sarasota area with Cardinal Mooney’s Ryan McMahon contributing a bit and a handful of players from Victory Rock Prep. You’re high on them, I know. What do you see from them?
DV: “First of all, I think, whenever you go to the tournament and you look at the big teams, look at the coaches, look at their success ratio in a one-and-out scenario. I mean the one-and-out scenario is a different mindset. The emotion, the psychological effects, game gets close, how do players handle it? And Rick Pitino has been absolutely sensational in his career wherever he’s been: Providence, Kentucky and now at Louisville. First of all, Louisville’s very athletic. They’re very deep. You can’t just zero in on one guy. They have good guard play with Donovan Mitchell and with Quentin Snyder. They can be a little bit inconsistent. The only dilemma they have is they don’t shoot really well from the perimeter on a consistent basis. Ryan McMahon certainly contributed to wins they had this year over Purdue, wins they had over certainly Syracuse. A spot player, he’s a freshman playing in an elite program. Well, he possesses that ability to shoot the basketball. Again, that’s the one area you’ve got to be concerned about, however they are so well coached, their defense is dynamite, they score off their defense. I have them one as my Final Four teams.”
6.3Minutes per game for Louisville’s Ryan McMahon, a redshirt freshman from Cardinal Mooney. The guard played in all but four games this season for the Cardinals.
Q: One storyline in the West region that’s been talked about is the opportunity for a coach to reach his first final four. West Virginia’s Bob Huggins is the only coach with an appearance. Do you view this as an opportunity for Gonzaga’s Mark Few or Arizona’s Sean Miller to finally break through?
DV: “I really do. I think there’s no question. First of all, I’m really a big fan of Gonzaga. I did five of their games this year. Had them against Florida when they beat the Gators, had them when they beat Iowa State, had them winning the championship against Saint Mary’s in their conference. They’re legitimate. A lot of the naysayers out there will scream and yell, ‘They don’t play anybody.’ Well, Florida’s somebody, certainly Iowa State’s somebody and they beat Arizona on a neutral court. Now when they beat Arizona it looked a little bit deceiving. Arizona was without Alonzo Trier, their best all-around player, basically, so now with him back that makes it a little more interesting. However, I think the Zags and Mark Few, the one thing that’s missing from his resume is the Final Four. I really feel this is the year that he is going to make that happen.”
They’re legitimate. A lot of the naysayers out there will scream and yell, ‘They don’t play anybody.’ Well, Florida’s somebody, certainly Iowa State’s somebody and they beat Arizona on a neutral court.
Dick Vitale, ESPN commentator on Gonzaga
Q: Do you think this is the best team he’s had at Gonzaga?
DV: “I really do. They’ve had some outstanding teams, but from a depth factor, size with (Przemek) Karnowski, Zach Collins off the bench is going to be an NBA first-round player — 7-footer, very agile, mobile, terrific skills, he is going to head definitely eventually to the NBA — great guard play. A player that’s probably really a terrific player people don’t know about: Nigel Williams-Goss. This kid is big-time all the way. He’s a winner, tough, played in the Pac-12, was super when he played at Washington, transferred. I’m telling you, he’s legitimate. They’re deep in the backcourt. They have four legitimate Division I guards. They’ve got size, they play defense and they’re well-coached.”
Q: You’ve mentioned Gonazaga’s Zach Collins as a likely NBA player and there are plenty of NBA fans who just tune in for this part of the season to get a sense of who’s going to be next in the professional ranks. I know you’re an NBA fan. Who are some of the draft prospects people should be watching for?
DV: “I think the diaper dandies. I think the freshman class is terrific. I know a lot of people have, right up there, Markelle Fultz to be the first pick. Well, his team didn’t make it to the tournament, but he definitely is a kid who can score. The guys I really loved, and guys maybe I’m a little biased because I’ve seen him play, I love the kid, certainly, Tatum. I think Tatum from Duke has such an incredible future. Can shoot, can shake, can handle, runs really well, great in transition. I love Josh Jackson from Kansas. He’s Mr. Versatility, can do it all. I like Lonzo Ball from UCLA. I love what he does. I wish his father would not put so much pressure on the kid to come out, saying he’s better than Stephen Curry right now. All these crazy statements, just crazy. All it does is put pressure of the kid, but he’s legit. He makes people better around him, he really does, so I think the freshman class. When you look at that class I think they’re going to make a big impact in the draft, especially you’ve got the two kids from Kentucky — De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk — big time talents.”
N.C. Central vs. UC Davis
Providence vs. Southern Cal, late
(games involving state teams)
East: Florida (24-8) vs. ETSU (27-7) at Orlando, 3:10 p.m.
West: Florida State (25-8) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) at Orlando, 9:20 p.m.