North Carolina’s Kenny Smith took the time to speak with us about broadcasting the NCAA Tournament for the first time, his favorite memories from reaching the Elite Eight three times and the talent disparity between players during his college days and today.
Lost Lettermen: Could you tell us about the Coke Zero Social Arena and what you’re doing with it throughout the tournament?
Kenny Smith: Coke Zero and Turner have combined — the site is powered by Turner. And it’s an interactive site where you can actually watch the games at CokeZeroSocialArena.com and watch the games while at the same time Facebook and Tweet people around the country.
So it’s kind of like an interactive site and the first of its kind that at least I know of. And you can watch and tweet and talk to people and brag about your favorite teams and at the same time there’s a sweepstakes to win tickets to the Final Four.
So it’s a lot of fun and at the same time you can win some tickets.
LL: About the Tournament in in particular, I’d love to get your thoughts on the NCAA committee’s job. I know that all anyone is talking about today is the bubble teams that got their bubbles burst and the controversy of UAB getting in over Virginia Tech and Colorado.
KS: The funny thing is before the selections were made there weren’t many strong cases made for Colorado and Virginia Tech. Granted, I’m from the school of not thinking the kids who made it shouldn’t be there. But there weren’t as many strong cases as there are now that they should be in.
When you put yourself on that bubble it’s unfortunate. But when you put yourself in a position where you haven’t really taken care of all the business you need to, things like this happen. People make mistakes.
LL: I know people were extremely excited to hear that you and Charles Barkley were going to be on the CBS telecast. (Sunday night) you were there with the five guys on set. How do you recreate the chemistry you have on TNT without Ernie Johnson there and just learning on the fly as opposed to being on TNT for 13 years now?
KS: The great thing about it is that it’s still basketball. We don’t have to change our thought process. I think fans will be interested if we have the same viewpoints as we do with NBA basketball; if we analyze college the same way we analyze the NBA. And that’s our job, to bring that to it.
Ernie will be part of the early rounds for the first two weeks. So he’ll be part of that process as well and we’ll have a little bit more of a comfort zone doing it that way.
But we’re excited about it more than anything. This is an opportunity to talk about the kids we would’ve been watching anyway. When the tournament was on we would’ve been out from 12 to 12, our TV would’ve been locked in on these networks. So this will be a fun opportunity.
LL: How do you guys compare and contrast getting ready for the tournament as opposed to the NBA playoffs? A lot of people like that in the NBA playoffs the cream rises to the top over a long series but other people complain that it’s too long and the 1 vs. 8 matches rarely produce upsets whereas in March Madness, that’s what it’s known for.
KS: Well in NBA basketball the best team is going to win. Barring injury, there’s no way you can beat a team four times in a week if you’re not better than them. So the intrigue sometimes doesn’t come until the later rounds.
A couple things about college basketball that make me so passionate about it: There’s so much passion going in different directions. People have either gone to the school or live in the area.
Secondly the kids, this is their only time and for some, their last time they will be on the national stage. Some of these kids won’t play basketball again. So when they lose a game, that hurts. Knowing that you’ll never put on a uniform again. That stings more than, “Hey let’s get ‘em next year.”
LL: Now I know your partner Charles Barkley has already stirred things up with his Billy Packer comments. What’s your take on the Billy Packer-Charles Barley beef going on right now?
KS: Well I think Billy said something to the effect of, “How can they do college basketball?” But I was just surprised that Billy Packer was in my house and knew what I was watching (laughs).
We’re excited about it. It’s obvious that you can do both if you do your homework. And our job, especially mine, is to comment factually what happens at the time. So when a team makes a last second shot, I’m going to tell you why they made it, should they have made it, what the defense should’ve done and why they should’ve done it.
I could do that with a third grade basketball game if I’ve never seen the kids play. It’s all about understanding the moment, what Charles and I do and we live in that space and I live in that space all the time. What happens, why you did it and why you shouldn’t have done it.
LL: Are you surprised at the microscope you’ve been under since they announced you guys? There’s always someone like Billy Packer saying how are these guys going to know anything about college hoops when they’re NBA guys and the Xavier coach (Chris Mack) came out and said that you mispronounced the school’s name and got a player’s name wrong.
It seems like there’s a lot of push back from people out there.
KS: I’ve been saying Eggsavier instead of Zavier since I was playing (laughs). So I’ve been doing that for a long time.
LL: Also you’ve talked about the tournament being a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. What are your favorite moments of the Tournament from playing at North Carolina?
KS: The biggest thing that you remember is the competition. Regardless of what’s said and done, it’s a competition and your very first time to get something done on the national stage. And that’s the biggest thing for me. And those are the things that I remember most.
LL: I know that Dean Smith said the ’87 team you were on was one of his best ever. You guys weren’t able to get to the Final Four. You had that epic game in the Elite Eight with Syracuse where you led them back all the way from down 15.
How much do you think about that game and that you weren’t able to experience a Final Four?
KS: Getting to the Elite Eight three times, one thing I’ll always remember is that we were always the victim so to speak. So that means we put in our work from November all the way into March, people respected what we did. It was a one-and-done situation and with a lot of those teams, if we play three or four times, we’re going to get them. But it was a one-and-done situation.
I’ve never looked back and thought, “Man we didn’t give it our all.” Or, “Man I wish we’d win one.” No, we did what we were supposed to do. Any time we lost it became a classic sports game.
LL: Talking to other former North Carolina players, they talk about Dean Smith like he’s their priest. People just hold this guy to such high esteem. What’s your relationship like with Dean Smith and wow much have you kept in touch with over the years?
KS: Before I made a lot of my adult decisions I called him. I thought of him as like a great uncle. I ran a lot of things by him over my career. He’s one of the few people I know that could actually treat everyone the same. If you watched our practices, you wouldn’t know who was the best player and who was the worst player by what he said.
And that’s a great accomplishment I think.
LL: I know college fans everywhere were kind of freaking out when they heard he was having health issues. What is he like today an how can you interact with him?
KS: He’s going though a tough time and we do support him. We don’t exactly talk about what’s going on but we do everything we can to support coach and we just wish him the best and love him to death.
LL: This Carolina team, I know they started off slow and got red hot at the end. I want to talk about Harrison Barnes. Everyone had him as the No. 1 pick, pre-season All-American right off the bat. Then he got labeled a bust right away and then he started tearing it up.
What do you see for him in the tournament and what do you see for his pro potential?
KS: Right now I think he should concentrate on the NCAA. I’m not even going to try and put that pro potential label on him right now. I think that the one thing he’s done and the team has done is that they’ve gotten better every time we’ve seen them.
Another team we’ve seen do that is Kentucky. We’ve seen them do one thing and then we see the improvement just kept coming along. Those are the two teams that have improved the most.
LL: I know that you have Carolina going to to the Final Four because you’re an alum there [Editor's Note: Smith also picked Kansas to win the national title on CBS].
KS: Not only because I’m an alum, I also believe it.
LL: Yes of course. What do you think about their draw possibly getting Washington in the second round. Then being in the same bracket with Ohio State and possibly playing Kentucky. It seems like a pretty treacherous road to get to Houston.
KS: There’s no easy way to the Final Four. If you figure one out I’ll tell every team to do it. There’s no easy bracket. There’s never a bracket that’s more beneficial. There’s going to be upsets, there’s going to be teams that you think will be better that are not even around.
So you can’t look at the brackets and say “This is an easy bracket because …” Because who knows who is going to be there? But I do think that because North Carolina plays multiple styles they can withstand a lot of pressure from a lot of teams.
Same thing about Duke in the West. They have an opportunity to do the same thing. I like Kansas because they can do the same thing as well. And my sleeper team, I figure if one guy is going to get hot and it’s not Jimmer and it’s not Kemba Walker, it’s Jacob Pullen at Kansas State.
I think those are my four teams (in the Final Four) and I’m going to stick with them. I could be wrong, I could be right and I could win the pool.
LL: Last question for you about the parity in college basketball. Can you talk about the talent level compared to when you were playing? It seems like the talent level is just shallow. When you were playing it was you and J.R. Reid and Derrick Coleman and Rony Siekaly. And now you have freshman who are still learning the game, like Harrison Barnes, who are super stars.
KS: Well I think it’s younger, however the talent level has probably changed but the team level hasn’t changed. There aren’t as many great players. I just remember at times there was always an NBA prospect on every team we played. But there are a lot of great teams out there. Coaches who know what they’re doing and make it difficult to run your offense and difficult for you to play against.
So maybe there aren’t a lot of great players because of early entry (into the NBA draft) but still a lot of great teams.