Jay Bilas May Just Be the Coolest Guy in College Basketball

Dick Vitale’s favorite expressions will be ringing in our ears for the next decade, but his successor is worthy of the mic.
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Dick Vitale’s favorite expressions will be ringing in our ears for the next decade, but his successor is worthy of the mic.
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Last night, Duke and North Carolina played the kind frenetic, up-and-down, ball-going-through-the-net college basketball game that’s become increasingly rare in the age of defensive wizardry. Buoyed by five extra minutes of overtime, both teams scored more than 90 points, bettering their season averages by double digits. Duke shot 50% from the field, UNC shot 45% and the crowd of 9,300 Dookies was a raging inferno, punctuating each big play with another burst of flames.  

So why devote hundreds of words to two bald, white men, one of whom wasn’t even at the game? Because those bald, white men are Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas, and last night’s game represented the end of an era for the former, the beginning of an era for the latter, and first time since Vitale began working the Tobacco Road rivalry for ESPN in 1979 that fans were able to watch the game without their TVs muted.

There were no “BAYBEEES” last night. No labored alliteration, no tangents about this weekend’s Academy Awards, no over-the-moon hyperbole. Anyone who’s watched a game Vitale has worked in the past decade knows these are his crutches. Even his fans, who’ve come out waving pitchforks in light of Bilas’s promotion into ESPN’s prime time analyst’s chair, admit it. In a piece calling the Worldwide Leader’s move “a disgrace,” USA Today admits Vitale had “slipped in recent years.”

But we’re not here to bash Vitale, who was nothing if not a victim of his own success. Let’s speak instead of Bilas, the Jezzy-loving former lawyer whose subdued brand of substance-heavy analysis, more professor than mascot, was on fine display last night. The former Duke big man broke plays down with clarity and precision. At one point he called for UNC to stop shooting jumpers and go inside to big man Brice Johnson. They immediately did and Johnson immediately scored. At another he praised Tarheel Kennedy Meeks for sealing off his man after getting good post position. Neither comment took uncanny insight or special powers of observation, but after decades of Vitale, hearing an analyst analyze the game was a special treat.

Bilas wasn’t on topic all night. But unlike Vitale, who has a habit of wandering so far off topic that he’s got to be lassoed back into the game by the play-by-play man, Bilas stayed in his lane. One moment that stood out came when he described the legacy of former UNC head coach Dean Smith, who died last week. “An amazing champion on the court and a champion of social justice off of it. He cast a very long shadow on the game of basketball and we’ll never see his like again,” Bilas said. No doubt Vitale would have equaled Bilas’ sentiment, but without all those pesky syllables.

As on point as Bilas was when talking last night, it was a moment when he said nothing that stood out the most. It was the end of overtime. The Heels, down two, had a chance to tie or take the lead. Instead, J.P. Tokoto missed a baseline jumper, Duke rebounded the miss and Bilas said, “That’s not the shot they wanted. Tokoto has got to attack.” Then he shut up. For 20 seconds. The Duke crowd went bananas. Senior guard Quinn Cook encouraged it to go bananas-er. It was the kind of joyous mayhem that makes college basketball unique in modern American sports. And because, for the first time since 1979, the analyst wasn’t yelling about how “sensational” it all was, we got to hear everything.

Photos by Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images