With the Alabama Crimson Tide's BCS Championship over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, there was a major shift in the Capital One Cup standings given to the most successful college programs in the nation -- on the women's side of things, Arizona has five points thanks to the cross-country team.
ESPN's Rece Davis, an Alabama graduate, is on the Capital One board of advisors. Also on the committee is former Arizona softball star Jennie Finch, who we talked with this summer. On Wednesday, we got some time with Davis, who chatted with us about needed changes in college basketball, the national landscape this season and the Capital One Cup.
Kevin Zimmerman: What's your involvement in the Capital One Cup, and what type of touring stuff are you doing right now?
Rece Davis: It's something I've been involved with for a few years, I'm actually very proud of it.
It's a great thing because fans love nothing more than to be able to brag that they have the best program. We give them an avenue not only to keep up with the mainstream sports ... but through the Capital One Cup, they also know that cross-country is an impact, tennis has an impact, gymnastics has an impact -- whatever that it is they follow.
Stanford (women) and Florida (men) had it the last few years. I think the most important reason I'm involved in this is that Capital One has decided to give $400,000 in scholarship money to the winning university. And we talk all the time about how athletics should be an avenue to allow people to better themselves both as an athlete and as a person.
The thing is, the standings are competitive. People like competition. It's a tangible way to be able to say, 'We won' other than in just one sport. Somebody out West, especially on the women's side, has got to get ahold of Stanford. Somebody's got to get a hold of Florida (men).
KZ: Just as far as your job, how do you fit this in and all of your duties as analyst. How do you split up your time?
RD: It always has to fold into into what your job is; it really dovetails in pretty nicely. Those of us who cover college sports appreciate the larger picture and the opportunities that these young men and women have. It's not a difficult process to find time to be involved. It's something I have a passion for. I have a son who aspires to be a college athlete so it's something we find to be very important.
KZ: Obviously in Arizona, we're very basketball-centric. What have you seen in the college basketball world, a game that stands out or something that you've covered that surprises you this early?
RD: I think that I'm a little bit surprised about how good Duke is. I thought they'd be good, I think they're a lot better than I thought. I thought (Mason) Plumlee has improved.
From your standpoint, I think that the play of Mark Lyons, I don't know if it's surprised me, but I think it's helped transform a very deep and talented team that Sean (Miller) has that I think is a national championship contender. I've thought for quite some time that Sean is one of the best young coaches in the country. I think this is the year that Arizona breaks through. Look, I know Derrick Williams was there and they had a great run and everything, but I think this is the year where you see Arizona in that mix every single season. I think they've got a great chance to go to the Final Four, perhaps win a national championship.
KZ: Do you think that, from your being around a while, there's been a change kind of, especially Calipari at Kentucky, where he's bringing in not just one big recruit but a horde of guys, and from guard to center they just kind of play team ball? Has that changed a little bit from the past?
RD: You know, I think that what Cal has done is he's taken full advantage - rightfully so - of the system that's in place. The thing that he's shown these guys, is, "You know what, you don't have to go to a place and be the only guy and score 26 points a game to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft."
I don't have the stats on hand, but I think Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were fourth and fifth in shot attempts for Kentucky last year. It didn't seem to hurt their draft stock. I think what Cal has been able to show them, is you can have the best of both. You can develop your game, you can win, you can be a college star and you can still get drafted. And you can go quickly if that's what you choose to do. I think it's changed but I think in order for other programs to follow the model, you have to have a Kentucky-like existence. There are very few of those programs as far as support, resources financially - by that I mean recruiting budgets and facilities, things of that nature.
Who wouldn't want to go and play in a packed area home or away? When you go around the conference in SEC this year, it's down, it's bad as far as a basketball conference ... comparatively speaking as far as some years. If Kentucky goes to Ole Miss, for instance, and Ole Miss is pretty good this year so maybe it's a bad example. But if Kentucky goes to any road venue and that particular fanbase is not excited about that team, never fear. Big Blue comes in and buys up all the tickets and the arena is full anyway. I think it's kind of a unique system in college basketball that Calipari has taken full advantage of.
KZ: Going back to Anthony Davis, it seems like this year there's not one guy that's outright dynamic, you could say. With that, it's kind of like there's not one team that stands out. There are a lot of very good teams, but there's not one that's a definite favorite.
RD: I would totally agree with that, but it's one of those things - being totally honest - we have to address in college basketball. It's a great sport and we love it, but a lot of the sporting public who aren't just hardcore, follow-every-dribble-of-the-ball in college basketball, it's become too much of a one-month sport. Everything is geared toward March.
People don't become familiar with the stars as much ... for instance last year, Anthony Davis had a strong reputation, it wasn't until January or February where he really started to catch a national buzz. Part of it was because he was a unique player, part of it was his unibrow so he was certainly distinctive in his appearance - some people would go, "Oh the unibrow guy who blocks all the shots." He became a must-see kind of guy, but he didn't do it until late in the season. One thing that would help the sport is to help generate the interest in the early part of the season.
I hear a lot of people say, "Well, the regular-season games don't mean enough because so many teams get into the tournament." The same thing could be argued for the NBA, but when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing, you don't want to miss that. I think we can do the same thing in college basketball.
Probably, that would take some fairly-dramatic change; when the seasons starts, how the schedule plays out. I've been an advocate of pushing the start of college basketball until later in the calender year. I'm not sure I'm totally on board with making it a one-semester sport as some people have advocated. I would like to see them not play games in college basketball until after the college football (conference) championship weekend. There's a little bit of lull at the end of the college football season.
Jay Bilas, my buddy on College GameDay, has advocated maybe a big national tournament, like a 16-team elimination type of event to start the season with what would be deemed by somebody the best 16 teams in the nation. Right now, with the scattered starting date, the season sort of sneaks up on you. You look up and everybody is focused on NFL playoffs and the college football season, and you look up and Arizona is 14-0. Everybody's seen them a little, but they're roughly halfway through their schedule and they really haven't had a chance to dive into the Wildcats yet.
RD: Burke and Michigan have been the ones who, I wouldn't say surprised me because I saw him play a lot last year -- we had GameDay up there against Ohio State -- but I think the way he's lifted his game and lifted that team ... I will admit in the preseason to being more skeptical than some of Michigan. They have certainly proven me wrong. Not that I didn't think they'd be good, I thought they'd be good, but you're starting to look at a team now that could be a great one. Oladipo is great, (Cody) Zeller is a great player ...
I'll tell you another guy and his stats aren't overwhelming ... but Quinn Cook at Duke has been greater than expected, and Mason Plumlee has been much more consistent this year and much more of a consistent offensive force, particularly.
KZ: Going to perception: What's the deal with the Pac-12 on the East Coast? Do you feel as sorry for us over there as we feel for us?
RD: The Pac-12 just needs some breakthrough teams nationally. The traditional power programs in the Pac-12 need to be really, really good. Those two teams in my judgment are UCLA, from their history obviously, and Arizona. When those two teams are good, they carry the conference along with them.
I'll throw out a football analogy since I'm coming off football. People have SEC teams, they say, "Well, the SEC, I'm tired of hearing about it." But why have they won? Why have they won seven straight championships, why have they won nine of the 15 BCS titles? Every SEC won with that big game with the exception of when they played each other last year (LSU vs. Alabama).
Because it matters, and they put resources and time and effort into it being great. Because of that, there's a level of competition that I have to aspire to be the best I can be and be better than the top team, which is also in my league. A standard of excellence is set. To draw to a Pac-12 basketball analogy, UCLA and Arizona are the two best teams to do that. They set the standard of excellence and the other programs have to commit to doing whatever it takes ...
Davis and College GameDay will be calling the Arizona-UCLA game at renovated Pauley Pavilion on March 2.