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College Basketball Prepares for Final Four

Aired April 5, 2014 - 14:30   ET


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST: Welcome to north Texas. We are at AT&T Stadium, site of the 2014 Final Four. In the next half hour you are going to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest events of the year, the coaches, the players, the emotion of an event that seems to grip the entire country. This is CNN all-access at the Final Four.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kentucky takes the final spot!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We can't have a bad night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're playing seven freshmen. I don't know if that's ever been done before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wisconsin is headed to the Final Four.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In disbelief, we're going to be one of the Final Four teams.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because they say, things are big in Texas!



NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols along with two-time NCAA champ, Duke's finest, Grant Hill and Clark Kellogg, who took Ohio State to the tourney twice back in the day, MVP of the big ten conference. Are you guys getting that old feeling back being in the building here?


CLARK KELLOGG, FORMER COLLEGE BASKETBALL PLAYER: I would think Grant certainly, because he played in multiple Final Fours. But it does bring you back to the days when you were a player in this event, even though it's grown tremendously since the '80s when I played in it.

NICHOLS: Grant, we might put you on the court here. Be careful.


NICHOLS: Let's take a look at the final schedule on TBS. We have three hours pregame coverage starting when it's over at 3:00 p.m. Then at 6:00 p.m. Florida and Connecticut tip off in the first semi- final, and then 8:30 it's Wisconsin versus Kentucky. All of that is followed up by inside March Madness presented by Buick. So a lot of coverage, a lot to talk about. You guys played in this tournament, so take me inside. This is a huge day. What are the players and coaches feeling like right now?

KELLOGG: Well, right now the players are definitely nervous. They've worked all season to get to this point, to play on this stage, to play ultimately for a championship. And so they want to hurry up and get this game started. They want to get out there and calm their nerves, get on between the line, start playing, and so they're ready, they're fired up. But they are a little nervous right now anticipation for this great moment.

HILL: Agree 100 percent. I like to go around and listen to the players as they interact with the media. And you can tell they are anxious for game time to get here. All the preparation has been done for the most part. They'll fine tune some of the details, but they're anxious to get out here and do what they love doing, which is performing basketball.

NICHOLS: This is hardly just for basketball fans. The NCAA tournament has really grown into this American cultural event, kind of like the Super Bowl in that it extends way beyond the worlds of sports. So far March Madness television ratings are at the highest in more than 20 years. We have the president of the United States filling out a bracket on TV, grandmothers and their office pools. What do you think makes it so compelling, this tournament?

HILL: The tournament is amazing. I first fell in love with the game of basketball because of this NCAA tournament. But great plays, the storylines that emerge each year, the upsets. This Final Four, to me, embodies everything that's great. You have experience, great guys, so many storylines. The fact that you if lose, you go home. And it's just fascinating to me. And every year, regardless who's there, I enjoy and have a great time following it.

KELLOGG: I think there are so many levels of engagement that general public is able to participate in. You talk about the players and coaches, by extension, their families and their institutions. But also you talk about alumni basis that galvanize around the tournament. There are fan bases for all those teams. And then the bracketology. That plays a huge role that engages people that may not even be basketball fans but they love the fun of being able to win whatever it might be they're trying to win by picking the bracket. And then you've got the surprises, as Grant indicated, the stories. You know they're coming. You know they're going to be heartening. You just don't know when and from where they will come.

NICHOLS: We have great story lines beyond just the x's and o's this year. And one is this perceived battle for the soul of college basketball, right? You got the Florida model, the four seniors playing together, the whole greater than the sum of their parts, and the high-flying Kentucky team that starts five freshmen, all likely one and done. They plan on only playing at the school one year and bolting, declaring for the NBA draft. It's an example of two very different approaches to try to win this thing. And the man at the center of that storm is Kentucky coach John Calipari. I sat down with him this week to get this take.


JOHN CALIPARI, COLLEGE BASKETBALL COACH: At the end of day, if I'm doing right by these kids, and we're trying to make them the best version of themselves as a player, as a person, and at the end of the year they have the opportunity to be one, two, three, seven, 12 in the draft, I am not going to try to convince them to stay. "Well, you're ruining college basketball." It's not my role. But I do know this -- if that young man came back and something happened to him, I couldn't live with myself.


NICHOLS: That's the personnel side of it at Kentucky, but what about in the bigger sense? I mean, can this model actually win this tournament, because you've got a bunch of guys without any experience at all?

KELLOGG: Well, certainly Coach Calipari and Kentucky have done it before. Two years ago won the big tournament here, and won the championship. But he really has embraced the rules and done a great job.

NICHOLS: Seven freshmen this year? He is way further than a couple years ago.

HILL: He has brought those freshmen on well. Early on, it looked like they were struggling, Calipari, in press conferences, his behavior on the bench, that he lost it. But he brought these guys along. They've grown up. They won impressively to get here to the Final Four, and I do think they could win it.

KELLOGG: I agree wholeheartedly. I think there's enough admirable to both models. Everybody can't do what Kentucky has done under John Calipari. Is he serving those young men while they're there? Is he helping them become their very best on and off the court? And even if they do leave after a year or two, that doesn't necessarily denigrate the way he's done it.

Is it good for college basketball? I think it's neutral. I don't necessarily think it's good or bad. This is one way and there's enough to add mire in the four seniors and that group of Billy Donovan's team and there's enough to admire about how John Calipari and his young freshman have come together to play championship caliber basketball, too.

NICHOLS: We'll see how it all works out.

Straight ahead, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie tells how he and his team saw their Final Four future months ago, up next on the CNN all-access at the Final Four.


NICHOLS: The entire north Texas region pulling out all the stops for the Final Four. The fan experience here, second to none, but, hey, if you can't be here, the next best thing is being with us. We are going behind the scenes with everyone you want to hear from. That includes former UConn player turned head coach Kevin Ollie. Ollie inherited a program that was carrying an NCAA tournament ban. He always had a vision of restoring the program to its past glory. And earlier this season he made his players see it as well. The huskies were on a road trip here in Texas, and Ollie, who is a Cowboys fan, by the way, brought his team to AT&T stadium. Here's what he told me.


KEVIN OLLIE, UCONN BASKETBALL COACH: We just wanted to have a vision of where we wanted to be as a team at the end of the season. And it was a dark time. You know, we lost to Houston, which is a great team, and then had three or four days at SMU. But hat didn't matter. I knew he wasn't going to stay there as a team and ultimately our goal was to get back here. I wanted them to walk around close their eyes and envision they could be here if they worked hard and stayed together. Of course we're here. We have two more games hopefully we can play and we're going to continue to do what we don on a day-to-day basis and that's play for each other.


NICHOLS: "Bleacher Report" has an interesting article about Kevin Ollie losing his status as an elite coach. It wasn't easy. Remember, his predecessor retired so suddenly due to health reasons the school only gave Ollie a seven-month contract. Gym memberships are longer, right? Ollie has taken the opportunity and he has proved himself. Don't you think?

KELLOGG: Without question. I don't know why they were hesitant to give him a full-term contract initially, because he brings all of the ingredients you want to see in a coach that can be successful. High character, tremendous basketball pedigree and resume, and also the kind of coaches that he spent time with during his career, I don't think it was a question amongst those who know Kevin and know basketball that he would be successful. It was just a matter of when, not if. He's been terrific.

HILL: I agree with Clark. First of all, not everyone wants to go after a hall of famer and follow him, but he's the right person, the right personality to follow there at UConn. I admire Kevin from afar. I had a chance to compete against him for a number of years in the NBA. Now he's gotten this chance. I've been impressed what he's shown in a quick amount of time is that he's a great leader, a great teacher. He's inspiring, and he has these guys playing great basketball. And no one really picked him to be here earlier in the year as he said.

KELLOGG: They are the most surprising of the four teams here, I would say. And certainly a lot of that goes to coach Kevin Ollie.

NICHOLS: You bring up the NBA. He played for 13 years. He was not an all-star, definitely a role player. But he was often brought into teams to mentor younger players, LeBron James, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. How do you think experience helped him become this coach we're seeing here?

KELLOGG: Invaluable, Rachel, when you talk about his life experiences in the game, as a player, as you mentioned, not a standout, but always brought value to his teams. He actually spent time with the Indiana Pacers, played with Reggie Miller, and I broadcasted for that team for a number of years and continued to work for the Pacers. So I got a chance to know Kevin then. And his character is impeccable, his ability to communicate and lead and inspire, top of the charts.

So when you have that, those attributes, and it's your alma mater and you have passion and been around the people he's been around in the game, it's almost impossible -- you still don't know, because you have to do it, but it's almost impossible not to have yourself positioned for some success.

NICHOLS: And Grant, you know that he's telling those kids, well, LeBron wouldn't take this playoff. KD wouldn't, right?

HILL: Without a doubt. What he brings to the table is credibility. He was a great college point guard on great teams, UConn years ago. And of course playing in the NBA, playing on a number of teams, different coaches, he's been there. He's been to the level that these kids aspire to get to. And I think that helps when he's in the dark moments, what he mentioned. We can help lead and inspire these kids and it's translated as we see them in the Final Four.

NICHOLS: Plus played for half a dozen coaches, so he's got all the tricks, like bring the kids to the stadium. He knows everything. It's great.

All right, coming up we are going to talk Wisconsin and the emotional journey of their coach, Bo Ryan. But first, you have to check out the party going on in the Badgers locker room after advancing to the Final Four.




NICHOLS: Welcome back to north Texas, and AT&T stadium, site of the 2014 Final Four. You know, it's not easy getting here. Coach Bo Ryan's Badgers made the tournament in each of his 13 years as Wisconsin's head coach, but this is the first time they broke through to the Final Four. And it's a bittersweet moment, because the man who Ryan would most like to share it with is his father Butch, who died last summer at the age of 89. Butch and Bo used to come to the Final Four as fans. In fact, made a tradition out of it for 38 straight years starting in 1976, and Bo opened up to me on the conversations they would have while watching the games.


BO RYAN, COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEAD COACH: We had talked about, you know, would say, when the heck are you going to get a team? He didn't say it that way. It was like, boy, wouldn't it be nice to have one of your teams play? Wouldn't you like to coach in one of these? Dad, yes, I certainly would. And he passed away at the end of August, and this is the year we get to the Final Four.


NICHOLS: Guys, obviously, very touching, but also a little bit of emotional weight for his team. Players have said we want to win this one for Bo. What is that like as a team, carrying that? Does it help you? Hurt you?

KELLOGG: It's interesting. When I see that story it reminds me back in 1992. We had obviously won the championship in 1991 and the trainer we had at Duke, who was really legendary, had been there 40 years, passed away that summer. And not that you always need inspiration or motivation to win, but we kind of rallied around each other and, let's win it for Max. Max Crowder was a great trainer.

And certainly the connection between Bo and his father, and his father was a great coach in his own right, the apple certainly doesn't fall far from the tree with them. But that sometimes can rally a team, and it's amazing, different things that can happen throughout the course of the season that get a team all on the board together, and certainly it seems that's what happened with Wisconsin.

HILL: We can't control how life unfolds for us. Obviously, it's a very emotional and touching story to hear that Bo and his dad were extremely close, spent time here, and now the time that Bo is here, his dad's not able to share it with him. And yet there is always something redeemable even in our most difficult times, and that very well could be the case with this group.

Jim Harris won the championship back in 1995 with the UCLA team talking about how important it is for teams that become champions to endure some type of adversity as a team that they weather and go through, and sometimes it can be something as difficult as this that emotionally inspires and galvanizes a group to do something really special for themselves and each other.

And I don't know if there's any coach that's in this Final Four that's being cheered for more than Bo Ryan, not just because of what he's gone through in his personal life, but because you how he represents the coaching profession since he's been a head coach over 30 years.

NICHOLS: And people talk about him being a rookie here at the Final Four. But don't forget, he's a four-time Division IV champion, and we're seeing that in the way he runs his practices out here, right, when we've been watching the guys?

KELLOGG: He's one of the very best, Rachel. He does it the way you would like to see a coach teach the game, demanding, fair, develops his players and moves them to, close to their potential while they're with him. You can't ask for a lot more than that from a head basketball coach.

HILL: Yes, I agree. If I had a son, I would love for him to play for coach Bo Ryan. His teams play the right way. His players represent himself and the university in a professional, wonderful manner. And he just does it right. He deserves to be here and certainly the rest of the world, the country, will be following and watching and hoping that he does well.

NICHOLS: And we know about Bo Ryan, he tells his kids, if you need to miss practice to concentrate more on school, I want you to do that, which is not something we hear often at this level of the game, so pretty impressive.

KELLOGG: Very much so.

NICHOLS: All right, don't go away. Coming up next, we will show you what the NCAA tournament is really all about, the highs, the low, the emotion that has us all transfixed by these games.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unbelievable what these dudes believe about each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The greatest professional week of my life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got a front row seat to one of the best performances in the history of college basketball.



NICHOLS: Welcome back. We're at the stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play, but not this weekend. I am here with Grant Hill and Clark Kellogg, and we're just hours away from the tip-off of the Final Four. We'll get to the guys' predictions in just a minute. But first, it has been thrilling getting to north Texas. Here are some of the most unforgettable moments.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have to come together in a way you haven't all year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not a birthright to be in a tournament. You got to bring your game, not your name.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ball game! It's first-ever NCAA tournament win.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Double-teamed, destruction. Dynamite!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Duke in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Unbelievable what these dudes believe about each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the matchup everyone's been waiting to see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The season has come to an end.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even though we lost, we still lost as a team. This is hard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Only the greatest professional week of my life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got a front row seat to one of the best performances in the history of college basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Damn. God, this is going to be national, huh?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Florida Gators are going to the Final Four!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is nothing like the opportunity to play in March Madness.


NICHOLS: And, of course, a lot more incredible moments will unfold this afternoon on TBS. A quick reminder, coverage starts at 3:00 p.m. At 6:00 p.m. you have Florida versus Connecticut, Wisconsin versus Kentucky after that. No one watches games on one screen anymore, right guys? So "Bleacher Report" has the social stream going on, kicking out the real-time highlights, the instant updates, all the best stuff of Twitter, and you can get hooked up on that on They can't tell you who is going to win. That's why we got you here. So who's going to win?

KELLOGG: I have Florida beating UConn, I have Kentucky beating Wisconsin, a rematch of the SEC conference finals, and Kentucky will win it all.

HILL: Wow, interesting. I have Florida prevailing against UConn. I've got Wisconsin surprising Kentucky. A rematch of a Florida- Wisconsin game that Wisconsin won earlier in the season. Florida gets revenge and payback. Florida, your national champion.

NICHOLS: Wow, so you've got the young guns, and you've got the old school seniors. We'll see what happens. We will all be watching tonight to see if you guys are right. I know a few people out there with brackets who will be watching as well.

That is it for us here at AT&T Stadium. For Grant Hill and Clark Kellogg, I'm Rachel Nichols. Enjoy the games.