LAS VEGAS--We may not be able to hear him calling any of the NCAA Tournament games, but that does not mean Dick Vitale is cruising idly through March Madness.
“I spoke to Steve Alford last night.” He dropped that line into our conversation Thursday, more in the context of the biggest game on the Sweet 16 marquee – UCLA’s date Friday night with Kentucky.
But almost in the same breath, Dickie V looked ahead.
“Take it to the bank,” he said. “If Indiana offers its coaching job to Steve Alford, he’s going home. There’s no doubt in my mind. None. It’s just a matter if they will offer the job. There’s a big buyout involved. He was Mr. Basketball in high school (at Chrysler in New Castle, Indiana). His father coached there for 30 years. His father, mom, brother and his wife’s parents still live there. He’s an Indiana kid who led Bobby Knight’s club to the national title in ’87.”
That is not just some guy with a microphone making a guess off the top of his head. Remember what he said. “I spoke to Steve Alford.” There is incomparable credibility there, because nobody works the college-basketball beat like Dick Vitale. He has great contacts, and he is talking to people all the time. That is what his strength is – a strength that is far too easy to take for granted alongside his charisma and enthusiasm.
I have worked with a lot of people, but no one ever came to an event with more energy than Dick Vitale. It is amazing at his age. When I walked into an arena with him, he was the pied piper of basketball. Everywhere he went the students would want to have their picture taken with Dickie V. It was unlike anything in the world. He has truly done a remarkable job, and at 77 he is still going strong.
I made sure to ask Dick his thoughts about the Sweet 16. This is what he had to say before Thursday’s games about some of the teams now left in the NCAA Tournament.
UCLA vs. Kentucky
“It is the sexy matchup. The point-guard play is going to be dazzling. Whoever does the best job defensively in transition and stopping the running game will win, because UCLA wants to get up and down the floor, and they score as well as anyone. In the first two games they’ve only turned the ball over nine times. That’s unbelievable. Lonzo Ball is for real. He’s one of the top three in the draft. I wish his father would quiet down making all these rash, crazy statements that he’s better than Stephen Curry now. I think it’s sad in a way putting that kind of pressure on that kid.
“On the other side you look at Kentucky. Those diaper dandies De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are going to be in the top seven of the NBA Draft. To beat John Calipari twice in a year is tough. UCLA beat him in a shootout 97-92 in Lexington, which is a rarity. Calipari has a way of motivating and inspiring, and I think we will see them possibly survive and Kentucky move on.”
“The ’Zags to me are legitimate. All the naysayers out there scream and yell, ‘Who did they play?’ Call up the Gators of Florida and ask them about Gonzaga. I did the game. Call Iowa State, who won the Big 12 title. I did that game. Call up Saint Mary’s who took Arizona right to the wire; Gonzaga beat them three times. They’ve got a deep backcourt – Nigel Williams-Goss can play – and they’ve got size. Remember this name: Zach Collins. He’s 7’0”. He comes off the bench for Gonzaga. He is going to be a star. Not good; a star in the NBA. He has become a major, major player for the Gonzaga ’Zags.”
On South Carolina and coach Frank Martin
“Frank is an intense competitor, and he’s done an amazing job. What they did in the second half really blew my mind against Duke. I don’t want to hear cries that ‘they had the home court.’ Oh, really? How many times have North Carolina and Duke had home courts playing in Greensboro the first two rounds? The bottom line is they won, and they’re out there now and competing.”
On Kansas playing in Kansas City
“Fan support is great, but this time of year you have got to have players. And they have got players. I firmly believe that their backcourt is the best backcourt in basketball. I’m not just talking Frank Mason and (Devonté) Graham. I’m factoring in Josh Jackson. If I had a look at the draft, he’d be one of the top three players. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind. He’s that talented. But they lack size inside in terms of any depth.”
Full disclosure: Dick thought Xavier would lose to Arizona. But who didn’t? He was not alone in being wrong about the Musketeers, who wound up beating their old coach Sean Miller in Thursday night’s huge upset. “They’re playing without a lottery selection. They lost point guard Edmond Sumner to a knee injury in the middle of the year. He is that good of a player. But Chris Mack can coach.”
As he broke down the Sweet 16, Mr. College Basketball sounded nearly as excited as he gets during games – the way he has for 38 seasons on ESPN. With his energy, enthusiasm and passion – and let’s not forget his insight and knowledge – Dick Vitale has meant more to college basketball for nearly four decades than anybody I know. It is no wonder he is a Hall of Famer.
The only thing is he kissed me three times when I retired from calling games, and I have only been able to get one back on him. He never changes, and I love him to death.
Here is something else you may not know about Dick Vitale. He is one of the few guys who I have ever worked with who never took a drink. Never. When I asked him about it one night, he simply answered, “Can you imagine me if I drank?”
That’s Dickie V.