clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Deconstructing Jay Bilas

New, comments

You can't miss them, scattered throughout The Cats Pause and other bulletin boards -- the, "Jay Bilas is disrespecting us" threads.

Jay Bilas has become a UK fan favorite over the years because of a perception of relatively unbiased analysis of the University of Kentucky.  I frankly think Bilas does a good job overall, and generally does avoid the bizarrely uninformed offal Seth Davis substitutes for objective reasoning, the unchecked hyperbole of Dick Vitale and the perceived (deservedly, in my opinion) ACC bias of Billy Packer.

But this year, Bilas has run afoul of the Big Blue Nation, pervasively arguing for Kentucky's exclusion from the NCAA tournament in spite of the Wildcats' success in the second half of the season.  Many Kentucky fans are now accusing Bilias of revealing his ACC bias (Bilas is a Duke University graduate), and a few have just decided he has joined the rest of the world against UK.  Recently, Bilas defended his position against Kentucky in an "Insider" article on ESPN.  Since ESPN Insider is a subscription site, I will not quote from the article, but I will summarize Bilas' points (you'll just have to trust me that I am fairly representing him) and respond to them point by point.

  1. Bilas argues that Kentucky's close losses should not be considered without also considering the fact that many of Kentucky's wins are close wins.  He also argues that the objective standard should be winning, not the manner of losses.

    This one is relatively easy to dispose of.  When analyzing a team's performance, it is virtually always done from the perspective of "a win is a win, and losses are shades of gray."  Why do we do this?  Primarily because we are making a case for inclusion, not exclusion.  For example, when we are trying to include Kentucky among the nation's 65 best teams, we are looking at it from an affirmative viewpoint.  That means close wins count for inclusion, not against, and close losses also count for inclusion.

    Bilas, however, is arguing the inverse.  He thinks Kentucky should be excluded, so he is arguing from that viewpoint.  However, even if you accept that reasoning, and even though many of Kentucky's losses have been "scoreboard close," the vast majority were won by UK getting or holding on to the lead late, and teams making huge shots in the waning seconds to get the game close.  Contrast that to the possibility that UK won them by making a huge last-second shot that won the game.  The latter argues for a mediocre team holding the game close and then lucking out at the last second.  The former argues for toughness, grit and savvy.

    So if Bilas wants to go down this path, he can't ignore this, and the manner of Kentucky's wins clearly argues more strongly for inclusion than against.  Bilas is trying to raise a strawman under the dual rubric of fairness and objectivity that simply can't withstand the application of logic.  But in reality, the closer you examine both the close wins and close losses, they do not argue for Kentucky's exclusion.  Bilas is absolutely right about one thing, though -- the objective standard is winning.

  2. Bilas says that the argument that, "It's not Kentucky's fault they are in a weaker conference and have played few top 40 RPI teams" is bogus.

    He is right.  In this case, though, he has again raised a strawman, but this time he dashed it asunder himself.  Nobody I know of has made this argument to begin with.  Kentucky's record in the SEC must stand by itself, and the fact is that the SEC, by RPI, is the fourth toughest league in the land.  Obviously, they are down from the #1 or #2 they have been for so many recent years, but that is what it is.

    So those who would argue that Kentucky has won the right to be included by virtue of it's 11 SEC wins would seem to have a solid case.  Bilas may not agree that the SEC contests that Kentucky has won are worthy of a positive impression compared with others.  However, Kentucky has beaten two of the top three teams in this fourth toughest conference.  The Wildcat's losses have been to four of the top teams in the league on the road, not against its weakest members or at home.

    Bilas is entitled to the opinion that 11-4 in the SEC is not as tough as 6-6 in the Pac 10, but if winning is the only "objective standard," how can he square this perception with his earlier comment?

  3. Bilas argues that the evaluation of a team's last 12 games is stupid.  He says Kentucky's 10-2 against the SEC is not as impressive as Arizona's 6-6 in its last 12.

    For the first part of his argument that examining the last 12 games is "stupid," all I can say is, "Wow."  Bilas isn't known for engaging in this type of hyper-judgmental argumentation, and to find him doing it here is very strange and a bit disconcerting, much as his earlier tirade against the RPI was.  Where he gets off substituting his judgment for that of others who have been doing this longer than he has been out of high school is beyond me. 

    The selection committee has historically looked very closely at how teams finish, and the reasons for that scrutiny are manifold and solidly grounded in logic.  Teams very often do not reach their peak performance until late in the season.  Would you have judged Louisville last year by how they started the season?  If so, Bilas' argument would have excluded a team that clearly deserved to be in the tournament, and rightly was included.  Bilas is simply mistaken in this assertion.  Yes, he is entitled to his opinion, but I think the preponderance of evidence would suggest that Bilas' conclusion is simply wrong.

    Moving along to which "last 12" is more impressive, we find here another case of Bilas' inconsistency.  He tells us in #1 above two things - losses don't argue in favor of a team, close or otherwise, and that winning is the only objective measurement.  I think the incongruency in this claim is transparently obvious.  Here, he tells us that, not only is it "stupid" to examine the last 12 games of the season closely, but that wins aren't as important as the competition teams play.

    But even if we concede Bilas' argument that Arizona has won against more impressive teams in the same stretch, what about it's losses to Washington (RPI 104) and Arizona State (RPI 72).  These are the type teams that Kentucky has not lost to in the last 12 games.  And if winning is the objective standard ...

  4. Bilas argues that Kentucky has not won on the road against an RPI 145 team or greater, and that it has a very narrow margin of victory against the teams it has beaten.  He argues a lot of teams have done better, and should be considered ahead of Kentucky.

    First of all, the margin of victory argument is a silly one.  The RPI doesn't take margin into consideration for a very good reason, and I think is a very questionable standard to apply.  Does anyone really believe that Florida dusting Vanderbilt at the O-dome was anything other than a bad game by a good team?  Given Kentucky's record, I'm not sure you can make exactly the same argument about the 41 point Vanderbilt loss, but I do think it is rather more likely than the way Bilas would like to do the math.

    Still, this comes down to little more than an opinion backed up by precious little solid reasoning.  I can't say his opinion is wrong, because it is not really subject to objective refutation, given that he presents very little actual logic to support it, or the reasoning he does supply is transparently flawed.

  5. Finally, Bilas argues that in order to be considered, UK should prove that they can beat a really good team.

    So now Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas are not "really good teams?"  OK, maybe Arkansas is not a "really" good team, but surely they are a good team, and tournament worthy.  What Bilas seems to be saying here is that beating a couple of top 25 teams is not enough, even after running through the conference schedule beating everyone in sight.  Again, that is an opinion and he is entitled to it, but where is the solid logic to support it?  Kentucky has proven that they can beat "really good teams", and the close loss on the road at Tennessee followed up by a home win and a road win is simply validation of the very thing he is clamoring for.

In the final analysis, Bilas simply doesn't think Kentucky is worthy, and his arguments supporting that conclusion are essentially either logic-challenged or just outright opinion based on no defensible reasoning.  That is fine by me.  To his credit and unlike Seth Davis, Bilas at least makes an effort to defend his conclusion, even though most of his arguments are self-defeating or strawmen.  And even though Bilas is unwilling to do the same for Kentucky, I am willing to give him credit for a game effort, even one that falls well short of the mark.