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NCAA Tournament Final Four Preview

Aired April 4, 2014 - 22:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS, it's the NCAA tournament's ultimate weekend. And Rachel has the latest from the coaches and players fighting for college basketball's biggest prize. Kentucky's head coach John Calipari.

JOHN CALIPARI, KENTUCKY BASKETBALL COACH: We're playing seven freshman that are going to go out in front of 75,000, probably pee down their leg, to start the game.

ANNOUNCER: Head coach Bo Ryan of Wisconsin.

BO RYAN, HEAD COACH, WISCONSIN BASKETBALL: It's so exciting to bring a team here. That's how I get excited.

ANNOUNCER: Connecticut's star guard, Shabazz Napier.

SHABAZZ NAPIER, STAR GUARD, CONNECTICUT: I'm just so glad to be back here now. You know, you're so happy you start crying. It's a special moment.

ANNOUNCER: And Florida head coach Billy Donovan.

NAPIER: I think we've been a team that's gotten it done together. The sum of our team is better than its parts.

UNGUARDED is on location from Arlington, Texas.


RACHEL NICHOLS, HOST: Welcome to UNGUARDED. We are at the center of the sports universe this week, and for good reason. There is nothing that grips the country quite like the NCAA tournament. And tonight, we'll get to know the people behind all the pageantry that will play out in this stadium over the next few days.

We start with Kentucky coach John Calipari. As engaging as he is controversial, Calipari has had spectacular success the past three years with teams loaded with one-and-dones, players who only plan to attend one year of college before bolting early for the NBA draft.

This means his group is, by definition, very talented. And very green.


NICHOLS: Three Final Four appearances in four years. So you, who already had experience, have this extreme familiarity with being here. The irony is, the kids on your team are largely freshman and they are having this for the first time. What's this dichotomy like?

CALIPARI: Well, they're listening to me. Because again, I don't want them to make the game bigger than it is. I want them to stay in the moment. And I want them to understand that you get in that game, you lose yourself in the game, you lose yourself in the team. Less is more. That the game is not going to be won or lost in the first five, eight minutes. So just keep playing. Those are things we're trying to get through to them.

But they're all freshman. They're going to go out in front of 75,000 and probably pee down their leg to start the game. We're playing seven freshman. I don't know if that's ever been done before.

NICHOLS: You coached in so many different ways. Did you ever think one of your programs would become the poster child for one-and-done?

CALIPARI: Well, you're right, I've coached senior teams. I've coached freshman teams and middle of the road. I've done all that. And I will tell you, this isn't the ideal situation. This is -- it's a hard deal.

But at the end of the 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 an 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."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the first pick in the 2012 NBA draft, the New Orleans Hornets select Anthony Davis.

CALIPARI: It's not my rule, but I do know this, if that young man came back and something happened to him, I couldn't live with myself.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: One of the things you said recently translating it into outside of basketball, you mentioned Steve Jobs; you mentioned Bill Gates. You said people aren't criticizing that they left school early.

CALIPARI: These kids have a genius now. The genius isn't with the computer. It may not be a business genius, but they have a genius. And part of us is we're like an AP course.

Now none of these kids are ready for the NBA. Our kids just seem to be more ready. So we're proud of what we're doing. We're trying to make them the best version of themselves. I wish this went to two years. Let me tell you why.

NICHOLS: So even though you've benefited the most, you actually want the rule to change?

CALIPARI: Here's why. I think it would be better for high school kids. Because these kids all think they're one-and-done now. I think it would be better for college players, because they'd be more prepared to have success at the next level. NICHOLS: Given that it's not at two years yet and this is the situation that you have to deal with, it's a tough life for you...


NICHOLS: ... to build your program this way. You have to go out and recruit, a handful, maybe more of blue chip recruits. You have to do all of that work. Once they leave, you have to go replenish it again. You have to get a group of freshman, who are just learning about playing this level of basketball, to play together as a team, to play on this level. How is all your hair not gray by now?

CALIPARI: It's very difficult, but let me say this: would anything be more rewarding for you if you knew you're helping families change their lives? You know...

NICHOLS: Is that how you see it?

CALIPARI: Oh, yes. You know generational poverty? How about if you played a part in that ending? And when I say generational, I'm saying the entire existence of their family they've been in poverty, and that has ended going forward.

NICHOLS: There are a lot of challenges, though. Some years it looks like, OK, he's just not going to get this team together in time.

CALIPARI: We almost ran -- we almost ran out of runway this year. We had to land that plane, and it needs to get down with enough runway, and we landed and the nose went right against the fence.

NICHOLS: I mean, it looked in the middle of the season that you guys were struggling. That you weren't going to get your act together.


NICHOLS: You know... What changed? It takes a while to find your way?

CALIPARI: Yes. There's no -- you cannot skip steps in the process. You have to go through the fire to become steel. You have to. You have to get knocked down to really feel what getting up is about. You have to have games where you get knocked around so you can figure out how to fight through. You have to be down so you can come up. You have to be in grind-it-out games. You have to play-in-fast games, zone games. And this team, it's all first-time stuff with them.


NICHOLS: Calipari told me he can't sustain this strategy of loading him team with a new group of freshman every year for much longer. But it's what he has this year, and he's riding it.

All right, after the break, we're going to hear from the coach of Kentucky's opponent, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. With a very heartfelt tribute to the man he most wishes was here in Arlington.


RYAN: It sure would be nice to have him here and my mom, who passed away eight months earlier.



NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols. Welcome back to UNGUARDED on location at the NCAA tournament.

It's not easy getting to the final weekend here. For 13 years, Coach Bo Ryan's Wisconsin teams have made the bracket, but they were never able to advance to this last four, until now.

Of course, just because you can't play doesn't mean you can't watch. And in 1976, Ryan and his dad, Butch, began a wonderful tradition. A father-son road trip every year for 38 straight years to see these games. Butch Ryan died six months ago at the age of 89, and now Bo sits down to talk about finally experiencing what both he and his dad had dreamed of.


NICHOLS: Well, congratulations on reaching your first Final Four. Does it feel like you expected it to feel after watching it all these years?

RYAN: It's a thrill. It is so exciting to be able to bring a team here, to be able to have them experience this on their timeline. It brings goosebumps thinking about the student athlete. That's how it is.

NICHOLS: We have seen such great emotion and celebration from your team, your family, all the supporters around the school. For all the celebrating, I never saw you with a net around your neck or anything like that. How come?

RYAN: I'll tell you the truth about that -- what you're asking. We won a championship in Platteville. I went back to the hotel with the net around my neck, and I ran into the coach of the other team. And I looked down, and here I was talking to the other coach with the net around my neck. And I thought, you know, that probably is not the thing that I should be doing. But I was young; I was excited for the whole process of having...

NICHOLS: That's a big tradition for the coach that reaches that level.

RYAN: Yes, but you know, after that I never did it again.

NICHOLS: Now we can't talk about Final Fours without talking about the tradition you had with your late father. Thirty-eight years straight?

RYAN: Yes. NICHOLS: Of coming to the Final Four as fans, as participants, as a coach.

RYAN: It was a great bonding time for us. And we had talked about, you know, he never would like say, "When the heck are you going to get this?" It was like, "Boy, wouldn't it be nice to have one of your teams? Wouldn't you like to coach in one of these?"

I'm like, "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.

It's going to be tough to be there coaching without him. This is for Butch.

NICHOLS: What is that like knowing that?

RYAN: Well, it's -- it's both ways. I know -- I know he's smiling, and some people say whether he's smiling from looking down or smiling looking up, we're not sure. But he was a character, and he always left an impression on people, hopefully a positive one. And it sure would be nice to have him here. And my mom, who passed away eight months earlier.

You know, it's -- that is always going to just grate just a little bit, but we're here. And I know he's happy, and I know he's -- he's a proud dad. So hopefully we have a lot more in us.

NICHOLS: You said that he was a character. What was he like when he was with you at all these -- year after year after year at these Final Fours?

RYAN: Well, he would win All Lobby, first team. He was usually...

NICHOLS: Hanging out in the lobby.

RYAN: Yes. More coaches knew him than knew me.

NICHOLS: There's an MC Hammer story?

RYAN: He challenged MC Hammer to a dance off in the lobby in New Orleans. Got a lot of attention.

NICHOLS: How old was he?

RYAN: Maybe like 60, 65. Probably about my age right now.

NICHOLS: Is there anything that you plan to do here this weekend to honor your father?

RYAN: Well, just to try to make sure I give my players, like he did when he coached kids for 40 years, just try to give them my full attention and give them the proper advice and not get in their way. Just try to encourage them to be the best they can and to enjoy the moment.

(END VIDEOTAPE) NICHOLS: Coach them up right. A fitting tribute indeed.

All right. We've got lots more on this special edition of UNGUARDED, including a conversation with Billy Donovan, as he tries to lead the top-ranked Florida Gators to a remarkable third national title.

And right after this, the player who's been dazzling fans these past few weeks. U. Conn's Shabazz Napier. Stick around.

NAPIER: I'm so happy. You're so happy you start crying. It's a special moment.



NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. We're on location in Arlington, Texas, and we're bringing you the story of the young man who has captured the hearts of so many throughout this NCAA tournament.

Shabazz Napier has been the backbone of the U. Conn Huskies. He's determined to restore the program to the glory it reached winning this title three years ago and he's determined to keep one very special promise along the way.


NICHOLS: You were on the U. Conn team that won this whole tournament when you were a freshman. And most of us have never had that experience of being on the floor in that moment, where everyone is going crazy.

NAPIER: It's surreal. You know, when you get to that moment, it's like, wow, you know, we made it, we won. Jumping up and down, confetti, just hugging my teammates, hugging my coach, then crying, most likely. You're so happy. You're just so happy you start crying. It's a special moment.

NICHOLS: Because you had that high, but it took you so much work and it was so hard to get there. You started out in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and it wasn't an easy road.

NICHOLS: It was just like any other inner city neighborhood. Drugs, violence, guns, fights. You know, you see a lot of violence, but a lot of good things, as well.

NAPIER: And I believe basketball was my calling. My mother did, too. She put a ball in my hands at the age of 5 1/2 and she made sure I stayed clear of anything else.

NICHOLS: Your mom worked so hard to keep you out of trouble, to make you into the person you are.

NAPIER: My mom, she's my everything.

NICHOLS: How hard has she had to work to put food on the table, keep the electric on?

NAPIER: Super hard. My mom didn't graduate high school. She just got her GED, though, which was important to me. And she didn't really have a job that she always had. You know, it was on and off, on and off. She could have gave up, she had all the excuses in the world to give up. But she never did.

And it just was embedded in me since then. I believe at the end of the day, I'm going to get through it. I could be dead tired, no more energy in my tank. But I know I can get through it. I know for a fact this is the easy part. Basketball is the easy part. You have fun, enjoy it.

NICHOLS: Now when you got that scholarship to U. Conn, I'm sure your mom was elated. But I heard she also made you promise something. What did she make you promise?

NAPIER: That I get my degree. She definitely was happy. That's the biggest thing my mom cares about. My mother has always been that way. She always told me, basketball is second to school. And I always believed it.

NICHOLS: And you had such a great start at U. Conn. But then Coach Jim Calhoun, who had been at the program forever, who recruited you, who I know you were so close to, decided to retire for medical reasons, and he didn't talk to you about it directly. He just made the announcement.

NAPIER: I remember I was walking to my dorm, and I got a text saying man, I heard your coach is retiring. And I'm like, what? I was like, no, you're lying, rumors.

NICHOLS: I know it was a tough time too, because the program was going through a lot. The NCAA didn't let you guys play in last year's tournament because the academic threshold that the program had reached wasn't up to the right standards. So a lot of players said you know what? Coach is leaving, can't play in the NCAA tournament. You had players transfer. You had players leave early for the NBA. What conversations did you have about all that?

NAPIER: In the beginning, I didn't know what was going on. I was kind of -- definitely flustered. I had no idea.

NICHOLS: What role did your promise to your mom play in that whole decision?

NAPIER: It played a lot. The least I could do is, you know, keep my promise to my mom, make my mom happy. Because after all she's been through, if that's going to make her happy, I'm going to go fight for that. And I think that was one of the biggest reasons I stayed my senior year, if not the biggest. And I'm just so happy I decided to stay.

NICHOLS: So what do you think is going to be your biggest moment. If you guys do win this title, you're going to get back out on that floor celebrating, all that confetti all over again. Or at the end of this school year, when you collect that degree?

NAPIER: If I had to choose one, it would be my mom. You know? That's so special. As a young kid, you don't understand you can only play basketball for so long. To have it with my mom is even more special.


NICHOLS: A little less confetti at a college graduation but no less elation.

All right. Coming up next, I sit down with the coach of the top- ranked Florida Gators. But does Billy Donovan have an eye on the NBA? We'll discuss that and more, coming up.


NICHOLS: I heard you leave the door open a few times recently.



NICHOLS: Welcome back. I'm Rachel Nichols. And we've been bringing you the stories behind the scenes here at the NCAA tournament.

Billy Donovan is just 48 years old. But he's one of the most experienced coaches in the sport. He first played at the elite level, now as a coach he's won two titles. But before he goes for his third this weekend, he sat down to talk to UNGUARDED.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to the Final Four. There's kids out there who just know you as a coach. But most of us, of course, remember you at Providence, Billy the Kid. You were coached by Rick Pitino and you had that great exciting run to the Final Four. But then you lost. What did you learn from that experience that you can teach your kids now?

DONOVAN: I remember even flying out of the locker room and there being 70,000 people in the Superdome. And I think it was very, very overwhelming, exciting. There was a different feeling. because we were this Cinderella team. We were an eight seed. And we go on this run and all of a sudden we get to this. And I hope in some way I can get our guys to understand that you don't want to get overwhelmed.

I think my experience as a player I can share with some of those guys about they got to rest properly. They cannot get emotionally drained through all this stuff. There's a lot of drama that goes on around all this stuff. There's a lot of attention. There's a lot of demands on their time. It's unlike anything that these guys had to deal with during the course of the season, so it's all new to them.

NICHOLS: This team that you had this year is a lot different than the team that you had when you last won the national championship in 2007. There were four first-round draft picks on that team. You might not have any this year. How did you manage getting here?

DONOVAN: The best thing that I've heard said about our team, the sum of our team is better than its parts. There's some teams where you've got guys where you're not making each other better. These guys have made each other better, which is probably the reason we've got to this point.

NICHOLS: There is this huge divide in college basketball right now. Right? There's teams that have made it this far because they have that core of senior leadership. They play together as a team. And then there are the teams made up mostly of big freshman stars who expect they're only going to be there for one year, the one-and-dones. Then go to the NBA.

Do you feel like there's any kind of referendum going on in college basketball with this Final Four?

DONOVAN: No, I think it's like anything else. Style or play-wise, if you coach, there's a lot of ways to skin a cat. I think for a lot of these freshman, they've been so exposed. They've played on national stages even before they've gotten to college. And to be quite frank, a lot of them are really, really, really talented. They're just really good players. And that's why they're able to make that jump to the next level after their freshman year.

NICHOLS: Of course, it's not just players. People want to know are you going to jump to the NBA? They ask coaches, as well. You had that engagement with the Orlando Magic and then decided back in 2007, "You know what? I'd rather stay in Florida." But I've heard you leave the door open a few times recently.

DONOVAN: I think the one thing that's always intriguing with the NBA is it is basketball 24 hours a day. Do I feel like I have to coach in the NBA, that's what I want to do? No.

All I can say is I'm happy right now at Florida. I enjoy being here. I think I've been committed to the institution for a long time, 18 years. But there is an intrigue in terms of the fact that, in the NBA, I'm a basketball coach. I love basketball. I was a gym rat as a player. I love being around the game. I like it all the time. Sometimes in college you don't get a chance to do that. You know?

And sometimes as you get older in coaching, the thing that all you want to do is you want to coach and be around coaching. But I also -- it's not lost on me that I am in a very, very great situation with an athletic director that hired my 18 years ago that's still there. And I've got a very close relationship with him.

NICHOLS: And one of the fun things you do get at Florida now is this family aspect. And your family literally is around you all the time. Your son is a walk-on, on the team.

DONOVAN: Well, he made a great comment to me. We beat Dayton. We're on the floor celebrating. He said, "Dad, I've got something in common with you right now."

I said, "What's that?"

He says, "We both are going to be playing in the Final Four. We will both have played in the Final Four."

I thought that was great. I missed a lot of him growing up because of my job, because of traveling, because of coaching. High-school basketball games were on Tuesdays or Fridays. Sometimes we're traveling or playing on those days. And I didn't get a chance to see him as much as I would like to.

But the fact that he's here, I look at that as a great plus.


NICHOLS: A very lucky man for sure.

All right. That's it for our show. But I'll be back with even more from Arlington tomorrow, as CNN brings you a Bleacher Report special at 2:30 Eastern Time. And of course, we'll see you next Friday right back here on UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is just the start of the story.