Kenny Smith has been a part of the professional basketball world for more than 25 years. A consensus first-team All-American out of North Carolina, Smith won two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets and played 10 seasons in the league before making the switch to broadcasting. He’s spent the past 15 seasons as a studio analyst for the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA on TNT and for the past three years, he’s been a studio analyst for the CBS’ NCAA Division I Championship coverage.
I recently had the chance to talk with Smith about his picks for the Final Four, his thoughts on Brittney Griner playing in the NBA, and the NBA playoffs.
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Dime: For Wichita State vs. Louisville, who do you think is the most important player for Wichita State to shut down in order to win?
Kenny Smith: They didn’t get there by one player, you know what I mean? It’s difficult to point out one guy on Louisville and I would say the same thing with Syracuse. They have a lot of good players on Syracuse and Louisville so I don’t know if there’s one player you can single out. I think overall it’s about who can impose their style of play. And with Louisville in terms of style of play, you have to play fast to beat them. They’re like a defensive-minded Phoenix Suns team back when they had Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and all those guys (laughs). They’re a Mike D’Antoni team that plays defense. So they force you to play at a tempo that no matter what you do, you have to play at that pace.
Dime: Moving to the Michigan vs. Syracuse matchup, how do you think Michigan is going to be able to break the Syracuse zone?
KS: I think Michigan has great guard play with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but I think overall this will be the first time that those two guys will be evenly matched or overmatched at times. I think throughout the whole tournament, or even throughout the whole year, those two guys have never felt that they’ve been evenly matched.
One of the reasons that I’ve picked Syracuse is I think that they have the greater ability to change styles. Let’s say Syracuse makes it a half-court game. They are pretty good at it, but they’d rather play a little uptempo even though they play a zone on defense. But with Michael Carter-Williams and their wing players, they’re able to still play half-court. So simply I think that the diversity of styles a team can play is what wins games in the NCAA because you’re going to have to adjust your style of play. Syracuse is like a chameleon.
Dime: So you have Louisville vs. Syracuse in the championship. Who do you think wins that game?
KS: Louisville. And I had Louisville from the start. It wasn’t an analytical choice really, honestly, at first. It was because Russ Smith played at my high school and we both played for the same high school coach. He was there for 53 years, Jack Curran, and he passed away just a few weeks ago. So, Russ dedicated the rest of his season to Coach Curran and I dedicated the rest of my season as an analyst to him. So I was like, how great would it be if he had both of his players here at the Final Four? One of his first players is calling the game and his last player in the NCAA is playing in it. That’s why I did it.
Now, I’m here with Powerade and the 3v3 Championship so that kind of makes me want to root a little bit for Wichita State as the underdog. But then there’s Kevin Ware, another guy who is fighting through adversity. So I could still root for Louisville (laughs). I can be politically correct all the way around.
Dime: Before we get to the NBA, I’m assuming you heard what Mark Cuban said on Wednesday about the possibility of him drafting Baylor’s Brittney Griner in the second round of the NBA Draft. Do you think she would be able to compete in the NBA as even a ninth or 10th man?
KS: There have been women basketball players who probably could have made a roster in the NBA. But with respect to her, I think that her playing in the WNBA would bring so much interest, obviously, to that league that it would behoove us to not let her play with her peers because it would bring more interest to the league itself. Kind of like when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the NBA, the interest and the viewership went crazy. She would fit into this Powerade thing; she would definitely be an underdog trying to push through adversity. But her size and her ability to score in the post and to just be a good basketball player, I don’t think it would behoove me to think that she couldn’t do it. But I think it would be better suited for the league in general and her peers if she played in the WNBA.