We've finally reached the Final Four, with March is coming to a close and a new national champion to be crowned Monday. March Madness never disappoints college basketball fans with its guaranteed excitement, memorable storylines and thrilling moments. With a title and bragging rights on the line, the pressure and intensity to win is at its highest. Below, Grant Hill, who played for Duke from 1990-94, offers his advice to student-athletes in the NCAA tournament. Hill won two national titles with the Blue Devils and played a key role in the famous play known as "The Shot," when the Blue Devils defeated Kentucky to earn a trip to the Final Four. After college, Hill played 19 years in the NBA and is now a host and analyst for Turner Sports.
Q: What kind of emotions do you remember yourself having when it came to playing in the NCAA tournament? What was the best way to handle all of them?
A: In terms of the emotions, you knew this was it. You played for the opportunity to be in the tournament. Hopefully if you are fortunate and lucky — you want to win. Obviously you feel all the emotions, there is excitement, maybe a little fear. Also, there is the idea that it could be over, and it’s very immediate. You go through your season, you go through the regular season, conference tournament and then you are fortunate enough to get to the tournament. And then all of a sudden — it can abruptly end and your whole season is over. And chances are that someone on a team is moving on and someone else is coming in. I think everyone is optimistic and thinks they can win. There is excitement and joy knowing you are a part of this special three week period during March Madness.
What a finish today in Memphis!! Both teams played their hearts out... Who do you think wins it all in PHX?— grant hill (@realgranthill33) March 26, 2017
Q: Was the pressure easier to handle as your college career went on? Did you always feel the same type of nerves?
A: I think it’s nerve-racking freshman year. For me I grew up going to Final Fours as a fan and watching as a kid. To finally be on that stage, it was surreal. We won it my first year, and there was some comfort after with future tournaments, knowing what was at stake and knowing the process with practices and travel. With two games in three days, understanding what the preparation was like and the routine, there was comfort in knowing that having gone through it in my first year. My first year I had no idea. I think one of the advantages I had at Duke was we had a coach and I had older players who had been through it and could be a calming influences on us young guys and hopefully I was able to return the favor once I become an upperclassman.
Q: Duke had some success and was a known program prior to your arrival, do you think for schools who come in with high expectations to win face more pressure? Do you have advice for players on how to not let that get to you?
A: The key is, and regardless if you are a defending champion or this is your first time, is to not get caught up in the fanfare and hoopla. I think that is easier said than done. You want to try to keep some kind of normalcy compared to what you would do during the regular season. Nowadays, every game is televised. But when I played we just focused on the team ahead...We tried to just look at the task at hand. Don’t read the paper, don’t look too far down the road. Don’t look on social media, be focused and not be too uptight. Enjoy the moments with your teammates and get yourself prepared like you would any regular-season game.
Q: With that said, do you feel a different sense of pressure and anxiety as you got further in the tournament?
A: I think there was pressure, maybe we were too young to recognize it. I think part of it — not to be a commercial for Duke and Coach K — but you know there was a pressure and expectation all season and part of that was to prepare us for the tournament. Everything we did, there was a purpose and reason for doing it, and that purpose and reason was to help us win a championship. He would schedule moments where we would have two games in three days [to show how] this was going to be Final Four weekend and the previous two weekends leading up to the Final Four.
I’ll tell you a funny story. Here we are in Indianapolis, it’s Friday night we had our open practice and film and then we had free time. Here we are getting ready to play UNLV the team who beat Duke the year before, and the parents are nervous wrecks. Me and a few teammates and two of the team managers go to this mall and we go and do a karaoke thing and film it. We recorded Prince’s “Kiss” and sing. We start dancing and do a little video. When we came back we showed our parents. One of the parents set up a VCR to record the game and watch it. So we show the parents the VCR tape and they’re watching it. And I don’t know if they are so horrified that we were so bad as singers or that we were so loose and relaxed the night before the biggest game in Duke basketball history in that point in time. So that’s an example of [not letting the pressure get to you]. I mean I don’t advise players to go make a video — but hey we were relaxed and loose. We had done all of our preparation. The coaches and upperclassman would always say ‘Look we are going to go out and be focused and do what we do, but we are also going to enjoy each other while we are going through this.’ My parents still talk about how they were a nervous wreck and we were so relaxed we could do karaoke. And then we went out and beat a team who no one expected us to beat the next day. And, my parents have the video still!
Q: Each year there seems to be defining moments in March Madness. You were obviously in one yourself with The Shot. Do you have advice for players if they find themselves being the next Kris Jenkins for Villanova from last year? What to expect with being a part of a big moment?
A: It’s interesting. [The Shot] happened to be my sophomore year and then I played a couple more years and it wasn’t really till out of college and when I was in the NBA and now I am really officially a spectator, I am really not in it. And then I realized, ok if it was really one of those special moments, they are going to replay it for quite some time. And every March I get to relive that moment, and some other moments too, but that moment in particular. And I never would have thought when that happened that 25 years later people would still talk about it. They show the play throughout the tournament and it becomes one of those great moments. But I think of the Michael Jordan shot, Dereck Whittenburg, Lorenzo Charles, Keith Smart for Indiana, Rumeal Robinson hitting free throws. For me growing up, those were iconic images and moments. So I guess if that happens, get used of seeing it every March. And just enjoy the wonderful experience of the tournament that honors legacy and great moments of the past.
Q: What was the most surprising thing for you about the tournament as a student-athlete?
A: Hhmm, that's a good question. I had been to five Final Fours prior as a spectator...I am trying to put myself back in that position and what I was thinking at that time. I think ultimately it was the intensity. You watch it but you don’t really get an appreciation for the desperation or how desperate teams are and how hard they play. The finality of it all gives it a sense of urgency unlike any other game you have during the regular season. Sometimes if you just come to battle wanting it more, you’ll win. Obviously talent and coaching play a huge role. But the further you go, and the teams are very good and capable when they get there, there is just a certain level of play that’s required to be successful. It’s not an easy feat to go through, you could have one bad half of basketball and be the better team but lose, which you know happens all the time. It’s being engaged physically, mentally and emotionally for basically 12 halves, six games — it’s not an easy accomplishment and requires a certain toughness to get it done. And I think the further you go, the tougher it’s going to be — it doesn’t get easier.