Tar Heels NCAA Hoops: Rob Kelley’s Exclusive Interview With Jenn Hildreth

Posted by Rob Kelley on February-23-2011 Add Comments

I was able to ask her a few questions about the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and what impressions she has taken away from some of their games this season as they grind their way through ACC play. I would personally like to thank her so much for her time, and I hope everyone will enjoy reading this interview as much as I did conducting it with a true professional.

Rob Kelley (RK): What has it been like to cover ACC Basketball, SEC Football and the WPS? You really don’t have much of an offseason, do you? What are some of your favorite experiences and memories? 

Jenn Hildreth (JH): Rob, it’s been an amazing run covering the leagues and events that I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a part of over the last few years. I’ve been a sideline reporter for ACC Sunday Night Hoops on Fox Sports Net for the past five years or so, and we’ve had some amazing games. The atmospheres are always electric, the level of the play is the best in the country, and I have an incredible team with which to work, both in front of and behind the camera. Some of my favorite basketball moments probably would be interviewing a teary-eyed Gary Williams after Maryland upset either North Carolina or Duke a couple of years ago, and interviewing Dino Gaudio of Wake Forest when his Demon Deacons upset Duke two years ago (I believe), with the crowd rushing past me onto the floor. The past two years have seen the addition of SEC football to Fox Sports South, and I was honored to be chosen as the sideline reporter for that package as well. It’s pretty much a dream combo, right? ACC hoops and SEC football – I’m not complaining! Then, when the Women’s Pro Soccer league began two years ago, I was selected to be the lead analyst for Fox Soccer Channel’s national game of the week, and that is an amazing and inspiring way to fill up what used to be my off-season in the summer. So you asked about an off-season …I really don’t have one anymore, but as any independent contractor in any field will tell you, that’s definitely not a bad thing! 

RK: What do you feel makes college sports so special? Many people enjoy college basketball and football far more than the NBA and NFL. If you feel that way, what do you think makes the NCAA better?

JH: I love college sports. I’m no longer naïve enough to believe that it’s not about the money, and the career advancement, on some level, but that’s not ALL that it’s about. For every superstar athlete using his NCAA experience as a stepping stone to the pros, there are five or ten other guys on the team (depending on the sport) who are there as role players, and who are playing the game simply because they love still having the opportunity to do so.

You so often hear the two P words associated with college sports – Passion and Pageantry – and it’s true, they are a huge part of what makes collegiate athletics so appealing. There’s also the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself, whether it’s the team you root for, or the team for which you play. I just don’t believe that same level of togetherness exists in the pros. People are passionate about their teams, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems a little more … reciprocal, maybe, and genuine, in college sports.

RK: We know that the ACC has been one of the best basketball conferences over the past 20 years or so now. Many people are knocking it this season, since Duke was the only team ranked in the top 25 recently (North Carolina has since joined them at #19). Is this a fair assessment of the conference, or do people just forget how many talented players have graduated or entered the NBA early, causing many teams to have to rebuild their programs with so many young players?

JH: I think there’s no question this is a quote/unquote “down” year for the ACC. But, that being said, I also believe the league is better, as a whole, than many people on the outside believe. I don’t necessarily think rebuilding is a fair excuse, because it’s something every athletic program has to deal with on some level. And teams know what they’re getting into if they recruit players who are going to leave early for the NBA. Every team has to reload and forge a new identity … it’s just a matter of how they manipulate the talent remaining, and work in the new, young talent coming in, that determines their success.

RK: Much has been said about Harrison Barnes being named to the preseason All-American team. To me, this was unfair – http://thetarheelnation.com/2010-articles/december/why-harrison-barnes-cannot-possibly-win.html. I know it should be taken as a compliment to his potential. But it is still just potential at that point. Is it fair for a freshman to receive an honor such as this, or does it put even more pressure on this talented kid?

JH: Do I think it was fair that Harrison Barnes was so highly touted coming out of high school? No. Did it add undue pressure to the young man? Absolutely. But, I also feel that these kinds of accolades and the expectations are just part and parcel of the sports world in which we now live. There are so many more sports media outlets, ranging from radio and television to newspapers to online to bloggers to recruiting gurus, that everyone wants to be the first to find and anoint the next superstar. Personally, I don’t care about recruiting in any sport. I’ll start caring about someone once they actually get on the floor or field collegiately and start doing something. Until then, it’s simply too hard to accurately judge talent from such a wide pool.

I think Harrison Barnes has a lot of potential. He seems to genuinely want to work hard and get better, and he has pulled out some big shots at crucial times in the game (just ask Miami), but he is by no means the savior of Tarheel basketball. And no one should have expected that of him.

RK: On one night, you watched UNC get blown out at GeorgiaTech, but on the next night, they were able to play much more cohesively to continue their unbelievable streak at home against Clemson. Whereas this is such a young team, is this expected to be the trend throughout the season, or do you see them maturing quickly together and making a run in the NCAA Tournament?

JH: I think there are still quite a few ups and downs in store for not only North Carolina, but many of the teams in the ACC. I think as a whole the Tarheels will continue to improve, because they have an incredible coach who knows how to teach and make the most of what he’s got. But this team will have to rely on some role players – like Reggie Bullock against Clemson – to come up big if they hope to continue winning consistently. They don’t have the big names that could carry the load like a Tyler Hansbrough or Ty Lawson. Instead, they have guys who are good – John Henson, TylerZeller – but who need help. Those two can’t win it on their own… I think as Kendall Marshall gets more experience, he’ll also add another dimension of speed to the offense.

RK: What are your thoughts on the progession of John Henson from last season? Is he a legitimate big man in the conference?

JH: Hmm. To be determined … I love Henson on the defensive end. He’s so long, and he’s got great body control in the air, which is part of what makes him such a great shot blocker. I know he’s added on a few pounds, but the paint is a brutal place to survive in this league, and I’m not sure he can take the beating, physically, to be as strong at the end of the season (and game) as the Tarheels will need him to be. I’d also like to see a little more of a mean streak in him; he seems like such a nice guy, but you’ve gotta get a little mean on the court to establish your presence, especially inside.

RK: Tyler Zeller has been crucial to the team’s success in the middle. Since this is the first year he has truly been healthy, do you see him getting even better as the season progresses, or could it become difficult as the year goes on, where he has not played this many games in his career?

JH: I don’t think the length of a full season will be a problem for Tyler Zeller, but I do think the Tarheels need him to be more of a factor than he has been so far this season. Tyler is a legitimate seven-footer who, with that little jump hook, especially, could be a nightmare for teams to defend, but he needs to assert himself a bit more. He had just two field goals in a game where he was pretty much non-existent against Georgia Tech. He had three each against Clemson and Miami. And he doesn’t get to the free throw line often enough – just ask Tyler Hansbrough how the freebies can help pad the stats and frustrate the defenders.

I would like to once again thank Jenn Hildreth for her time, especially during the heart of the ACC basketball season. It really means a lot to me personally, and I hope everyone appreciates reading her answers as they follow UNC back into the NCAA Tournament next month! 

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