The annual 3½ week television run of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament sadly (or maybe mercifully) ended Monday night. I look forward to the event every year, especially because NOT ONE SHINING MOMENT (or even a dull moment) of it airs on ESPN.
Here is my critique on the television coverage, which was generally solid but did have its hiccups.
THE CBS/TURNER CONSOLIDATION
As part of the new mammoth 14-year contract signed after last year’s tournament, all 67 games of the tournament were available in their entirety if you happen to have TBS, TNT, and truTV in your cable lineup. (BTW, you may not know that truTV actually evolved from the old Court TV established in 1991 – not the basketball court, but that ‘other’ court.)
The four network wall-to-wall format was definitely good.
In recent years games not carried in a market were available on ‘March Madness on Demand’ on-line, but watching on the laptop is not quite watching on the big screen. The computer option was also available, provided you work where one does not risk getting written up trying to watch (This just in: bosses are onto the ‘boss’ button).
There are up and down sides to the new format. Myself, I enjoyed seeing the CBS broadcast becoming more of a ‘Red Zone’ template over the years, even if it bumped a game involving a team I had a vested interest in. If you’re one that only rolls with over-the-air television (and there are plenty out there in the face of spiraling cable prices), you were stuck start to finish with the game CBS rolled with for the entire country. For instance, CBS went with the Jimmer phenomenon and carried BYU’s first two blowout wins. Meanwhile, games involving Marquette and Wisconsin were sent to the out-back of truTV, forcing Time Warner in the Wisconsin markets to pick up truTV’s HD signal for a week.
But the upside was that the viewers at home were able to call the shots, and TV helped out with lighted logos and announcers suggesting when a down-to-the-wire game was going down on one of the other three networks.
Here’s where I have a major gripe that not many talk about. Everyone loves to hear the local calls when their teams are involved. And if you are in the local market and the game is on over-the-air radio you indeed have that option. However, the exclusive contract between Westwood One/CBS Radio and the NCAA precludes local broadcasts from being carried over the internet or satellite radio. Nothing against Westwood One, but that’s a huge thumbs down.
As solid as the neutral national announcers are, it would be nice to be able of hear the homer-ism of local radio PBP announcers who have worked their team’s games the entire season and know their respective squads as much as anyone.
The fact that what I call the ‘Round of 64’ and the ‘Round of 32’ has now been re-branded by the NCAA as the ‘Second Round’ and the ‘Third Round’ is a harbinger of the tourney eventually expanding to 72, 80, and somewhere down the road, 96 teams. Most college hoop fans remain against 96, but trust me, you will still follow, and still watch. And everyone’s bracket ends up being thrown in the trash by Thursday afternoon anyways (see Morehead St. v. Louisville).
That said, I thought the ‘First Four’ carried on truTV went pretty well, even if two of the four games were still #16 seeds that would be sent to slaughter two days later (#16’s are now 0-108 all-time; I think the Washington Generals have a higher winning % against the Globetrotters.)
In the past, the one ‘play-in’ game was played on ESPN, and no one watched or cared. This time around, it may have still been UNC-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock in one game, and UTSA v. Alabama St. in the other, but the top two announcing teams were brought out for the games, with Nantz/Kellogg doing the call one night and Gus Johnson the next – which I thought was very cool. Having the top announcing teams added some spice and helped the #16 teams get some nice exposure for two nights.
And then there were the ‘At-large play-in games’, and Virginia Commonwealth’s ‘First Four’ to ‘Final Four’ run will definitely be Exhibit ‘A’ in the NCAA’s plan to eventually move on to 72/80/96 teams.
I’m personally happy at 68 thank you. I’ve heard many over the years who have suggested that the NCAA go all the way and put all 347 D-1 programs in the tournament, following similar formats used by many states in high school basketball.
Actually, that is what already occurs now, with the conference tournaments serving that purpose. True, some conferences use a double-bye format to award the top regular season teams, and the Ivy League does not do post-season tourneys. But other than that, virtually every D-1 program goes into the beginning of March with the opportunity of participating in a satellite qualifier (the conference tourney) to get to the Big Dance.
ANY ROOM TO TWEAK??
Another noticeable change this tournament was most of the first weekend games being pushed into the evening hours, and in a few instances late night. There was no more need to wrap everything up for the Round of 32 by 7:00 PM Eastern to make way for 60 Minutes with TNT/TBS around. There is good and bad involved in that.
The extended halftimes as well as media timeouts stretched games to almost NBA levels. There were also many glitches coming in-and-out of timeouts, most notably in the Temple/San Diego St. Round of 32 game, where several key moments were missed coming out of commercial.
I could see some tinkering with the traditional Thursday-Sunday format. If CBS/Turner really does want to follow the NBA’s post-season module, the Round of 64 could consist of eight games each from Thursday through Sunday, eliminating the need for Thursday/Friday afternoon games. The Round of 32 then could be four games each on Monday-Thursday. The Sweet 16 can then be held on the second Saturday/Sunday, with the Regional Finals in prime time on Monday/Tuesday. That would then leave three days off until the Final Four.
The reason you may not see that happen is that the women’s tourney needs some dates to itself as well, and as evidenced by the upset-filled National Semi-Finals Sunday night, the Women’s game can put out quite a product as well for those who normally don’t follow it.
The great thing about CBS over the years has been its incredibly deep stable of PBP announcers: Nantz, Gus, Lundquist, Kevin Harlan, Ian Eagle, Tim Brando, and Spero Dedes (who in 20 years will be calling THE big events). The only Turner voice to crack the CBS lineup was veteran Marv Albert, replacing the retired Dick Enberg. Marv has called just about everything over the years and was a perfect fit.
A few of the analysts brought in from Turner were a bit shakier. In particular Reggie Miller, who praised the Belmont Bruins during their one tourney game by noting that it appeared none of their players were donning tattoos. That was what he was rolling with?? I’ll let Jason Whitlock do the tattoo commentary. With the exception of those who go Chris Andersen-overboard with the body paint, I don’t pay too much attention to player’s ink jobs, college or pro.
Then there were the sideline reporters, who got what sideline reporters normally do. One reporter brought over from Turner who had a couple of awkward moments was Marty Snider, who worked with the Gus Johnson/Len Elmore team. Jim Boeheim ran off on him during one interview, and then there was the testy pre-second half exchange with Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, when Marty asked coach the partially loaded question of ‘How do you match Butler’s intensity…’, basically suggesting to Bo that Wisconsin was not stepping up against Butler (and everyone knows that Butler has done nothing but lived with a lucky horseshoe the past two March’s). Marty probably knew he delivered a bad pitch the moment he threw it.
For those who don’t know, Marty is normally a NASCAR reporter. Getting good interviews with drivers after crashes is like shooting fish in a barrel. Reporter asks ‘What happened out there??’ Driver then responds by saying he had a great race car, he hates it for his team and sponsors, then has a well recited rip for rival driver that wrecked him. Racing reporters do have to live with the hazard/potential of having their heads bitten off by Tony Stewart, but interviewing NASCAR people is a different animal than dealing with testy basketball coaches at halftime. Snider usually does do a solid job no matter what the sport, but Bo Ryan probably does not share that sentiment.
The studio talking heads, as expected, raised the most eyebrows – in particular NBA regulars Kenny Smith and Charles (I MAY BE WRONG!!!) Barkley joining the fray and showing their flaws being full-time NBA analysts and not fully doing their NCAA homework. In one segment, Kenny Smith praised the Wisconsin Badgers, noting that they went into Ohio State and beat the Buckeyes by 28 points. The Badgers did own a win over the Ohio St. in the regular season, but that was a come from behind job in Madison. Unless they secretly switched uniforms before the game in Columbus, it was the Buckeyes who delivered that blowout.
Barkley’s most hair-raising moment (actually wrong word with him) was his proclamation after Marquette had unexpectedly crashed the Sweet 16, saying that the Big East only deserved eight bids, which drew a rebuttal from guest analyst Rick Pitino, who said that Marquette would then have not gotten a bid. I can see where Charles was coming from, and that’s what Charles does, he brings opinions. They’re sometimes flawed, and you may not agree – but give Charles credit even if the pitch is sometimes a bit outside.
And then there is Seth Davis, who AJ Kaufman (who unlike Barkley, is not wrong) proclaims has not picked Butler to win one ‘GD’ game over the last two tournaments. AJ also pegs Seth as an ‘eliteist’ (and ‘pompous’ and ”foolish’) . Yeah, Kemba Walker will not allow Uconn to lose, just like Matt Howard doesn’t let Butler lose – guess that’s how they got to the final game (rocket science). At worst Seth is the case of another talking head who doesn’t go out on a limb and picks chalk all the way to the Final Four when the brackets come out.
The problem with having a TV gig is that by going out on a limb and picking some low seeds to go far is saying, in effect, that the selection committee dropped the ball in making its seedings. And we can NEVER have that.
Finally, I have to get Ernie Johnson Jr. some kudos and it’s nice to see him getting the increased massive exposure, with all the games plenty of chances to mix both him and Greg Gumbel in.
AND FINALLY, CLARK KELLOGG
I’m still trying to figure out everyone’s absolute hate on Kellogg. OK, he sure seems to invent a lot of words (‘spurt-ability’, ‘Dairy Queen’d’ for a player fouling out, etc.), but he also brings a ton of passion and enthusiasm to the event, and the addition of Steve Kerr for the Final Four does cut down Kellogg’s presence some, which is fine.
Who would you want instead?? You want to go back to grouchy Billy Packer?? Or even worse, Dick Vitale??
Nantz gets a ton of critics as well, mainly those who feel that Gus Johnson should overtake Nantz as first-string. His too well-rehearsed lines at end of games ‘The Old Kentucky Home is the Final Four!!’ aside, Nantz remains solid. But I am also in the camp that thinks perhaps Johnson should at least get one of the National Semi-Final games.
For all of us who cannot wait until next March, the newly re-branded CBS Sports Network will surely re-air many of the games from the tourney, although hopefully refrain from showing last night’s brick-laying festival too often (unless you’re a UConn fan).
Also a build-up with more regular season coverage, not only on CBS, but TNT/TBS – would be welcome. With pro football dragging into February, the transition into March Madness tends to come too quickly for television and the casual fan’s attention span.