College basketball is an attractive television product. Yet, the sport can be packaged and situated so much better than it presently is. Some of the following requests are reasonable and realistic as a matter of practical politics; others are manifestations of wishful thinking… but deserve to be mentioned in print, anyway.
Here are the 10 foremost ways in which televised college basketball needs to move forward in the coming season:
10 – THE FILM ROOM CONCEPT: BRING IT TO BASKETBALL
ESPNEWS found something innovative when it brought a “film room” concept to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State. This concept took fans inside the layers and details of a sport’s mechanics. This is exactly where sports television can and should go in the future. There’s no reason the networks in charge of covering college basketball can’t introduce such a concept to the NCAA tournament or perhaps, in ESPN’s case, the conference tournaments. Football shouldn’t be the only sport marked by such forward-thinking coverage models. This leads to the next item on the list:
9 – IF CBS AND TURNER REALLY WANT TO TELEVISE THE FINAL FOUR ON THREE SEPARATE CHANNELS, DO MORE WITH THE USE OF AIRWAVES
(SUBHEAD: THE JIM NANTZ ISSUE)
ESPN showed how a big college football game can be covered in multiple ways. CBS and Turner have their own vision for the Final Four, but it seems like a waste of air time. Viewers clamor for Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery to work a Final Four. Wouldn’t it make sense for Turner to have Verne and Raft work the TNT alternate telecast on Semifinal Saturday? TruTV could become the film-room game, or perhaps a game covered in an untraditional manner.
Jim Nantz (pictured in the cover photo at the beginning of this piece) is the Voice Of CBS Sports, so it’s understood why CBS and Turner would want to protect him. Let’s be honest in acknowledging that reality. Yet, the plain fact that Nantz swoops in for only one month of the college basketball season — adding a few (but only a few) games before March — should undercut the notion that he has to be the only marquee play-by-play man on TV at the Final Four. Why not give Verne and Raft a long-overdue honor, for one thing? Second, let’s say that Verne-Raft on TNT gets better ratings than Nantz-Anthony-Kerr on TBS for the national semifinals. Wouldn’t such a scenario show that:
A) Viewers’ preferences lie elsewhere?
B) Nantz has to work to become a better college basketball voice with Billy Packer no longer around to carry him (one of the more under-reported college basketball television stories of the past six years)?
CBS and Turner can cover the Final Four so much better with three channels. Are they going to be ambitious in the future and revamp their model, or are they going to play it safe and covet the localized angle for TNT and TruTV on Semifinal Saturday? Say this about giving Jim Nantz preferred treatment: There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, but creating a culture of competition among broadcast teams could convince Nantz that he has to spend February doing a little more hoops and a little less golf.
Chris Fowler used to be an excellent college basketball studio anchor for ESPN, but he valued tennis as more important. This discussion brings up a larger issue: Should Nantz be forced to make a clear choice between winter golf and college basketball? It’s a question that, at the very least, deserves to be asked at CBS.
8 – WEDNESDAY OF CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK: BEEF IT UP
The Wednesday of Championship Week should be so much better than it is. A fair amount of power conference tournament action takes place on that day, but it’s almost all table scraps, with ugly first-round games littering the television dial. The Thursday and Friday of Championship Week are gloriously cluttered with meaningful games, but why not add to Wednesday’s schedule so that there’s more for viewers to choose from on each day?
ESPN carries more weight than anyone in the televising of college sports. The Worldwide Leader can surely improve its Wednesday product during Championship Week.
7 – ANALYTICS: GET MORE VOICES ON STUDIO SHOWS
With Digger Phelps leaving ESPN, it’s time for someone such as John Gasaway or maybe even the man himself, Ken Pomeroy, to be given a prominent seat on College Gameday or high-profile studio assignments on either Saturdays or Wednesdays, the high-volume weeknights of a typical college basketball week.
It’s not enough to incorporate advanced stats into broadcasts. Getting a person who appreciates those kinds of statistics and can smoothly explain their value to viewers represents the next logical step for ESPN to take.
6 – KARA LAWSON TO FILL JIMMY DYKES’ SEAT
Jimmy Dykes has been ESPN’s main SEC basketball game analyst in recent years. Kara Lawson should step in, now that Dykes will be coaching (at the Arkansas women’s program).
Lawson did not seem to be a broadcast star in the making. She provided credible but hardly impressive studio coverage for ESPN while still juggling a WNBA career. This past season, though, Lawson has become a much sharper and more authoritative voice. It’s clear that Lawson has done her homework and is becoming a much more polished broadcast presence. Diversity in the broadcasting world is always desirable, but diversity just for its own sake can never be the goal. Lawson knows what she’s talking about — that’s the biggest reason she should fill Dykes’ chair as an analyst for SEC games on Super Tuesday. She appears ready to do the job if ESPN gives her the opportunity.
5 – GO LOCAL, GAMEDAY
It’s always a missed opportunity.
It will continue to be so, unless or until ESPN changes its mind.
College Gameday has so many more options in basketball compared to football. The weekend-only nature of football demands a consistent presence at big games. College hoops is quite different. There are so many good teams in so many corners of the country that a focus on the sport’s charming underdogs and out-of-the-way success stories represents a way to tell a sport’s full story.
It makes very little sense to cover a Conference USA football game, but it makes all the sense in the world to spend a morning with a guy like Bob Hoffman of Mercer. Come on — who wouldn’t want to get to know him a lot more? This is an underappreciated aspect of college basketball in its totality. The big-time writers know this, too.
Starting on the last weekend of February and continuing through the conference tournaments, ESPN can and should feature the big boys. From the middle of January through the middle of February, though, ESPN has a chance to look at the darlings of early March, the teams that steal our hearts and earn our allegiance when they face Duke in a 14-3 game or Syracuse in a 15-2 game.
Let’s get to know the coaches and players who live in college basketball’s quiet places. We can get to see human beings in very different contexts compared to Kentucky and Arizona and Michigan State. It would make for good — and informative — television.
4 – MAKE THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME MORE ACCESSIBLE TO FANS AND THEIR KIDS
The national championship game is played on a school night, an early-April Monday. Can CBS do what other networks in other sports refuse to do? Can Black Rock start the title game at 8:10 p.m. Eastern? Is it really asking too much to do that? Shouldn’t kids be given the chance to watch marquee sporting events without too much disruption to their schedules?
A quixotic notion, I know. Still, it’s one that must be given a voice.
3 – SHOW THE OFF-BALL FOULS AND NON-BASKET PLAYS, PLEASE
CBS and Turner did not perform well in this tournament in one key respect: Off-ball fouls and some other plays that were overlooked by the announce crews were not replayed by the production truck. The contentious and close Wisconsin-Arizona West Regional final involved several curious offensive fouls away from the ball, none of which were replayed by the TBS truck in Anaheim. Replays focused on made baskets or near-the-rim sequences, when viewers (and writers and pundits) wanted to see if an illegal screen had in fact occurred.
This problem, you might think, was confined to the earlier rounds of the tournament. Surely, the enormity of the Final Four would offer enough cameras and a sufficiently alert production truck to the extent that every little call would be noticed and picked apart. For instance, the CBS truck was — to its credit — all over a correct kicked-ball call in the title game between Kentucky and Connecticut.
Yet, late in the Final Four semifinal between Kentucky and Wisconsin, the TBS truck whiffed on an important play. On a loose ball scramble inside the final five or six minutes, Wisconsin appeared to have thrown the ball off a Kentucky player, with the ball then bouncing on the baseline. The play led to a Kentucky basket, a critical part of Big Blue’s stirring comeback victory.
Viewers deserved to get a look at the play, but they never did. That’s an entirely unacceptable error from the truck, compounded by the broadcast team’s inability to reference it. (Side note: That’s precisely the kind of detail Billy Packer rarely missed during his career, no matter what you thought about his attitude or disposition toward mid-majors or your favorite team/coach/conference.)
In the next NCAA tournament and Final Four, please, CBS and Turner: Show us the off-ball plays and have camera angles that can cover them. If nothing else, replay the standard-camera angle shot at a slower speed coming out of a TV timeout to get viewers a full view of important calls and non-calls as they emerge.
2 – STAGGER THE SWEET 16 TIP TIMES… RIGHT NOW!
There is simply no way that viewers should have to be forced to choose between two great college basketball games during the Sweet 16. The stakes are too high, and the stage deserves a stand-alone treatment. Yet, on Friday, March 28, viewers did have to choose between the endings of Kentucky-Louisville and Michigan State-Virginia… even if they had two televisions. You can’t watch two games at once. If you caught a big shot by Kentucky here, you probably missed the big shot by Michigan State over there.
A supreme irony in all this: The Lundquist-Raftery and Nantz-Anthony broadcast teams called these separate games, but at the Final Four, CBS and Turner weren’t willing to put the two crews (with Steve Kerr joining the Nantz-Anthony team) against each other. I digress…
Back to the original point of focus: Would it really kill anyone if CBS/Turner started one Sweet 16 site at 6:40 p.m. Eastern time, and then started the second Sweet 16 site (Thursday or Friday) at 7:30 to create a 50-minute stagger? Viewers could watch the second half of every game without having to worry about missing the crunch-time sequence of a competing or overlapping game. This is such a simple fix to an important stage of the tournament. It should be a no-brainer, but as we often see in sports television, common-sense adjustments are anything but automatic.
1 – THE 2:20 OR 2:30 GAME WINDOW — IT’S LONG PAST TIME
There is no bigger issue or problem facing the everyday coverage of college basketball from early November through the middle of March. It’s not even a debate. If timeouts are reduced by two or three for each team, maybe the current two-hour window can remain in place. Unless or until that happens, however, it’s painfully obvious that two hours represents an insufficient time block for a major college basketball game. The timeouts, the fouls, the free throws — these and other realities extend games beyond 2:10 on a consistent basis.
Is it really going to hurt anyone if three games will occupy a seven-hour block instead of a six-hour block? Is it going to be a global crisis if a game might start at 20 or 40 past the hour? Fine — give games a 2:30 window instead of 2:20.
What if games end before a 2:20 window ends? Well, isn’t that why studio analysts exist (and are given a paycheck)? Also, live look-ins offer the best kind of filler material for viewers.
College basketball, under current conditions, has to move past the two-hour game window on television.