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A weekend of college basketball on national TV: The announcers, part #1

Games galore; The Voices, from the so-so to the very good and those in between; ESPN's family of channels alone ran almost 100 games

It’s late February, a weekend of lots of hoops. We’re now less than three weeks away from Selection Sunday. ESPN, Fox, CBS and the sports verticals were all in the act this past weekend. 

I love basketball and have been around the game for over 40 years. When I began watching the college version, very few regular season games were on television at all. Cable wasn’t quite born yet. No one heard of Dick Vitale. A company named TVS dominated college basketball syndication and maybe one game a week was on, generally on weekends.

It wasn’t until 1969 that the Final Four was televised by a so-called line network, NBC, as opposed to a syndicated network long since defunct. Curt Gowdy called the the title series on NBC. Viewers saw the championship game and one of the semi-final games. In 1973, when the NCAA went to a Saturday/Monday format which still exists today, all 3 games of the Final Four were available on NBC.  Today, cable TV, dollars, sponsors and technology have made any game available anywhere . 

There were likely more games on national television this weekend than there were through much of the entire 1970s.

Anyhow, here are my thoughts of these select games. In part#2 later this week, I review the other games I watched.

 

Tennessee at LSU – Saturday  (ESPN)

Bob Wischusen and Dick Vitale

In today’s commoditized world of network play-by-play announcers, Wischusen has a distinctly raspy sound and an accent redolent of his New York roots. His play-by-play is spot-on and emotional. Working with the legendary Vitale, he fills voids. Where Vitale often uses the ESPN pulpit to entertainingly stir debate among his viewers on his measure of fairmindedness, Bob shares nuances about the game we’re all watching. (Vitale: “Hey, I’ve felt for a long time that this court should be named for Dale Brown.”) Both Vitale and Wischusen were understandably frustrated with the continued replay reviews late in regulation and in overtime. It led Vitale on-air to encourage Bob  to let the audience know what he had shared with him privately; how replays should be managed. Bob did, strongly suggesting a 60 second clock on all replay reviews.

Vitale uncharacteristically had a strong opinion on the officials, suggesting that they’ve demonstrated little decisiveness of their own. He said the refs sometimes use replays as a crutch. Dick brings enthusiasm to anything he does and a sense of history to the game broadcasts which is always refreshing. But in recent years he’s been battling some voice issues. Vitale turns 80 this June.

Allison Williams was brought in quite a bit from the sidelines during the game. 

Texas at Oklahoma (ESPN)

Dave LaMont and Robbie Hummel

Football is invariably the first subject of sports conversation in Oklahoma. On Saturday, Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray was honored at the Sooners basketball game. So Coach Lincoln Riley joined the broadcast in the first half. LaMont, who calls football for ESPN too, handled the fairly long interview confidently. A lot is asked of viewers to watch one thing on the screen while the audio focuses on something else. So after getting the obligatory out of the way, LaMont asked Riley an intersecting question, whether he ever played basketball. It produced a symbiotic confluence of sorts for at least a minute or two. Hummel, the former Purdue Boilermaker is relatively new to television after a couple of utility years in the NBA and later in Europe. Very few new voices become immediate stars on television. (e.g. Dick Vitale, John Madden and Tony Romo). Hummel, you might say, is still pretty much at the outset.

Tulsa at Temple (ESPN)

Jay Alter and Noah Savage

These guys were a bit fueled and it caught my attention. The matchup was otherwise meaningless. Alter prepared a ton of notes and seemed to want to get many of them into the broadcast. This said, he was very prepared and had a good play-by-play cadence. Young broadcasters have a tendency to push too much information on viewers and need to modulate their excitement. Silence is sometimes golden. Alter did engage Savage, including once when the ex-Princeton hoopster referred to Justyn Hamilton as Hammi. Alter stunned Savage, asking him why Hammi? Noah said that’s his nickname. Alter then asked him with an interrogatory tone, “How do you know?” It sounded like a little bit of an uncomfortable exchange which the two tried to chuckle off. 

Marquette at Providence (Fox)

Gus Johnson and Jimmy Jackson

I know that this was introduced a month or so ago but I heard it for the first time and found it ear-perking; the familiar theme music of John Tesh’s Roundball Rock. It’s now used as the intro and outro to Fox’ college basketball telecasts. You can argue that the tune is interwoven with the great Jordan era and the Bulls’ six championships, heard on NBC all those years. It’s a smart move by Fox to distinguish itself musically from ESPN and CBS. It was so identified with NBC’s NBA coverage for years that when I first heard it Saturday, I expected to hear Marv Albert and see Michael hit a game winning shot.

Instead, I got Gus Johnson and Marquette’s Hauser twins, Sam and Joey. I also got Jimmy Jackson the former Ohio State standout. Gus was somewhat restrained yesterday, his words measured and his vocal cords on a short leash. All good, it was a bit easier on the ears. Jackson knows the game but has a tendency to get a bit too technical and go over viewers’ heads. I’ll bet half who were watching have no idea of what “He dives into the lane” means.

Auburn-Kentucky (CBS)

Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel

Eagle and Jim Spanarkel are always well prepared. Thank goodness. The game was a blowout and provided little competitive material. For whatever reason, many broadcasters seem to play up John Calipari, needless to say an accomplished and driven coach, but he’s the poster boy of too many of the ills of college basketball (e.g. one and done). Although the announcers were saddled with little drama, they made the best of it. The CBS production crew was ready too. Kentucky honored Adolph Rupp’s 1958 title team and video footage reinforced the long heritage of the Wildcats’ program. Eagle added that former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall sits near the CBS broadcast position and regularly says hello. Hall is 90.

Ohio State-Maryland (ESPN)

Jason Benetti and Dan Dakich

Good team. Benetti is facile with three sports, and can do either on radio or television; baseball, basketball and football. Not too many active today can do so seamlessly. I would think that of those who do and are active, Sean McManus showcases the necessary wares masterfully. Jason has a strong voice and clips his phrases effectively, underscoring the moment. Dakich offers a blend of wit and instructional know-how. He used replays to demonstrate what slipping the screen means and later how defenders can use their hands to disrupt the offense. The ex-coach also took advantage of a light moment when students unfurled the large state flag, a practice that he says is growing in popularity around college basketball.

Iowa State at TCU (ESPN)

Clay Matvick and Reid Gettys

The Minnesotan Matvick has had a long career, working from his home base in Minnesota. He’s fairly smooth doing football or basketball. Similar to football, he’s not overbearing. He gives the game its deserved presence. No agenda. Gettys was a member of Guy Lewis’ Phi Slam Jama teams at the University of Houston that featured Hakeem Olajuwon  (then Akeem) and Clyde Drexler. Gettys is also an attorney with ExxonMobil. His air work is solid. He’s a student of the game, served as an assistant coach for Drexler at the University of Houston, so he understands the Xs and Os. Reid doesn’t get too technical and gives the viewer the feeling that the game he’s doing is the place to be. Giving a broadcast a sense of importance can make fans want to stick around whether the game is close or not.

West Virginia @ Baylor (ESPN)

Anish Shrof and Tim Welsh

Anish lets the game take center stage. He doesn’t get in the way. But he needs more muscle to his vocal presence to get to the next level. No one will shut off the set saying, “Who was that guy, he was awful.” He isn’t bad. He just has to preside over that microphone with the confidence that he’s the boss; but there’s nothing materially wrong with his work. Tim is a former coach and the son of Jerry Welsh who coached at Iona. Tim breaks down players very well and provides insightful analysis.

Georgetown @ Creighton (Fox)

Justin Kutcher and Steve Lavin

Lavin is one of those guys on television who comes across as Mr. Perfect, like Pat O’Brien and Dan Patrick, every hair in place, an appearance of being cool, upbeat, never groping for a word, unflappable and imperturbable. You watch him and you ask yourself, is there a soul there? This said, from what I’ve experienced and what I’ve heard, Lavin is a good guy. He’s also very good at what he does. He makes it look easy in the studio and transitions effortlessly to game work. His commentary in the studio is broad in stroke and as a game analyst, he economizes his sentences and gets in and out quickly. 

Kutcher is Dr. Bubbly. Everything is great. I can just picture Justin getting out of bed on a bleak day. “What a great day this will be. Wow, I’m going to brush my teeth. That will be tons of  fun!” He can sound a little affected but he’s never dull. It seems that every sentence is finished with a flourish! He’s honest though. He had no choice to be when there was a wide shot of all the empty seats, saying something like, “The didn’t exactly stuff the building.”  No kidding.  (I saw lots of empty seats all over this weekend, everywhere.) I guess Kutcher could have added that most people in Omaha were at home reading Warren Buffett’s tome, the Oracle of Omaha’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Just kidding.

Duke @ Syracuse (ESPN)

Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas

At play-by-play, Dan is as good as they come, informationally. He’s spot-on, ready, enthusiastic, flawless.  For a native of Toronto, where college basketball is the last thing on anyone’s mind, his knowledge is impressive. The man is smooth. Still, having listened to him for some time now, I’ve not heard the man emote, exult or offer an opinion. It makes me long for Brent Musburger, someone with an edge. Dan is one of those guys who you don’t realize is there, probably because he’s good. Viewers focus on the game, not on Shulman. When there’s something that needs some explaining, Dan will give you the quick Cliff notes. 

Like Dan Patrick, Kirk Herbstreit and Pat O’Brien, Jay Bilas is another Mr. Perfect. It’s hard to call him slick but Bilas is smart, an attorney, well prepared, knowledgeable, well spoken and understands the game. He is naturally qualified to preside over ESPN’s microphones as its lead college analyst, But he won’t acknowledge that the world is full of gray areas, not everything is black and white. We’re faced with maybes every day. A little self-deprecating humor wouldn’t hurt either once in a while. Viewers want to get to know their announcer friends on television.

Kansas @ Texas Tech

Mark Neely and Fran Frischilla

Neely has a nice warm style and looks good on camera. While his voice resonates, it’s not his greatest asset. Mark is good on fundamentals and defers to Fraschilla. The ex-coach follows the Big 12 assiduously, has always been a good teacher and rarely holds back. Saturday, he demonstrated a down screen for viewers. Fraschilla worked for years with Brent Musburger. He knew that he had to be prepared for every broadcast because Brent would pepper him with questions or broach all sorts of subjects without warning. Fran will tell you that what he learned from Brent is yes, inform the audience; yet it’s also important to entertain them.

Part #2: Unending hoops on TV: Reviewing the network announcers, the good, the bad and the annoying

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Michael Green
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From all that you said, it looks like ESPN should put Shulman with Vitale and Wischusen with Bilas, and get contrasts going. Dickie V’s shtick wears thin for me, but at least he has a shtick!

Trivia: the co-producer of last night’s Academy Award winner for short documentary, “Period. End of Sentence,” Sam Davis, happens to be the younger brother of Joe Davis, who now sits in the chair that Vin occupied for 67 years.