So here we go. The final weekend of college basketball.
Minneapolis in April is generally tantamount to lingering winter weather. Leave it to the Madness of the tournament. Daytime temperatures in the Twin-Cities will be in the sixties. No full moon, just characters like Charles Barkley, Bruce Pearl and a collection of zany coaches.
All games will be on CBS Television. No messing around trying to figure out where Turner’s TBS, TNT and TruTV are situated on your cable system. Oh, you cut your cords. Even rabbit ear antennas will do the trick this time. But who today even knows what rabbit-ears are!
Jim Nantz presides capably as usual. Bill Raftery is the lead analyst and Grant Hill tags along. The former Dukie is not very assertive but he’s not intrusive either. Grant just seems to somehow be there.
CBS has had the tourney or some part of it since 1982. CBS and Turner work symbiotically on production and the two announced their schedules for the national semi-finals tomorrow, Saturday and the title game on Monday night. It appears to the naked eye that they’re giving the doubleheader Super Bowl like treatment. Coverage begins at 3pm eastern, some three hours before tip-off at 6:09p.
Saturday April 6, 2019
CBS Pre-Game Shows, 3p, eastern
CBS Auburn vs. Virginia; 6:09p, eastern (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill – both games)
CBS Texas Tech vs. Michigan State; 40 minutes after the conclusion of the first game
Monday, April 8, 2019
CBS Pre-Game Show, 8:30p, eastern
CBS National championship game, 9:20p, eastern (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill)
Game one pits Auburn, making its maiden voyage to the Final Four challenging Virginia, partaking in the national semis for the first time in 35 years. The last time the Cavs made it was the year after the over-towering Ralph Sampson left for the NBA. In Sampson’s collegiate career at Virginia, the team made it to the Final Four once, in 1981.
There will be a veritable army of broadcasters in Minneapolis to chew your ear off. Revived Greg Gumbel, 73 in May, hosts the first hour, 3-4p, joined by former Tennessee standout Candace Parker, Ex-Miami of Ohio star, Wally Szczerbiak and mainstay insider Seth Davis. Enough voices?
Jay Wright, coach of the defending national champion Villanova team, will opine as well and get a network paycheck for doing so. For Szczerbiak, it’s a return home of sorts, he played for the NBA’s Timberwolves for the first seven seasons of his ten year NBA career.
The 4-6p pre-game program, labeled the The Final Four Show, will have some life to it. You know these names. Ernie Johnson, affectionately known as EJ, will host from inside the arena with analysts Charles Barkley, Clark Kellogg and Kenny Smith. Don’t know much about college “analysis” by Charles but he triggers laughs and smiles and that’s important. Chuck as he’s often called on the set gets his mates to smile and laugh genuinely. And in America today, it’s what we need, more so than any negative stories we might hear about the transgressions of Bruce Pearl. All that will do is blight our enjoyment of the Final Four.
Jim Nantz talked this week about the game call, “We are not about issues and answers,” deflecting perhaps, deeper dive discussions about personalities to the pre and post group. Charles, probing questions about Bruce Pearl? Don’t count on it. But who cares! Just absorb the games. The second matchup will start 40 minutes after the first game ends and who knows when that will be, given the appetite of the men in striped shirts to study replays the way De Beers appraises diamonds.
Game two has Michigan State and the impassioned Tom Izzo against Texas Tech, a campus situated a few hundred driving yawns west of Dallas. Have you ever made that drive? Dunkin Donuts coffee is needed. Didn’t Bobby Knight coach there? Come to think of it, didn’t his son Pat coach there too? Chris Beard is getting the folks in Lubbock to think basketball during spring football season. And the Red Raiders haven’t won ten or more football games in a season since Mike Leach’s days in 2008.
The great Curt Gowdy called the national semi-final doubleheader the greatest bargain in sports, where arguably the four top teams compete under one roof on the same card. Don’t know what the Wyoming Cowboy would say today about a bargain. Ticket prices have escalated a nickel or two since Gowdy’s last network telecast of a full title game in 1975. It was the year that John Wooden captured his last championship. (In 1976, he split the game with Dick Enberg who then became the lead voice in 1977.)
Since 1969, the first NCAA final carried by one of the major networks, the play-by-play voices have been the warm Gowdy, the poetic Enberg, the average at best Gary Bender, the edgy Brent Musburger and the smooth as silk, Jim Nantz.
This is Nantz’ 29th year at courtside calling the games. Raf blends quick-wit with depth of basketball knowledge and Hill, measured verbally, contributes little that’s memorable. This is Raf’s 37th NCAA Tournament behind the mic. Bill never turns old, although the calendar says he’ll be 76 on April 19th.
I’ve always maintained that three-man booths are extraneous. There was one exception. Those of us of a certain age won’t forget when Billy Packer and Al McGuire made for an hilarious pair. They worked four Final Fours from 1978-81, with Enberg leading the charge.
Packer still holds the record for game coverage, 34 years, 1975-2008. It’s an accomplishment that Nantz is likely to break. This said, this is Nantz’ 34th year when including his pre and post game work which began in 1986. I miss Packer. He spoke his mind and was synonymous with the tournament for four decades. Packer and Nantz are still close. Billy told me last year that they fostered their friendship in Dallas in 1986 when they drove out together to some ranch outside town for a sponsor function.
Morsels, Minutiae and Rants:
- I asked Nantz to identify the biggest difference today from the year he started calling the Final Four. The answer was predictable; two analysts not one, the ease of preparation given the internet, no replay reviews and social media. “With two analysts, I just set it up and let them go from there.”
- Tracy Wolfson, feisty when necessary, will work the sidelines again. It’s her 11th Final Four. Loved the way, Tracy fought her way through the crush of people at the end of the Super Bowl this past February to get her necessary interviews.
- Lenny Daniels, the Turner sports boss, told the media this week that all metrics are growing; audiences on platforms and tentacles, not watching on traditional sets. But the non-traditional numbers still pale to what television itself delivers.
- Jim Nantz on Bob Fishman who’s directed every Final Four since CBS has had the rights. “When cameramen huddle around him before a game, their eyes look like they’re given an opportunity to work with greatness.”
- Let’s not forget the game that made college basketball a hit on television. It was on syndicated network television in December, 1968 and it put Dick Enberg’s name on the national play-by-play map in bold letters, Houston’s Elvin Hayes against UCLA’s Lou Alcindor. The telecast demonstrated the power and popularity of the college game. The following March the tourney was on NBC.
- Sean McManus, CBS Sports boss, said on the media call that CBS has hit its revenue goals and no make-goods for advertisers will be required because the rating numbers have met expectations.
- When asked about the elimination of Duke and potential superstar Zion Williamson, McManus said that the wave of good ratings this March should carry through the Final Four.
- In the semi-finals of the 2008 Final Four, Kansas opened a huge lead over North Carolina and Billy Packer told the audience that Carolina would never come back. The television people, fearing an audience decline, were unhappy. Packer was right. At that point, Packer had been wearing out his welcome at CBS and it turned out to be his last Final Four.
- In the early years, 1963-68, Bill Flemming called the tournament on syndicated television. The first NCAA Tournament was in 1939. For years, it played second fiddle to the NIT, established in 1938.
- Retiring Reds’ announcer Marty Brennaman did four semi-finals on network radio. He called the Grant Hill to Christian Laettner pass and shot in 1992, the memorable play that stunned Kentucky and sent Duke to the Final Four. Baseball is so ingrained in Brennaman’s consciousness that he said at one point on another tournament broadcast, “They’re down one run.” Announcers are human. Aren’t we all?
- Sideliner Jim Gray, still hanging around, has found a lasting refuge, radio. Westwood One has had a difficult time to say no to him for over a decade. He brings sponsors with him to the broadcasts. Gray can still nail just about anyone to the interview microphone. Remember LeBron, The Decision on ESPN. I’d bet Jim would like to forget it. The prolonged interview didn’t serve him well.
- This year, the NCAA Radio Network will be led by Kevin Kugler, who teams with John Thompson, the only commentator on that network who understands that radio doesn’t afford analysts the opportunity to break down every play, so he provides overviews, patterns and broad strategies. Why Clark Kellogg was squeezed into the radio broadcast too, I don’t know. This is radio. It’s not a talk show.