It’s been a year of setbacks for Jim Spanarkel.
When he arrived in Indianapolis for his CBS/Turner broadcast assignments as a game analyst, the former Duke standout was sidelined before he could even knot his tie. He had failed to meet strict Covid protocols and couldn’t work the first two rounds of the tournament.
Pandemic or no pandemic, it had already been a rough stretch for the retired seven year NBA veteran. After decades as a commentator for the Brooklyn Nets, he was not renewed prior to the current NBA season.
Call it a death of a thousand cuts. He had teamed with Nets’ TV play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle before his work was slowly cut to make room for color commentators Sarah Kustok and in 2019, Richard Jefferson. Last November, it was announced that the heady Spanarkel was out altogether.
Spanarkel is one of five NCAA Tournament analysts who were assigned the opening two rounds and both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Eagle is his NCAA partner. In earlier years, Jim worked with the cheerful Verne Lundquist.
Working Monday’s matchup between #2 Houston and red-hot #12 Oregon State, Spanarkel helped millions of tournament viewers appreciate the finer points of the game. What’s nice is that he does so without resorting to complicated terms that go over the heads of even assiduous followers of March Madness.
Statistically, Houston’s numbers suggested that it had the best defense in the country. Spanarkel explained that the Cougars aggressiveness begins with the way they defend and starting far above the perimeter. Once an offensive player crosses midcourt the Houston defense presses. As such, it’s harder for the offense to initiate pick and rolls and get into conventional offensive sets. Another Houston strength according to Spanarkel is that it clogs the middle. The team collectively crashes the paint at all times, forcing opponents to kick the ball out out to three-point shooters or take contested midrange shots.
Oregon State trailed big in the first half, 34-17. The Beavers though were able to come back and for a fleeting moment even tie the game. Spanarkel ascribed the effective rally to two accomplishments. The first was that it cut down on its turnovers and the second was that it improved its defensive rebounds. Oregon State was doing well in the second half holding Houston to only one possession, which allowed the Beavers to get back in the game.
In the first half, the Cougars would miss tough shots but they’d get offensive rebounds and kick it to outside shooters for makes. Spanarkel underscored that securing offensive boards, is the best part of Houston’s offense.
Spanarkel was also complimentary of Oregon State’s defense. He pointed out how the Beavers change their defensive strategy in the middle of a possession. They can start in a zone then switch to man-to-man halfway through the shot clock. Spanarkel said doing so caused the Cougars to hesitate early in the shot clock until they determined the Beavers defense.
Partner Eagle who talks lots for television, shared how Houston coach Kelvin Sampson knew this coming in and prepared his team to face these multiple defensive looks. Ian added that Sampson has three requirements of his players; execute, play hard, and enjoy one another. While Eagle shares nice nuggets, he doesn’t always let the game come to him. Yet he gives his once longtime Nets partner lots of runway.
Listening carefully to Spanarkel make us appreciate that analysts don’t have to employ arcane language to make sense of a game and help us enjoy the tournament. After he was unceremoniously dumped by the NBA’s Brooklynites, veteran media critic Phil Mushnick of the New York Post wrote of Spanarkel, “Even during the Nets’ most meager times, Spanarkel could sustain interest by seeing and speaking sensible, applicable basketball. He left us with at least one good lesson a game.”
Spanarkel also has a day job. He’s a First Vice President with Merrill Lynch where he’s also a financial adviser. I’ll bet he’s pretty good at explaining to a college kid with three bucks in his pocket the advantages of compounded savings. And in simple terms.
CBS has the Final Four. Andy Katz on Turner shared that this is the first Final Four that doesn’t include any schools east of the Mississippi.
Saturday, April 3d
Houston-Baylor at 5:14 pm
UCLA-Gonzaga at 8:34 pm
Monday, April 5th
Saturday winners at 9 pm