In first year without his services since 1995, Gus Johnson's absence didn't hurt broadcasts during NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
Less than 24 hours after Kentucky won its first national championship since 1998 in what amounts to validation for head coach John Calipari, I now have time to offer insights on this year's NCAA Tournament from the perspective of both a fan and broadcaster. Some of you have considered me a college basketball expert, (a sometimes misguided notion, as I don't believe I'm worthy of such a title yet) so I'll try to justify the hype here.
One year ago, I had mixed feelings regarding the multiple networks, and that sentiment has not changed. The fact that each game was able to be viewed simultaneously is positive in the sense that the live look-ins that were a significant part of my youth are no longer necessary, but the sacrifice made here is the overall quality of the broadcast. The days of the simple yet authentic CBS presentation have come and gone thanks to the new arrangement, one that is heavily influenced by Turner Sports, just a little too much for the liking of this play-by-play man. The voices (and I'll get to that later) are not totally at fault here, just the presentation, graphics and advertisements. Thankfully, the "Napa know-how" commercials that were as ubiquitous as "Written In The Stars" during last year's MLB postseason were few in number this time around, but that didn't stop what was essentially the same ad package from being played on a continuous loop. Most of the general public not realizing where TruTV was on their cable/satellite lineup didn't help either.
When I analyzed the greatest two weeks in sports last season, I found myself wishing ESPN had purchased the broadcast rights to the tournament, which they almost did until CBS and Turner outbid the Worldwide Leader. Twelve months later, I've come around a little more on that issue. As far as the eight broadcast pairings are concerned, I did not have a single problem with any voice in the booth other than Kevin Harlan forgetting the score in the final seconds of the West regional final between Florida and Louisville, where the great Harlan twice called Gator three-point attempts "for the lead" when Florida was in fact down three. He gets a pass for this one though. For those expecting criticism of Jim Nantz, you won't get it here. I understand the perception that Nantz may be a little too dull for the sport, (I disagree completely) but there was no instance in which the face of CBS Sports failed to define the moment. Brian Anderson was among the bigger surprises, especially following his mixed reviews during TBS' MLB postseason coverage last year; coupled with his lack of experience with basketball, not to mention the man he ultimately replaced in the booth. Needless to say, Anderson delivered solid performances in Portland, highlighted by the close round of 64 matchup between Wichita State and VCU.
There are only two parts of the tournament that could have been done better. First, while the $3.99 charge for March Madness On Demand (which impacted me due to my schedule that sometimes facilitated the need to watch games via the iPhone) isn't that big a deal, the lack of a stable 3G connection (unlike the last two years) is where my complaint lies. One second, you're watching a game, two seconds later you're not. This repeated several times over the course of an hour or two. Second, and this is where Turner kills the viewers, the presence of NBA analysts in the studio was completely unnecessary. This didn't hurt the booth, as Steve Kerr complemented Marv Albert well; while Reggie Miller made an already phenomenal pairing of Kevin Harlan and Len Elmore even better, but there was no reason for Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith to be there. Barkley is good for ratings in that he attracts the casual fan, and while I accepted Smith based on his standing in Turner's professional product, neither of them belong on this stage. It's a college basketball broadcast, therefore why not have analysts who know the game? It's a shame Greg Anthony and Seth Davis were once again relegated to supporting cast members to showcase the marquee names. For what it's worth, CBS did strike gold once again on the decision to bring coaches in as guest analysts. Frank Martin and Shaka Smart didn't hit home runs on the second weekend, but Jay Wright and Steve Lavin did the week before; especially the St. John's coach, who spent seven years "barnstorming the country" (in his own words) with ABC and ESPN during his "coaching sabbatical." All perceived bias aside, I got much more out of Lavin's brief stint in the studio than I did from any other analyst.
Finally, there is the matter of one Gus Johnson. A man who is either loved or hated depending on whom you speak to, Johnson missed the tournament for the first time in seventeen years after he could not agree to a new contract with CBS. While most fans were drawn to Johnson for his excitement and engaging style, this year's NCAA Tournament actually benefited from not having him around. I've already heard some call this year's installment of the Big Dance "cursed" for not having as many close games, but the sad truth is that Johnson would have got in the way on some of the contests this year. For example, Marv Albert's final call of Norfolk State's upset of Missouri was handled the right way: Not too much pomp and circumstance, just the right way to capture the moment appropriately.
Overall, this year's NCAA Tournament may not have been as unpredictable as last year even with the two wins by No. 15 seeds, but the general presentation and broadcast quality is a major improvement from twelve months ago, something that helps the product for the future.