March 21, 2011
Swish -- The new four-network format -- What did we ever do without having access to every game at once? After having the freedom to flip channels at will over the first four days of the tournament, I can barely remember the Dark Ages when we'd have to put on CBS and be force-fed the first 15 minutes of Duke-Radford. This was the best innovation the tournament has made in decades and almost makes up for the travesty that was the "First Four." Yes, it became disorienting at times -- other than a small logo and varying degrees of picture quality there was no way to tell which channel you were watching -- but that's a minor quibble, like complaining that your iPhone doesn't have a dial tone.
Airball -- Charles Barkley -- Everything that makes Barkley great on NBA games made him unwatchable in the studio during the NCAA tournament. His blunt, laid-back attitude works on "Inside the NBA," but not in the most exciting sporting event of the year. Barkley was a picture of apathy all weekend. He seemed to want to be anywhere but in a studio talking about Butler-Old Dominion, two teams he almost certainly hadn't seen play up until last week.
Barkley embraced his ignorance of the college game and so did the rest of the broadcast team. Much of his time on camera was spent mocking his brackets (which he picked based on how well he knew people associated with the school) or his lack of knowledge about the college game (like when he couldn't name a player on Princeton or laughed while struggling to remember the name of Kenneth Faried). Sir Charles doesn't know squat about college basketball! It was all a big joke.
That works on "Inside the NBA." It works really well. Barkley plays the role of the disinterested jester perfectly, mainly because he's anything but. He knows basketball and demonstrates it often. (He did so this weekend, mainly while analyzing specific plays, like Butler's buzzer beater over Old Dominion or how Michigan's 1-3-1 zone helped get the Wolverines back in the Duke game.) But the "I don't care" attitude is best when things don't really matter, like in February of the NBA season or after Game 1 of a playoff series. Things do matter in the NCAA tournament, though. One game and you go home. Barkley's attitude doesn't convey that finality.
It also doesn't help that Barkley has been effectively neutered because of his (or the producer's) reluctance to have him rip on college kids. Barkley isn't afraid to call somebody stupid on "Inside the NBA," but he won't do it on these broadcasts. Regular Chuck would have ripped Nasir Robinson for his foul on Matt Howard. College Chuck had to show some phony compassion and bite his tongue when discussing the situation. That's the right tact in a college studio show, but not for Charles Barkley.
Airball -- Chemistry -- Greg Gumbel is the consummate professional. He's hosted the CBS studio show for years and always does a fine job. I'm sure he's made a mistake or two over the years, but I can't remember them. Yet when he was paired with the NBA guys, he immediately transformed into the "Boom Goes the Dynamite" kid. Gumbel meandered through highlights, didn't know when to go to commercial and stumbled over words like he was, well, Kenny Smith. During the unfortunate occasions when Gumbel and Ernie Johnson were in the studio together, they awkwardly deferred to each other like two dancers who aren't sure who's supposed to lead.
Swish -- Marv Albert and Steve Kerr -- The NBA experiment wasn't a complete failure. Along with Ernie Johnson, Marv and Steve made a seamless transition from the pros to college. Marv could call a women's water polo game with ease and Kerr clearly did his homework. I don't know if his breakdown of Oakland's perimeter defense was accurate because I hadn't seen Oakland play all year. But it sounded like it was true, which is sometimes all that matters.
Airball -- Kenny Smith -- Barkley's "Inside the NBA" partner talked about college basketball the way a high school freshman gives a book report on "The Great Gatsby" after skimming the Cliff Notes in the hall before class. He was trying hard to sound like he knew what he was talking about but didn't have the background to pull it off. You can fake it or learn it when there are four teams to talk about, which is why I imagine Smith will be fine in the studio before the Final Four. But with 64 teams to talk about, Smith struggled, as is to be expected for somebody who spends the other 49 weeks of their year working in another sport.
Swish -- truTV -- If the point of giving the fourth slate of games to truTV was to raise awareness of a network nobody had ever heard of, then mission accomplished.
Airball -- truTV -- Now that we're all aware of truTV, we can go back to ignoring it again. As far as I could tell, the network exclusively runs shows about mustachioed men selling junk from people's garages. Also, the picture quality of the games was far inferior to CBS, TNT and TBS.
Swish -- Greg Anthony -- The biggest winner of the Barkley/Smith debacle. Anthony is always solid, but compared to Chuck and Kenny he sounded like John Madden in his prime over the weekend. He asked some good questions of ref coordinator John Adams, had a playful banter with Rick Pitino and showed tremendous insight into all the teams in the tournament, from No. 1 to No. 68.
Airball -- Weekend scheduling -- For the first five hours of coverage on Saturday and Sunday there was only one game going on at a time. For the last seven hours of coverage on Saturday and Sunday, there were usually three games going on at once. How does that make any sense? CBS used to always schedule a solo game for the first time slot of Saturday and then would stagger the starts of the rest of the seven second-round games. To do that for two solo games and then to dump the rest in the primetime slot, though? No thanks, particularly on Sunday. How can Sunday afternoon be good enough for the NFL but not for college basketball? I'm all for stretching out games as long as possible, but living on the East Coast meant four consecutive nights of staying up past midnight to watch basketball.
Airball -- NCAA officiating coordinator John Adams -- CBS had Adams around to discuss all the controversial calls from the weekend but instead of an insider's look at officiating, Adams simply defended his employees every time a questionable call was discussed. If he's just going to back up his guys, there's no need to have him in there. Get a Mike Periera figure next year, somebody who has the chops to give an opinion but isn't officially affiliated with the game. (And what's the point of having Adams on the horn if he's not going to provide instant clarification of rules? There was a whole segment on Sunday about the five-second call in the Texas game in which nobody was sure about whether a player could call timeout after the four count.)
Swish -- The top banner -- When CBS first introduced the banner at the top of the screen that showed live scores of other tournament games, it was necessary, but cumbersome. Though the point of it was to make it as camoflouged as possible, it was impossible not to see the clock ticking down in the scorebox of the other games. Oftentimes, I found myself watching that box more than the live game itself. For whatever reason, this year's strip, while a little bright, was less obtrusive. I never noticed the clock moving in the other games. Having the network logos next to the game also made navigating with the remote much easier.
Airball -- Different camera angles -- You know why all basketball broadcasts show the game from an elevated camera position at midcourt? Because it looks the best. So to all you directors who think you're creative by cutting to overhead angles and knee-level sideline shots and behind the basket cameras, enough. Just show the game, cut to a coach reaction every now and then, and put on the UCLA cheerleaders as much as possible. It's not that difficult.