Sometime around 1:30 yesterday afternoon, as the Georgetown-Duke game was about to tip off and the Notre Dame-Syracuse affair came to a close, my friend and I articulated a common sentiment. We decided there was no excuse for any self-proclaimed sports fan to miss such a day of basketball. The usual exceptions applied; employment, family obligations, and medical issues counted as excused absences. But given the cold front sweeping across half the country and the exceptional lineup of games, my friend and I decided that any unoccupied sports fan worth his salt would be firmly planted in front of the television set for at least one contest. Yes, this was quite obviously self-congratulatory, but we were too busy enjoying the day to confront the vain nature of our proclamation.
Here are some assorted thoughts and observations from this amazing day.
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During Arizona State-UCLA’s pre-game analysis session, we were treated to a fairly useless observation by CBS’ normally inoffensive Clark Kellogg. In giving a general overview of the two contestants, Kellogg mindfully advised us:
“And I’ll tell you this, keep an eye on UCLA this year. They’re really starting to come together as a team.”
I know what he meant, and it is not my goal to intentionally misunderstand him. He meant that, in his judgement, UCLA’s play as a team has improved recently, and he would not be surprised to see them get on a roll. This came across as a little silly. UCLA was ranked #7 in the country going into the game. They were also winners of 10 in a row. Imploring viewers to “keep an eye on” a very good team with a recent history of Final Four appearances was quite unhelpful.
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ABC’s broadcast of the Wake Forest-Clemson game managed to go only slightly longer before having a similarly unhelpful moment. As is their custom, broadcasters Brent Musburger and Steve Lavin guided us through the “Star Watch” graphic, which informs the uninformed of each team’s best player. Unsurprisingly, Wake Forest’s “Star” was sophomore point guard Jeff Teague.
Almost immediately following tip-off, Teague made a nice play that resulted in a basket in some way. The specifics have eluded me. In any case, Lavin commented:
“And right away, you see Jeff Teague make his presence felt. Great job by our producer and research team to pick out Teague for our ‘Star Watch.'”
The tone was self-congratulatory and bereft of sarcasm. This season, Teague is averaging 21.4 points, 4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2 steals per game. He’s also shooting 53.3% from the field, and a ridiculous 52.3% from three-point range. He notoriously dismantled then-#1 ranked UNC a week ago. It hardly takes a Herculean effort from a producer and research team to determine that Wake Forest’s best player is Jeff Teague.
I do not mean to be a curmudgeon, but both this and the UCLA comment are symptomatic of the larger problem in contemporary sportscasting: the complete and total aversion to challenging analysis. Undoubtedly, there are many viewers who do not know that UCLA is a perennial powerhouse. There are many viewers who are unaware of Teague’s dominance. It would just be nice if the sportscasters could also throw the more knowledgeable viewers a meaningful statistic or a challenging thought every so often. It is possible to accommodate both the casual and dedicated fan without leaving one demographic by the wayside.
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There was a tremendous opportunity to offer such a challenging thought late in the Pittsburgh-Louisville game. Pitt was leading 55-47 with 8:04 left in the second half when Pitt’s DeJuan Blair accrued his fourth foul. Despite his animated pleas, Blair was removed from the game to protect him from fouling out. Each member of the broadcasting team – Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas, and Bill Raftery – applauded the decision as necessary and tactically correct. Both members of the couch in Apartment 5D, however, first-guessed the decision. I do not know exactly when Blair returned to the game, but his name does not reappear in the play-by-play until 1:25 remained, at which point the score was 62-58 Louisville. They won 69-63.
I found it disheartening that none of the three broadcasters questioned Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon’s decision to remove Blair from the game. I understand the logic of those who would endorse this tactic. Pitt had an eight point lead, and Louisville’s offense was showing few signs of life. The idea of leaving Blair in the game and having him pick up a cheap fifth foul is viscerally unappealing. These were the main arguments for removing him from the game.
But what if Blair himself was a significant reason for that eight point lead, or Louisville’s stagnant offense? What if Blair’s continued presence on the court was necessary for a Pitt victory? One could argue that Dixon did think Blair was necessary for victory, because he protected him. But if he’s necessary for victory, then it is fundamentally questionable to remove him from the game, even with four fouls. Dixon was faced with two options. He could have left Blair in the game, reasonably expecting the lead to stay the same or even grow, and deal with Blair’s fifth foul if and when it happened. Or, he could have (and did) remove Blair from the game, hoping that Pitt could survive without him until enough time had passed that it was safe to put Blair back in. I am not smart enough to know whether or not Blair’s removal caused Louisville’s 15-3 run in his absence, but I bet it had at least something to do with it. And, disappointingly, none of the broadcasters first or second-guessed Dixon’s decision. This is another example of conservative broadcasting and conventional thinking getting in the way of intelligent discussion and a better product.
Now for some less meaty thoughts.
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It is nothing short of criminal that CBS’ Gus Johnson was relegated to the studio on such a day of basketball. You could almost see the disappointment on his face. I dare you to watch this compilation and honestly tell me that the man should be in the studio:
Johnson’s calls never cease to give this cranky 22-year old goosebumps. His enthusiasm is neither contrived like Jim Nantz’, nor aimless like Dick Vitale’s. It is genuine and passionate, and it needs to be unleashed upon the basketball-viewing world. Free Gus Johnson.
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Those who have watched college sports with me in the last few years know that the continual usage of phrases like “senior leadership,” “senior plays,” and “senior experience” is a fantastic way to rile me up. Someday, perhaps soon, I will write my manifesto on this phenomenon, why this bothers me, and if my irritation is even justified (it probably is not). In the meantime, I am going to be minimally analytical and share two moments that made me cock my head in curiosity.
The first was during yesterday’s Illinois-Michigan State game. Late in the game, Michigan State’s senior guard Travis Walton helpfully boxed out a larger Illinois player, inducing a loose ball foul that gave the Spartans free-throws. Color-commentator Doris Burke gushed, repeatedly declaring Walton’s box-out a “senior play.” Proclamations of senior leadership and veteran experience ensued. Walton then went to the line, and promptly bricked the two free-throws, keeping Illinois in the game.
The second occurred roughly a week ago during a Louisville game. I forget their opponent. It might have been Kentucky. I will call them Kentucky. Louisville’s senior forward Terrence Williams aggressively drove to the basket and make an important layup, giving the Cardinals a late lead. Kentucky called a timeout. Color-commentator Len Elmore effused about Williams’ senior leadership and his ability to recognize the team’s need for him to make a play. On the inbounds play immediately following the timeout, Williams way overplayed a Kentucky player’s cut towards the inbounder. Thus, the player saw an opportunity to take off down the court and catch a long pass for an uncontested layup. That is exactly what happened. There was no mention of Williams’ gaffe. It was simply referred to in the general sense as a team mistake.
It is easy to see where I am going with this. I do not understand why an important play by a senior receives enthusiastic commendation, but a clear and subsequent mistake goes without notice. If a freshman bricks those free-throws, or overplays the inboundee, he is sympathetically chided for lacking the requisite experience or mental toughness to handle pressure situations. If you keep an eye out for this, I think you will notice it too.
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It is the most minor of my observations, so I will end with it, but I took issue with the way ESPN disclosed Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody’s statistics during a highlight show. Notre Dame played Syracuse yesterday and, as is his habit, Harangody put up impressive raw numbers. After showing highlights of the contest, ESPN posted “Harangody (ND): 25 pts, 16 reb, 6 ast” in the box score. This is incredibly misleading.
Harangody shot 9-28 against Syracuse, which is 32.1%. That is terrible, and well below his 50% entering the game. Unfortunately, this measurement of efficiency was ignored, giving the impression that Harangody had a spectacular game. Adding insult to injury, ESPN also unveiled the most superficial of comparisons between Harangody and fellow double-double machine, Blake Griffin of Oklahoma. This incredibly complex graphic showed both players’ points and rebounds per game (24.8/12.9 for Harangody, 22/13.4 for Griffin). Comments about the wondrous and equal ability of the players ensued. Again, this was misleading. Harangody’s 24.8 points per game come with a 48.1 FG% and 1.29 points per shot. Griffin’s marginally inferior scoring average occurs with a 63.2 FG% and 1.74 points per shot. Griffin is by far more efficient than Harangody.
It was frustrating to see ESPN two readily-available statistics away from doing some genuinely enlightening work.
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I will now spend the rest of the day trying to ignore the fact that my New York Giants have defeated each of the four teams remaining in the playoffs. Take care, and stay warm.