Highlighters & Headsets: Reviewing the MarathonPosted by rtmsf on November 19th, 2010
Highlighters & Headsets is an occasional look at the coverage of college basketball – from television to print (they still make paper?), blogs to bracket busters, and Gus Johnson to Gameday – written by RTC contributor Steve Moore. He welcomes your comments, column ideas and Dickie (V) jokes at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @smoore1117.
Hoops Marathon Tests ESPN’s Bench Depth
ESPN catches a lot of flak from a lot of people – much of it deserved. But as almost any college basketball fan will tell you, the College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon is one of the best things on the ESPN calendar. It’s unique and quirky, without being overly gimmicky. We get to see teams and players we won’t see again all season, and have an excuse to stay up until all hours of the night. For me (and I hope at least a few others, or else no one will be reading this), part of the allure is also keeping an eye (and ear) on how ESPN performs during its annual test of endurance and depth.
Personally, I think this is the kind of thing that proves why ESPN is the gold standard. Its resources (read: dollar bills, y’all) are endless, and, for the most part, its announcing crews are professional and entertaining. Unlike some people here at RTC, I couldn’t make it through the entire 24 hours without the help of Red Bull, Four Loko or some other delicious energy beverage. But I did catch enough to put together a quick rundown of the ups and downs of ESPN’s effort on what was, overall, an incredible day for hoops fans everywhere.
THE PERFECT ATTITUDE
Nearly all of ESPN’s announcing teams on Tuesday – and the general attitude of the network’s promotion – seemed to understand the event. By that, I mean the network seemed to understand that the whole concept of playing basketball at 2, 4 and 6 a.m. is a little strange, and it’s OK to increase the off-beat goofiness and drop the life-or-death mindset that is more appropriate during Championship Week or UNC-Duke.
As the hours got later, the announcers seemed to adapt with the late-night viewers watching at home. Sean McDonough and Bill Raftery (Memphis-Miami, midnight) always sound like they’re sitting at the bar talking about the game, but Carter Blackburn/Mark Gottfried (St. Mary’s-St. John’s, 2 a.m.) and Todd Harris/Mark Adams (Hawaii/Central Michigan, 4 a.m.) lightened the mood and didn’t take themselves too seriously. We got much less in the way of X’s and O’s, and more basic information about teams and players we may not know too well.
The prize, however, goes to the duo of Rob Stone and Jay Williams, who called two games in two different states, 12 hours apart (Monmouth-Stony Brook, 6 a.m., and Villanova/Marist, 5:30 p.m.). Stone’s lighthearted style, and the fact that he’s not a college hoops specialist, just seemed to work well with a ridiculous 6 a.m. tip in a high school-sized gym at Monmouth. Part of the allure of the 6 a.m. game is wondering what the atmosphere is like and whether the players and coaches are into it. The duo kept me interested, and also seemed completely on board with their early wakeup call. It would have been easy to tell if the pair felt like it was forced into the ridiculous assignment. Stone and Williams seemed to embrace the absurdity of it all, and even filmed their trek from Monmouth to Villanova. The clip of Stone rocking out to Journey was one of the day’s highlights.
In fact, I would even suggest a few more of these quirky announcing journeys during the marathon. Maybe let McDonough and Raftery start and finish the event, or send Dickie V to Monmouth or one of the smaller schools. God knows he sees the ACC enough.
GREAT NEW VOICES, AND GRATING FAMILIAR FACES
Opening with McDonough and Raftery can never be disputed, but one of the joys of the marathon was getting to hear some rarely used ESPN personalities. I thoroughly enjoyed Blackburn and Gottfried on the St. Mary’s-St. John’s game. Gottfried was spot-on with much of his analysis, without sounding like a know-it-all. He predicted the Johnnies would hit the second-half wall, and also used the background conversations with Steve Lavin and Randy Bennett to provide insight, instead of the usual “I’m just going to name-drop the coaches so you know I’m important” attitude.
I’ve always liked Bob Wischusen and Stephen Bardo (Northeastern-Southern Illinois, 10 a.m.) and am quickly coming around on Jon Sciambi and LaPhonso Ellis (Robert Morris-Kent State, 8 a.m.). And, for my money, ESPN does not have a better play-by-play man than Ron Franklin, who worked well with Fran Fraschilla (Baylor-La Salle, 2 p.m.) on what turned out to be a pretty boring game in a rather sterile arena in Waco. Williams, who I didn’t really care for at the start, clearly has taken his new career seriously, and is fast becoming an excellent color analyst.
To be perfectly honest, the only voices in the games I saw that I didn’t enjoy were some of the usual ESPN A-listers. As much as I love Brent Musberger as a play-by-play man, Bob Knight’s work as an analyst literally made me flip off the afternoon’s premier game: Kansas State-Virginia Tech (4 p.m.). His tone is completely standoffish, and he comes off as being annoyed that this is what his life has become. He acts like he’s smarter than everyone else, and even if he is, no one wants to feel like they’re being lectured while watching a game. Plus, his first-half discussion with an official and Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenburg about the validity of an intentional foul call – which you could easily hear on air – was completely unprofessional and awkward.
I did miss the prime time games, as I went to see Boston University (my alma mater) take on George Washington in the NIT at Villanova. But once you’ve seen one Dickie V game, you’ve seen them all. I did get home to catch Terry Gannon and Miles Simon on the UCLA-Pacific game (11:30 p.m.). I love Gannon on golf coverage, but he left me indifferent on college hoops. Simon still has some work to do.
ESPN IS ALL-IN
In the days and weeks leading up to the marathon, I got the impression that ESPN was throwing its weight behind this year’s marathon more than in the first two years. That belief was proven true on Tuesday. This was not a half-assed effort by ESPN, which sounds like it should be a given, but it’s not. It’s easy to tell when ESPN is only doing an event because it feels like it has to (see: Major League Soccer coverage), and it would even be understandable if they mailed this in during stretches when they thought no one was watching. But the production quality was top-notch, and the effort to educate viewers on some lesser-known teams, players and campuses was very much appreciated, especially for someone who hails from a low-major school.
The only place I’d like to see MORE effort is in the halftime and between-game coverage. For those of us who stayed up late, we saw the SAME halftime footage of Rece Davis, Digger Phelps, Hubert Davis and Jay Bilas talking about “this year’s Butler.” Hey ESPN: people are watching at that hour, and we know you have more than enough bodies in Bristol to fill those seats. Let the interns take a shot at the 4 a.m. halftime show, I don’t really care, but just give me new voices.
Also, don’t try to adjust the every-two-hours format. I know the games overlapped often, but the ESPNU backup plan worked just fine. I’d rather have overlapping games then dead time in between.
In this section, I plan to offer a few quick-hit thoughts that may or may not have anything to do with the point of the entry above it. That is until I get lazy and forget to do it later in the season…
- The Marathon is obviously here to stay, and I am very curious how ESPN will keep it fresh. The current format – east coast midnight start, west coast at 2 a.m., Hawaii at 4 a.m. and willing low-majors at 6 and 8 a.m. – seems as logical as any. But Hawaii can’t host every year, can they? You have to wonder if ESPN can maybe work with the Great Alaska Shootout, or even the Maui Invitational, to fill those odd timeslots on occasion. It will only get easier to find schools willing to play at strange times, and it’s great to see schools like Monmouth and Stony Brook embrace the challenge.
- The continuing evolution of ESPNU is wonderful to see. For the first year or two of its existence, I couldn’t get ESPNU. But even when I did, it was hard not to feel like you were watching a C-level broadcast. But with nearly everything now in HD, and ESPN seeming to throw its full weight behind the network, it’s great to have another outlet for college hoops, especially smaller schools and conferences.
- ESPN3.com has always been a great idea, but I’ve had more battles with this outlet than Calipari and the NCAA. It either blocked my access, the video was choppy, or the announcers were unbearable. But the recent alliance with XBOX Live is a thing of genius that makes my Live subscription worth its weight in gold. I can now watch EVERYTHING ESPN3.com offers on my television, much of it in HD. Right now, I am using the OnDemand feature to watch the BU-Villanova game I attended Wednesday night (my Terriers showed themselves well, but Nova is in another world). Honestly, it’s almost worth buying an Xbox if you don’t have one. And if you’re expecting it on your Wii or PS3, it ain’t happening. Microsoft and ESPN have an exclusive agreement.
- For those who’ve read this far, it’s good to see I’m not the only one who takes as much of an interest in the coverage of games than the games themselves. Feel free to use the comments section, my email address or Twitter (@rushthecourt and @smoore1117) to praise me, rip me, or call me a moron. Oh, and if you have anything you’re curious about on the media angle, feel free to let me know. I may just be blogging from my parents’ basement, but I’d be happy to get some answers (or make something up).