In this week's SI Media Column from Richard Deitsch (a recommended weekly read), I took part in a fantasy broadcasting draft for the NCAA Tournament. The four participants were Deitsch, John Ourand from SBJ, Randy McClure from Rush the Court, and yours truly. The idea comes from our own NFL Fantasy Draft last April (where I managed to finish last in the accompanying poll, yes, it still bothers me).
The draft has produced plenty of discussion and debate and I wanted to provide some more expanded insights into who I drafted, why, and some of the toughest omissions for my March Madness fantasy team. As always, let your feedback be known in the comments. First, Team AA and the round I selected each broadcaster in:
Play by play: Sean McDonough (7)
Analyst: Jay Bilas (1)
Analyst: Bill Raftery (2)
Sideline reporter: Sam Ponder (8)
Play by play: Marv Albert (3)
Analyst: John Thompson (10)
Host: Jim Nantz (5)
Analyst: Clark Kellogg (4)
Analyst: Kenny Smith (9)
Wildcard: Chris Webber (6)
If I had the first pick (which Deitsch claimed in a David Sternish conspiracy), Gus Johnson would have also been my selection. With Gus out of the picture though, I wanted to focus on the analyst position and get the two best in the sport with picks #3 and #6 in the draft – Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. They were #2 and #3 on the AA Big Board and I was thrilled when they were both available. With Gus off to call European soccer, Raftery remains as one of the iconic voices of March Madness. I've yet to meet a real live college basketball fan that doesn't enjoy a game called by Bill Raftery, and I hope it never happens, because that would destroy the fabric of the universe.
Once I got Bilas and Raftery, I knew I wanted Sean McDonough on board to reconstruct what I feel is one of the best booths in sports. McDonough, Bilas, and Raftery mainly call Big East games for ESPN, but they deserve a brighter spotlight. Most times a 3 man booth is too much for basketball, but the interplay and chemistry between this trio is the best of any threesome working today. Raftery can drop in with his signature calls and play off Bilas while McDonough brilliantly balances the game call and getting his analysts involved. McDonough has called some of the biggest games in sports over his career and it's a wonder he's fallen a bit off the national stage in the last decade or so as he still calls a great game. You can tell these three enjoy working with each other (especially with Bilas' jokes about Raftery's libations on Twitter), know the game, and most importantly – can relate it to viewers.
But I knew I could wait a few rounds on McDonough. I grabbed the best basketball announcer alive (Marv) to lead my second booth and needed to fill my studio. It's here after my next 2 game analysts went off the board (Walton & Kerr) where I went in a radical direction – transplant CBS's lead team of Nantz and Kellogg from the booth to the desk. Kellogg was fantastic in the studio once upon a time and can be very good on the game broadcast, but he has a tendency to force things too often in an attempt to stand out. We joke about Clark's crazy analogies, but sometimes they're even too zany for my liking. (Hello, Allen Wrench!) At least it's a nice upgrade in the likability department after decades of Billy Packer. And believe it or not, I actually don't mind Jim Nantz's basketball play by play, but you're never getting that signature excited call the madness is all about. You know what you're getting from Nantz and Kellogg – a safe and steady broadcast that's perfect for corporate executives. Safe and steady is just fine for me in the studio though as Kenny Smith and Chris Webber can mesh nicely with Kellogg and provide a great mix of info and entertainment with Nantz having the ability to guide us through highlights, cut-ins, and discussions.
At the sideline reporter slot, there isn't a hotter name than Samantha Ponder as she's best-in-class at the moment. After bursting onto the scene with College Gameday in the fall, she's continued to work a full schedule of basketball. And while her presence certainly helps me in the 18-34 demographic, the thing I appreciate most about Ponder is the enthusiasm she brings to the sidelines. With Ponder, the sideline report isn't just empty airtime to get another face on TV, it's done with a purpose. As the draft ended, I knew I had one more game analyst spot to fill and John Thompson far surpassed anyone else analyzing the pro or college game on television left on the board.
As far as the toughest omissions, the name that came up time and again was Kevin Harlan. Longtime readers will be well aware of our affinity for Harlan's work and it was tough to leave him on the board, but my play by play plan was already in place. In my mind, he's the most talented and accomplished undrafted free agent by far. I also seriously considered drafting Brent Musburger, just so he could sign my lifesized picture of Katherine Webb.
On the analyst side, the glaring absence is ESPN's Bob Knight… ha, kidding, it was Jay Williams. I almost picked him for a studio slot, but felt the Turner guys bring just a bit more entertainment value. It'd be nice to see Williams get some more prominent airtime in Bristol moving forward, on Gameday especially. A couple other names to watch at the network as up and comers are Sean Farnham and former Arizona star Miles Simon on the analyst side. I also considered drafting Digger Phelps' highlighter, for like, a second or so.
Looking ahead to the actual tournament broadcast, short of bringing back Gus Johnson my one wish for CBS's coverage would be to get Bill Raftery to call a Final Four. He's done it on radio several times before and deserves the chance to do it on television. CBS execs may not know it, but the sun would rise again on April 9th if Nantz and Kellogg didn't call the championship game. Who knows, by shaking up their lineup and trying some new things, they may even find a broadcast formula that's better than the current reality, or any fantasy one.