Teams across the nation nervously and anxiously tuned in to CBS on Sunday to find out if they were making the NCAA Tournament, and when and where they would be playing. But they weren’t the only ones waiting to make travel arrangements to prepare for the ubiquitous festival of sport known as March Madness.
The eight broadcasting teams CBS and Turner employs to help televise the tournament’s opening weekend also awaited their assignments of where they were going and which teams they’ll be covering.
About 45 minutes after the field of 68 was unveiled, Brian Anderson, Steve Smith, Dana Jacobson and their entire crew found out they’d be headed to St. Louis for games on Friday and Sunday. Then the real preparation began.
In separate extensive phone interviews with Awful Announcing, Anderson and Smith detailed the countless hours of physical and mental prep work they’ll undertake to prepare to call six games in three days, including a whirlwind four contests on Friday.
For Anderson, that immediately begins on Sunday night as he prepares his boards.
“If I can get a sense of the flow of the games, starting with the first game of the day to the last, it helps me remember the matchups better,” Anderson told Awful Announcing.
After finding out that Dayton and Syracuse will be the first matchup on Friday, Anderson began writing out player cards by hand, rather than typing them out, and notes for each player and program.
“I’m kind of old school that way,” he said. “I remember them better.”
Then Anderson devours box scores and statistics to get a feel of the teams’ rotations, adding in pertinent or interesting pieces of biographical information. He worked on four teams on Sunday night and another four Monday morning.
As the game analyst, Smith is all about watching film of the eight teams he’ll call on Friday— and lots of it. He tries to watch two to three games during three different portions of each teams’ seasons, which adds up to dozens of games, or as many games as Smith can handle.
“Syracuse played Pittsburgh three times this year. Syracuse played Wisconsin,” Smith told Awful Announcing. “So sometimes you get a two for one.”
Anderson said that CBS and Turner provides a detailed web service where they can access a vast library of game tape for all the tournament teams to aid their preparation for Friday’s broadcasts.
Smith tries to cover every aspect of the game tape he can think of, examining close and late situations, who’s on the court and who defends on the ball towards the ends of games. Do teams foul in late-game situations while up by three? He tries to be ready for any scenario.
After Anderson gets his board together, he also compiles a separate notebook, where he writes down five interesting things about each program. For Syracuse, Anderson said, it was Jim Boeheim’s suspension and the fact that they were a bubble team. Other examples may include Xavier’s dynamic backcourt, the brilliance of Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine or Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who took over for the legendary Bo Ryan during the season.
On Tuesday, Anderson readies himself for a very long day of watching film. He watches an hour of film on each team, again in the chronological order of when they’ll play on Friday.
Anderson said it’s important for him to pin names to every player, especially for teams many may not be so familiar with. He recites players’ names aloud as an early dress rehearsal for the big telecasts.
The four days of preparation Anderson and Smith have this season is a luxury compared to 2015, when the duo called First Four games in Dayton on Tuesday. After calling those games, they had to drive through the night to Pittsburgh to get ready for four games that Thursday.
“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my career,” Anderson said of calling 12 different teams over a three-day span.
Smith made sure to express his appreciation that he has an extra day of preparation this year for Friday games rather than a Thursday start.
“It’s jamming everything in that short-term memory as best you can, just like when you used to take tests in college,” Anderson said.
The work Anderson and Smith did last year clearly paid off, as the pair was selected to call Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games this season for the first time.
“Just to be a part of it in any kind of way, to have a voice, an opinion, for being at a game, is the best job in sports other than playing,” Smith said.
Anderson and Smith both recall when they first became friendly, when Smith was a player for the San Antonio Spurs and Anderson was a television sideline reporter for the team.
“It’s a great honor, and as far as the partnership between Smitty and myself, we both have the same philosophy on life,” Anderson said. “We work hard to do right by our colleagues. Not just each other on the air, but all our colleagues in the truck and back in the studio. And the fact that they trust us with the big games means a lot.”
Wednesday is travel day, as Anderson, Smith and the rest of the crew head to St. Louis. At this point, Anderson has a lot of information already memorized and is feeling good about his prep work.
“I can go through each roster and I can say the player’s name and know what he looks like,” he said. “That’s a huge threshold to get to when you’re doing four games in one day.”
That night, Anderson, Smith, Jacobson, producer Scott Cockerill, director Renardo Lowe and the rest of the CBS-Turner team have their big pre-telecast production meeting.
The crew also includes researchers who each focus on different aspects of the broadcast. One person focuses on analytics, there’s a statistician and another looking for biographical information. Another sifts through previous press conferences and articles to find any insightful lost detail or nugget that may have been missed.
“We go through every team, every matchup and then we will be delivered all the graphics that are available for each team from production, all the tape roll-ins that we may have, any kind of special elements,” Anderson said.
Then Anderson and Smith discuss what the most important discussion points will likely be during these games, because it’s easy for everyone to get lost in the massive amount of preparation everyone has already done.
“We obviously aren’t going to get 80 percent of this stuff in,” Anderson said. “So let’s talk about what the most important thing is.”
Thursday is what Anderson calls the hardest day for him, even tougher than the actual games on Friday. He and Smith watch an hour of practice for all eight teams they’ll see the next day, from noon until about nine or 10 at night.
They get to talk to each team’s head coach, a couple of the players and the Student Information Director, but they more importantly get to see the teams they’ll call up close.
Smith and Anderson look to see which players on the teams are the leaders, and they may not necessarily be the school’s best players.
“You can always tell just by watching the dynamic of the team,” Anderson said. “Those things are important when the games get late and clutch shots need to be made.”
Smith also looks for who looks tight as opposed to players who look composed and relaxed on the practice court.
“You get a better feel for the team when you’re up close and personal,” Smith said.
Speaking of getting personal, Smith has to call his alma mater Michigan State at the Scottrade Center on Friday, and fans are going to inevitably accuse him of being biased towards his beloved Spartans. Smith said he’s going to be honest and transparent just like it were any other game.
“I can’t hide that I went to Michigan State. I can’t hide that I’m a Michigan State fan,” Smith said. “But I also know the integrity of the game, that you’ve gotta call it straight down the middle.”
After a good night’s sleep, it’s finally showtime on Friday. Anderson and Smith will arrive at the arena a couple of hours before the first game tips off at about 11:15 a.m. local time. For all the mental reps the two have put in to get to this point, Anderson and Smith need to drink tea and hot water to keep their voices from giving out during the day.
“Thank god I’ve never lost my voice, but I know that can happen,” Anderson said.
Smith called the big day physically draining, and both stressed the importance of remembering to eat throughout the day. Smith is also tempted to look at other monitors to see what’s going on during the other games, which can be distracting when you’re supposed to be looking at notes in anticipation of your next game.
Anderson and Smith were lucky enough to get a lot of close games last year, and the energy of the fans, the players and the arena usually keep them going until the last game is over. However, when one of the night games becomes a blowout, that’s when it can test your stamina, Anderson said.
“That’s when it gets really challenging because now you’re getting deep into your prep, things you thought you’d never need to use,” Anderson said.
Anderson stressed that all this discussion about broadcasters’ preparation is not so people will be impressed or feel bad for them, but to make sure that everything is done professionally for everyone who finds March Madness so meaningful and important.
“The underlying theme for us is to get it right,” Anderson said. “Get the players right, do right by the program, do right by the coaches and the players, do right by their fanbase. And that’s what really motivates me, what scares me into going that extra mile.”
After the games end on Friday, Anderson and Smith will get some rest and get ready for practices on Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s second round matchups. At the NCAA Tournament, it’s not just the players and teams who don’t have much time to get ready for their biggest moments.