Grading ESPN's College Basketball GameDay

January 8th, 2007

OK, so it’s easy to be critical of ESPN with their coverage of… well pretty much everything. And certainly their attention to college basketball has been lacking in the past. In case you forgot, here are some of their recent transgressions.

• The love affair they have with the coaches of upper tier teams is disgusting (specifically Coach K and excluding Bob Knight). These guys are made out to be Nobel Peace Prize winners if they win championships or if they graduate 75 percent of their players. Sure it’s important to graduate players, but all the problems that some coaches’ cause (shady recruiting, crazy emphasis on winning, choking players, stuff like that) goes largely unnoticed by the Vitales and Phelps of the world. College basketball should be about the players. After all, they aren’t getting paid, they are the ones getting the university paid, they aren’t as unimportant in comparison to coaches as ESPN’s coverage has indicated. But that’s a whole other column.

• CHN readers know firsthand, ESPN’s lack of coverage of the mid-majors leaves most college hoops fans looking elsewhere. There are no Missouri Valley highlights or CAA highlights on SportsCenter, and the only time they talk about mid-major teams is when one goes on a deep postseason run, and when that happens, they generally overkill it or it’s considered a novelty. Gonzaga, George Mason, Bradley; teams like these only get attention if they go to the Sweet 16, but is that to say they don’t have important or entertaining regular seasons? What about all the great teams that don’t make the postseason? I would put the Missouri Valley Conference games against any other league and yet the Big East and ACC get all the publicity. The Bracket Buster thing is cute and all, and occasionally they show mid-major games (on ESPN2 when there are important college football games on), but there is some great basketball going on outside the BCS conferences that I would like to see.

• From what I hear, they seem to like Duke quite a bit.

• Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Mike Patrick.

In addition to the mediocrity of ESPN’s coverage, the air time given to college hoops pails in comparison to their obsessive college football coverage. You could make the case that basketball is the most popular of the college sports, and yet it gets far less coverage than college football. The recent week-long, utterly intolerable SportsCenter segment of the hypothetical playoff system in college football is evident of the meaningless over-coverage of a sport based more around money than what happens on the field.

So two years ago, when ESPN decided to make College GameDay for basketball, I wasn’t sure what to think. The football version was exceedingly lame and Lee Corso’s complete lack of knowledge reduced the show to just trying to find the most explicit signs in the background. The basketball version turned out to be decent, but still seemed like a second act to its football counterpart.

So I was sure to tune in this past Saturday to the premiere of this year’s College GameDay for hoops to see if ESPN’s coverage of college basketball would still disappoint. (Note: I only watched the morning edition, there was a primetime edition leading into UCONN-LSU. I heard Dick Vitale was prominently involved, so make your own conclusions.)

Here are my thoughts on what was a generally entertaining and insightful program:

• Hubert Davis is a godsend. I wouldn’t classify him as a the best analyst out there, but he seems to know a lot more than anyone else on ESPN. While Phelps and Jay Bilas seem to harp on the obvious (i.e. Alando Tucker is good or it’s hard to play with lots of freshmen and sophomores) Davis made some really good points about the game and about the important match-ups of the day. His contention that the age rule is going to greatly affect the mid-major schools because even more impact players will be going to even more major programs marked the first time I ever went, “Hmm, that makes a lot of sense,” as a result of ESPN’s college basketball coverage. When they picked their Pontiac Gamechangers at the end of the show, Phelps picked Greg Oden, Bilas picked Nick Fazekas (and made a big deal about picking a mid-major player even though Fazekas is probably the most known mid-major player out there) and Davis picked Tajuan Porter. While it turned out to be the wrong Oregon guard, he realized the Ducks only chance against UCLA was if their backcourt showed up and he didn’t care if most viewers didn’t know who Porter was. Doesn’t seem like much but it’s good to have Hubert aboard.

• They had a couple of great segments including a heartfelt look at the affect the Duquesne shooting had on the team. To me, this is the most ignored story in college hoops and I’m glad someone paid attention to it. They recounted the events and the injuries to all the players and included comments from each player involved. Hopefully this makes it on SportsCenter soon. They also had a real interesting piece with Glen Davis and Jay Bilas. Bilas put his dorkiness aside and actually went in the post with Davis, tried to guard him and predictably got dunked on. For people who like Xs and Os and the intricacies of the game, hearing Davis’ philosophy on post play and how to beat a defender was interesting. I can’t imagine them doing this on the football version of GameDay. They also had an inside look at a UCONN practice that didn’t really work. It essentially just showed a miserable Jim Calhoun berating his players, but it was at least unintentionally comical to a degree.

• One of the things I hate most about the football version of GameDay is the whole thing just revolves around pandering to the crowd. Although all three analysts picked LSU (the show took place inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center), for the most part they didn’t let the crowd affect them. I can’t believe I have to say that about a television program, but kudos nonetheless.

• At one point they had a kid shoot a half-court shot for 10 grand. While it seems trivial, for some reason those things are always entertaining, I don’t care who you are.

With all that being said, GameDay passing my test Saturday is not a cure-all for ESPN’s basketball coverage. The show is still only an hour, a step down from the football version, and had a ton of commercials. Also, if there aren’t any marquee games or there are big events in other sports, which was basically the case on Saturday, the show is going to be ignored by casual college basketball fans. But overall, it was a good start and enough to get me to watch in upcoming weeks. Even if it means I have to put up with Digger Phelps and his hi-liter/necktie color schemes.