Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mason, Channel 9 and the best tournament ever?

Who is running WUSA Channel 9 in Washington, and what were they thinking Sunday afternoon? Ever since George Mason's remarkable, thrilling upset of Connecticut ended and the Villanova-Florida game began on Sunday, CBS had been promoting that the halftime would feature highlights, thecutting of the nets, interviews with George Mason players, etc., and I was eagerly anticipating it. But after the five minutes of commercials that usually lead off the extra-special, excruciatingly long 20 minute halftimes during the tournament, Channel 9 all of a sudden switched to Brett Haber sitting in the news studio. He showed Connecticut's missed shot and maybe one other highlight, and then switched to Stacy Cohan standing not far from a parking lot on what looked like a deserted area of George Mason's campus. She showed a brief piece of videotape of students celebrating at the student center as the game ended--a clip that had the video quality of an al Qaeda hostage video--and then said something like, "Hey, look how they're partying in Fairfax," which was the cue for about four students to run from off-camera and start screaming and jumping around in celebration. Not only was this kind of an insult to George Mason students (yes, I know it's a commuter school and that apparently spring break was last week, but wasn't there a central location where people were hanging out and partying--it had only been an hour since the game ended), but it was useless for the home viewer since she didn't even talk to any GMU students. They just yelled and mugged for the camera. After about a minute more of Cohan trying to talk about pretty much nothing and being drowned out by the kids yelling in back of her, she threw it back to Bret Haber in the studio, who then said that he'd be back for the 11:00 news. Channel 9 then returned to the CBS coverage, where Greg Gumbel was just finishing up the highlights.

Now if I'm a George Mason fan, I'm furious. I just became a George Mason fan two weeks ago when they made the tournament, and I was furious. I can remember in 1992, after the Christian Laettner shot to beat Kentucky, partying but at some point someone saying, "Hey, it's 11:00, let's go watch the highlights again on SportsCenter for a few minutes." But no, WUSA pre-empted the highlights for their amatuerish dog-and-pony show. (Yeah, I know there's ESPNews now that shows highlights every half-hour or less, but that might ruin that part of the argument, so forget about that.) Not only did we miss the highlights, it appeared we may have missed CBS's Seth Davis explaining he seemed to give Mason no chance--yes, I know he and Clark Kellogg seem to only get 20 seconds or so to make their predictions, and I can't blame Seth for picking UConn (it was a pretty sensible choice) but I don't think the name George Mason or Patriots or Larranaga or Jai Lewis or Lamar Butler even came out of his mouth in the pregame and halftime when asked how he saw the game breaking down. It was all about UConn and whatever they had to do--I can't remember what it was, but I think it had something to do with rebouding. At least Kellogg said that Mason needed to get out to an early lead and shoot well--neither of which they actually did in the first half, but at least he gave them a chance.(Did anyone in another city see if Seth addressed this?)

To be fair to Channel 9, they did get back in time to see Greg and the gang interview the team--where Seth Davis again didn't exactly distinguish himself by saying to GMU coach Jim Larranaga, "I'm too excited to think of a question. Coach, why don't you come up a question for Jai Lewis?" (Little known fact: When Bob Woodward met with Deep Throat in that garage, he'd often have the driver of the first car that pulled up during the meeting ask some questions.) But the fact that Channel 9 seemed to luck out and not miss the interview doesn't excuse missing the first portion of the GMU-UConn wrapup--especially when they could have gone to the local coverage during the second half of the halftime, which featured an interview with LSU coach John Brady which I didn't see but can't believe anyone would have been that upset about missing. Channel 9 has been on a long, slow downward spiral ever since the tragic death of sportscaster Glenn Brenner--a spiral so bad that all of their best people ended up on Channel 7. Sunday's shenanigans indicate that they still haven't turned it around.

One other thing about the tournament--I do want to give Seth Davis credit for one thing: In the "interviews" he's been doing during the tournament for, he was consistently correct in calming down the anonymous and lacking in any historical perspective interviewer and telling him that the tournament is always pretty great. The first weekend of the tournament may not the best ever, but typical of what we get most years, noted Davis. And then he was asked last Friday night if this year had the "best Sweet Sixteen" ever and he said that we often get a really exciting Sweet Sixteen, and that last year's Elite Eight was unbelievable with three overtime games. Having said all that, after the Mason victory, I've heard people (although not Seth) now talking about how this has been the best tournament ever. I think one can make that case, but I still think many people have short memories. Sure, there have been some buzzer beaters this year, some great upsets, and the best Cinderella story ever. But does anyone remember, to pick just one, the 1990 tournament? That had a parade of buzzer beaters even better than this year--including UConn's length of the court pass and shoot with one second left in the Sweet Sixteen and then Christian Laettner's buzzer beater in overtime to eliminate UConn just two days later. That tournament had amazing upsets, including three of the top seeds not making the Final Four. And that tournament had another great Cinderella story--a Loyola Marymount team that also upset the defending national champs like Mason did (but that year, Michigan had just about everybody back from their championship team) and made it to the Elite Eight--and their best player died a week before the tournament. That was a pretty amazing tournament. Of course, that 1990 tourney did have a disappointing Final Four, culminating in Duke getting blown out by UNLV by 30 in the championship game, so let's hope a precedent hasn't been set. But let's not be so eager to create instant history and "best ever" proclamations before we at least take a few minutes to recall the past.


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