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How to talk about college basketball on TV

The first rule is that you have to love it. Nothing else really matters.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

If you are not patient, you will not be able to enjoy the NCAA Tournament. Not in the sense that you will need to wait to see basketball happening. Not at all in that sense: If you use your vacation days properly, stay up late enough and sleep late enough, you can spend four straight days watching basketball without ever stopping for longer than it takes to get additional snacks.

In terms of customer service, March does not leave basketball fans much to complain about. Humanity always finds a way to complain anyway -- that way is usually Twitter -- but this is not the sort of patience that college basketball demands. The patience that matters most is more a matter of expectation, and remembering what you're watching when you're watching it. College basketball is, after all, played by college-age people, and those who have been college-age people know what those are like -- like other people, but somewhat younger and generally worse at everything except binge-drinking.

And so college basketball players make mistakes. They get nervous and confused, and the admittedly overwhelming moment overwhelms them utterly. There are always more back-rimmed jumpers and overdetermined over-dribbling than you expect, even if you're expecting it. These are not professionals, and most of them never will be; they are not really adults, although some are further along than others. The basketball that results is exactly the basketball that would result.

There is a certain type of basketball aesthete who can't watch college basketball for this reason, and a grating subset of that group that's intent on making those feelings known. These squeakers need you to know that they just love basketball too much -- respect the game too much, really -- to watch it be biffed and botched by a bunch of terrified teenagers. (This is a matter of taste, and so less flagrantly specious than its willful contrarian counterpoint, which is that college basketball is somehow better than NBA basketball, because it is worse and the people playing aren't getting paid, or something.)

Anyway, it's best to ignore these people, although you're probably already doing that. Naturally, that's harder to do when they're broadcasting the games.


It's hard to know how much of the copious facepalm material that blurts from televisions during NCAA Tournament broadcasts really should be filed under Bad With Intent. Talking about basketball on television is certainly harder than talking about it in a bar or living room or the Internet, if only because the job demands that you never stop talking about it. It's maybe generous, but at least somewhat fair, to allow that some of the lazy noise during a given game -- the humping away at some familiar story line or bit of old n' bloaty conventional wisdom, the idle hymning of a stern, old coach -- is just the sound of an announcer's taxed and buzzing brain in energy-saver mode. While that brain waits for the moment when it will be called upon to do something more interesting or difficult, like unpack a basketball play or bit of strategy, these are the noises it makes.

This is where things like the offhand canonization of Aaron Craft come from. There is a foundational thing -- Craft is good and comparatively short and tries hard and will graduate -- and then there is a thick powdery overlay of white noise as announcers and pundits wait for some other new thing to occur. Most of what you hear during a college basketball broadcast, besides the play-by-play describing the actual and generally unique action, is this. Someone has to talk, so someone talks.


Photo: Jared Wickerham

The opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament required the services of a great many talkers, just in terms of in-game diegetic noisemaking. Four different channels were given over to broadcasting the games, and there are not necessarily four channels' worth of people who should be talking about college basketball all day, and certainly not enough in the employ of CBS and the Turner family of networks. Others made noise on the networks that didn't have games to show, and that long-distance meta-analysis and kayfabe-y fake debate was invariably worse, with Bob Knight's queasily inevitable rape metaphors heading a long list.

That last bit is not a new development, of course, as there are generally more hours of television than there are interesting things in them. It is not that difficult to avoid things like hearing Bob Knight expound on today's teens or watching Dick Vitale digress at jet engine volume about what a wonderful man Johnny Dawkins is, and what wonderful parents he has, just terrific people. You just have to know where not to be and who to tune out, and everyone already knows this.

It's tougher to do that during games, though, and while the winnowing of the tournament will blessedly spare us much more of Reggie Miller criticizing a pudgy 6'5 power forward for missing a layup or Doug Gottlieb clucking at the poor decision-making of a stressed out 18-year-old point guard, we've already had more of that than anyone would want. This is not to single out these two commentators, necessarily. Miller, a wearyingly self-amused troll and longtime sports TV nightmare, is probably a lost cause at this point, but Gottlieb is knowledgeable, quick and could well mellow into a good color commentator.

Quite aside from how good or bad they are at their jobs, though, is the bigger challenge of talking about college basketball. It's a tricky thing, and it isn't. The trick is that you have to love it, all of it, even and maybe especially all those mistakes.


This is generally good advice, if also more easily said than done. But where college basketball is concerned, it's the only thing that really matters, or really works. There are partisan fans who follow college basketball with the same draconian zero-sum win-mindedness displayed by college football fans, but they are outliers in March; there are gamblers, and you know what they're like.

But on balance, college basketball, for all its conflicts and contradictions, is a different and warmer thing. For all the scowling boosters demanding various coaches' jobs and the dense and fundamental shittiness of the recruiting world, there is an uncommon empathy -- a weird and unique sort of fellowship with young, gangly, pimpled kids in sleeveless jerseys -- that governs the way we watch and experience college basketball in March.

This is not universal. There are many ways to watch and feel and think about this thing, and enough energy being thrown off that we can easily repurpose it into whatever type of thrill we want it to be. But at some point, for all but the most curdled or abstracted or mis-prioritized observers, college basketball fandom converges on something protective and patient, almost parental. These players are not finished yet; in many cases, they are only barely in progress. To watch a season of college basketball is to watch the players on the court grow up, in all the various good and bad incremental ways that people can grow up -- we get better or we get lost or both. We find our level and learn to live with where that leaves us. Everyone does this, and to watch college players grow up on the court is to watch them doing it.

We watch the NBA for the basketball; we watch the NCAA Tournament for the people.

If we are doing it right, the thing to feel in watching this is hopeful. That is, hopeful that everything works out for everyone, because why ever hope for anything else, but hopeful, too, that all the heat and light thrown off by this particular way of growing up will give us a sort of contact high that's enriching in the way the usual Sports Feelings aren't. Watching these raggedly in-the-red games is an experience that transcends the awe-driven aestheticism of the NBA, even as it never attains that level of performative grace. It's a sloppier and richer thing, more variable and less predictable and otherwise reflective of what it is like to be young, and to be so completely unfinished. We watch the NBA for the basketball; we watch the NCAA Tournament for the people.

People who play basketball, sure, and also the basketball that they play. But the emotional range is what makes it, those vastness of the swings from happiness to sadness, the struggle for poise against all the circumstances and externalities and internal flaws co-conspiring to return these players to their flailing teenage essences. People tend to get better at basketball as they age out of collegiate eligibility, but they tend, too, to feel things less wildly -- there is just more to compare everything to, a protective cushion of context that reduces the sudden impact and wild whiplash that defines those years. The people we watch in March are not protected in that way, or restricted in that way.

So how to talk about someone still so raw and so vulnerable? For some, as with Bob Knight or the ulcerous ex-fixture Billy Packer, those young humans disappear into abstraction -- one big jumble of tattoos and The Rap Music and decisions that don't make no damn sense. A certain light has gone out, and all that's left is to grouse.

For other, more bright-sided commentators -- the ultimate example of which is college basketball household saint Bill Raftery -- the empathy deepens with each missed layup. This reflects well on Raftery as a human being and a professional, of course, but it's also the best and biggest way to feel about all this. One can bless this mess, or curse it. It will not change, because people this age are people this age. You either pull for those people -- open your heart to and for them, and revel in their revelry -- or you don't.


Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Raftery has watched two generations of lopsided weeknight losses in Providence and Cincinnati and wherever else, and somehow the experience seems only to have made made him love it all more, to wish more fully for the fulfillment of every on-court hope and to enjoy with all appropriate agape awe what beauty somehow emerges from that post-adolescent churn. This is the thing that's actually shameful about Reggie Miller clucking "you've got to make that" after a missed layup.

It's not that Reggie's wrong. He's not. You do have to make that layup if you want to win. But in a broad and unarticulated sense, that's not the point -- not the making, and not even really the winning. It certainly is not what we watch for in March. The important thing about the shot is taking it. It's getting the ball, and in that tense unconscious instant of squaring up and preparing and marshaling every screaming contradictory instinct, letting it go without even quite knowing you're doing it.