Next week, CBS and Turner will begin the greatest three weeks in sports — the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. With teams playing at eight sites around the country on the first weekend, there will be eight announcing teams guiding us through those chaotic first two days. Here’s a ranking of those eight announcing pairs (and trios):
1. Verne Lundquist/Jim Spanarkel
Verne is the absolute best. Spanarkel, despite being one of three Dukies on coverage (Syracuse barely has that many and that’s the giant of sports journalism), is very good. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem with the pairing, which we’ll address … right now:
2. Jim Nantz/Bill Raftery/Grant Hill
(Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Let’s go over the backstory: Greg Anthony replaced Clark Kellogg in the chair next to Nantz and proved himself to be an outstanding game announcer, certainly worthy of being on the No. 1 team with Nantz. But then Anthony went and got arrested for soliciting a prostitute and was suspended for the 2015 tournament, forcing CBS/Turner to rework its lineup. Bill Raftery was moved from his customary teaming with Lundquist and Hill was called up from the studio. Evidently, this stopgap has become ritual and the CBS "A" team remains Nantz/Raftery/Hill.
That’s perfectly fine. Grant Hill is a fine announcer — likable, knowledgable, funny and knows how to play the role of former NCAA tournament star in the booth without using it as a crutch or resorting to the "in my day" cliche. But there’s no reason to have a three-man booth with Bill Raftery on the CBS A team.
It’s quite simple: Raftery, 71, isn’t going to be calling games forever (unfortunately). Billy Packer was 68 when he was booted, though under different circumstances. Hill, meanwhile, is going to be with Nantz as long as CBS/Turner want him to be (and vice versa). So just go ahead and give Hill the only chair and cut out the unwieldy three-man booth. No announcing team in any sport has ever been aided by the permanent presence of a third person in the booth.
With Nantz/Hill locked in, put Raftery back with Lundquist, the booth everybody loved and made March Madness even more fun – if that was even possible. Let Verne and Raft call the first two rounds, a regional and then, for the next few years, one Final Four game, while giving Nantz/Hill the other game plus the finals.
It was great to hear Raftery on a national championship call last year. It’s better to hear him paired with Lundquist for the next few years while they’re still working and bringing their fastballs along with them.
3. Ian Eagle/Chris Webber/Len Elmore
(Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Here’s where the new jockeying begins. Marv Albert wanted out of NCAA duties, preferring to rest his voice and keep his focus on the pros. (Calling four games in one day and six games in 60 hours is pretty strenuous for anyone, let alone a 75-year-old.) That left a spot open for Eagle to work alongside Webber and Elmore. Eagle is used to the promotions, as he was on the No. 5 NFL team for CBS as recently as 2009 and has slowly moved up the ladder to No. 2, where he and Dan Fouts make for one of the top duos in the sport. But here’s the weird thing: This crew got to call a regional (the tournament’s second weekend) with Albert. They won’t with Eagle.
4. Brian Anderson/Steve Smith
That’s because Brian Anderson, perhaps the fastest rising star in sports television, got the nod with the former Michigan St. star Steve Smith. Maybe that was on the strength of his call of that memorable Kentucky-Notre Dame last year when Anderson had to fill-in for Marv Albert who was "under the weather" for the Elite Eight classic. Odd that Anderson got bumped up to a regional team (and thus is considered among the top four announcing teams on CBS/Turner) and didn’t get paired with the color analysts who’d already been there. There apparently were two decisions made here: 1) Anderson > Eagle. 2) Anderson/Smith > Anderson/Webber/Elmore.
5. Carter Blackburn/Mike Gminski
This is a rankings based onexpectations, as Blackburn is the guy who’s new to the team in the wake of Albert’s departure. He’s paired with Gminski, a longtime announcer mainly on ACC games, used to work with Spero Dedes, who we’ll see later in this list.) Blackburn is good as CBS’s No. 2 college football voice and Gminski, though reliant on basketball cliches a little too much, is one of those announcers who will teach you a thing or two during the game, which is always welcome.
6. Andrew Catalon/Steve Lappas
(Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
Catalon had a famous verbal faux pas back in 2014 but handled it well and thankfully didn’t lose his job or create too much controversy for a slip of the tongue. Frankly, when you’re on the air as much as they guys (probably 10 hours per day in the first round) I’m amazed announcers and sideline reporters don’t slip more. Catalon and Lappas are like a good baseball umpire: You hardly realize they’re there. That sounds insulting but I promise it’s not: In the chaos of the first two days of the tournament, it’s nice to have a soothing, professional team that will get the job done without once drawing attention to themselves. (The aforementioned incident notwithstanding.)
7. Spero Dedes/Doug Gottlieb
I like Doug Gottlieb; I do. But every time he talks about a player’s character, I come ever-so-close to changing my mind.
This hurts because Kevin Harlan is a fine announcer and I’ve been listening to and loving Smilin’ Dan Bonner since I was young, due to his involvement with broadcasts in my neck of the woods — ACC country. But I don’t care if Harlan/Bonner were replaced by Pat Summerall and John Madden. The mere presence of Reggie Miller is enough to knock any team to the bottom of the rankings. The best thing you can say about Reggie is that maybe he’s hurt because he’s really an NBA guy. (Having NBA guys on NCAA broadcasts is like putting Al Roker in Lester Holt’s chair. Just because the two have, and are good at, similar jobs doesn’t mean either is qualified to do the job of the other. Even the best announcers — think Marv Albert, Ernie Johnson or Kenny Smith — can’t possibly be expected to be up on college basketball after spending the entire season focused on the NBA.) But it’s incorrect to blame that for the Miller-based workout my mute button gets in March because it makes the false assumption that he’s good on NBA broadcasts. All that being said, March Madness is a happy time and we don’t want to leave on a sour note, so:
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
How that video doesn’t include one shot of Spike Lee is beyond me.