CBS announcers recognized some terrific story lines unfolding last night during the NCAA men's basketball semifinals. But the one they were desperate to tell - even before Maryland's lead crumbled - was the possible triumph of the Duke Blue Devils and their All-Everything, Shane Battier.
Even Greg Gumbel, the network's sensible anchor throughout the tournament, turned to analyst Clark Kellogg when Maryland took an 11-point edge into the half and said, "What's wrong with Duke?" rather than, "How have the Terrapins accomplished this?"
Time and again, announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer recounted the myriad honors bestowed on Battier, a senior forward. "There's only one thing missing from that list," Packer said at one point in the second half, "a national championship ring."
As it turned out, their desired narrative became the unavoidable one. As annoying as it may have been for die-hard Maryland fans, the announcers' instincts were borne out by Duke's astounding resurgence.
Packer and Nantz - fire and ice - have been broadcasting games from the NCAA men's basketball tourney for 11 years, and there's a reason for that. Together, they're as smooth as a Magic Johnson assist.
During the earlier game, which pitted Arizona against Michigan State, Packer called the game for Arizona with nearly seven minutes left: "That's the ballgame, Jim. I'll tell you why. [Michigan State's players] are not only turning it over today, they're giving up uncontested, open-court baskets."
CBS did best when the announcers complemented the action on the court, rather than trying to overwhelm it. Packer, in particular, offered strong perspective on past performances by the teams in the tournament.
And the camera work almost invariably brought viewers just the right angle - even without CBS' EyeVision technology, with its promise of swirling perspectives. EyeVision appeared only sporadically during yesterday's games. When used, it replayed exchanges that no longer seemed timely.
Goofy graphics occasionally cropped up, including one distracting illustration that closely resembled a computerized game of Foosball.
It was impossible to escape the continuing encroachment of the corporate world on CBS' coverage of the NCAA tournament. There was the Chevy Truck EyeVision, the Nortel Virtual Playbook and the Cingular SkyCam.
Along with the ads for beer, insurance and hatchbacks were high-end commercials touting Mercedes, business software from Microsoft and IBM, and some technology company called EMC.
And there was a series of ads heralding no product, but rather the merger of the European financial firm UBS/Warburg with PaineWebber. Just how many CEOs do they think are watching this game, anyhow?
All of this heavy-handed branding was particularly noticeable because, during the CBS pregame show, Gumbel promised that a prestigious panel of experts would talk about key issues affecting the NCAA. The focus: the various effects of money in college athletics, such as gambling, runaway coaches' salaries and major spending by campuses on sports programs.
But there were two major problems. First, the discussion led by reporter Armen Keteyian assumed almost an encyclopedic knowledge by viewers of those issus. That tone belied the approach exemplified in the human interest stories that also aired during the pre-game show.
On Thursday, CBS Sports president Sean McManus said he hoped such stories as a profile of Maryland's Juan Dixon would help attract atypical sports fans. (Dick Enberg's heartfelt tribute to the late Al McGuire, also broadcast before the games, showed an appealing soft spot for the brash-talking coach-turned-broadcaster.)
Second, Keteyian's "panel" was made up of three NCAA officials and two players who were uncritical of the sports establishment. Nary a negative word was spoken of CBS' chief financial partner in the tournament, one that seeks to control every possible commercial cent - the NCAA itself.
Still, when it comes to college hoops, the play's the thing. And CBS largely got that right, despite the announcers' apparent affinity for a story ending with the storied Blue Devils on top.