The off-the-court story of the NCAA Tournament so far has been the silly dust-up between CBS analyst Billy Packer and St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli on Selection Sunday. Packer, a former star player and assistant coach at Wake Forest who makes no secret of his belief that the ACC is the One True Conference, said St. Joe's, from the lesser Atlantic 10, didn't deserve a No. 1 seed.
"Meow meow meow," replied Martelli.
"Up your nose with a rubber hose," Packer shot back. I'm paraphrasing. You get the idea.
St. Joe's, unlike Kentucky and Stanford, two of its three fellow 1-seeds, has made it through to the Sweet 16, where the Hawks will meet Packer's alma mater Thursday night in New Jersey. Packer is assigned to broadcast the game, which tells you all you need to know about whether CBS considers its announcers to be reporters or entertainers.
Ratings have been good for the Tournament so far -- a 5.5 average for the first four days, the best since 2000 -- and it won't hurt to have people tuning in to see how Packer handles the situation. I'm guessing he'll more or less blow it off, but you know how good I am at predictions.
I get more e-mail complaining about Packer than about any other TV announcer. He's a know-it-all, a blowhard, an insufferable, pedantic shill for the ACC. Get him off the air! I can't say I disagree with any of that, but I don't find Packer as irritating as my readers seem to.
I know what his biases are going in, and I don't have much trouble taking them into account. He has a tendency to repeat an observation ad nauseam, Tim McCarver style, once he's come up with it. But unlike McCarver, he actually does notice things worth mentioning. I'm not such an expert on college hoops that I can't learn something from Billy Packer once in a while.
That's why I'm not bothered by any conflict-of-interest issues when it comes to TV announcing assignments. I'm not sure conflicts of interest would be possible to avoid anyway. Is it even possible to find two broadcasters who didn't attend Syracuse to do an Orangemen game?
But I don't think it matters because TV broadcasters aren't akin to reporters. I can see what's going on in the game. The announcers aren't standing between me and the news, the way a reporter might be my only way of finding out about a news story. The announcers are there to help me enjoy myself by making observations, identifying people and situations, sometimes just by joking around.
I'd prefer the broadcasters do their level best not to favor one team over the other, but if Billy Packer is saying things that only a Wake guy would say or ESPN's Jay Bilas is saying things that are colored by his days playing at Duke, it doesn't ruin the game for me. I can treat their comments the same way I'd treat yours if you were sitting on my couch and speaking from whatever bias you bring to the table.
And I do, which is why I yell at the TV so much.
Here's a look at Thursday's Sweet 16 games, in the Phoenix and East Rutherford brackets. At both sites, the first game listed begins shortly after 8 p.m. EST, and the second follows a half-hour after the end of the first. Seedings are noted and my picks to win are in bold.
2) Connecticut vs. 6) Vanderbilt
With Emeka Okafor looking healthy and the Huskies playing like the best team in the country they're supposed to be, things look grim for the Commodores. UConn's had the talent all season to be a Tournament favorite but the effort's been lacking at times. Not lately, though the opposition in the first two Tournament games, Vermont and DePaul, both losers by 17, hasn't been the stiffest.
Vandy showed North Carolina State in the second round that it can be pretty stiff. The Commodores hit 19-of-21 free throws and shot 40 percent from three in that second-round win, and more importantly they staged a furious rally to come from 11 points down with 3:45 to go. So I suppose you can never count them out. But Vanderbilt doesn't have anybody to contend with Okafor inside. Matt Freije played brilliantly against State, scoring 31 points. He won't do that against the likely Wooden Award winner.
5) Syracuse vs. 8) Alabama
Syracuse doesn't look to me like a serious contender to repeat as champion, but the Orangemen should have an easier time dealing with Alabama's speed than Stanford did. Syracuse handled Maryland's, after all. The Orangemen are only going to go as far as their two stars can take them. Gerry McNamara went off for a ridiculous 43 points in the 80-75 win over BYU, and Hakim Warrick poured in 26 in the 72-70 win over Maryland.
Alabama's flying after its win over the top-seed Cardinal, but the Crimson Tide did get outplayed for most of that game, and wouldn't have won if Stanford hadn't choked like a man trying to eat a wool sock, shooting 0-for-11 during Alabama's decisive 16-0 run in crunch time. Alabama beating Syracuse would hardly be a shocking upset, but I think the road ends here for the Tide, and one game later for the Orange.
Elite 8 winner: Connecticut
2) Oklahoma State vs. 3) Pittsburgh
Game of the Tournament so far, and will almost certainly remain so at least until the second game of the doubleheader on the same floor. The Cowboys are abusing people. OK, they routed Eastern Washington in the first round, but that Memphis team they clocked by 17 in the second round was no little Cinderella. Pittsburgh is swaggering around in that Pittsburgh way, shutting teams down with defense and toughness. The Panthers churgled past Central Florida, then overcame Wisconsin's near-home-court advantage to beat the Badgers by four.
Both of these teams play defense, and the cliché is that defense wins championships, but that's not quite right. Defense alone doesn't get the job done. Obvious as it sounds, you have to score too, and Oklahoma State's doing a better job of that than Pittsburgh. The Panthers are shooting 33 percent in the Tournament, 27 percent from beyond the arc. They'll have to get well offensively to move on, and you don't get well offensively against Oklahoma State.
1) St. Joseph's vs. 4) Wake Forest
What can I say? I agreed with Packer from the start that St. Joe's isn't one of the top four teams in the country, and wins over Liberty and Texas Tech haven't convinced me. That's not to say the Hawks aren't very, very good, maybe in that next batch of four. Jameer Nelson joined Okafor as the only unanimous all-Americans, and he and Delonte West might be the best backcourt in the nation.
Then again, they might not be because of Wake Forest's backcourt, Chris Paul and Justin Gray. And those guys get solid inside play from Eric Williams, when he stays out of foul trouble, and Jamaal Levy. That's something Nelson and West lack. But I think Nelson and West actually are superior to the Demon Deacons' guards, and while Wake has shown impressive toughness in winning two close games, those wins have been over Virginia Commonwealth and Manhattan. St. Joe's is a step up in class, and though I think it'll be a battle to the buzzer, I think the Hawks will be too much for Wake to handle.
Elite 8 winner: Oklahoma State
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