With 15 minutes 51 seconds left in his NCAA tournament game against Syracuse on Saturday afternoon, Kansas State Coach Frank Martin called a timeout with his team trailing the Orange, 36-32, sensing correctly that Syracuse was beginning to gather momentum.
In every college basketball game, each team is allowed to call five timeouts — all but one of them designated as a 30-second timeout. So Martin called his second 30-second timeout. If one looks at the official score sheet, it is right there, easy to see: “15:51 TIMEOUT 30sec.”
Three minutes and 30 seconds after Martin called his 30-second timeout, play resumed. Each team missed a shot. Kansas State’s Angel Rodriguez was fouled by Syracuse’s Brandon Triche. Forty-four seconds after Martin’s 30-second timeout had lasted 3:30, the P.A. announcer at Consol Energy Center told the crowd that there was a “media timeout.”
No one sitting on press row had asked for a timeout. The timeout, as everyone in the building knew, was for TV. So everyone sat for another 3:30 while the coaches tried to figure out what to say to their players about the 44 seconds of actual play that had interrupted seven minutes of nothing happening.
By the time the players came back onto the court, the cheerleaders from both teams looked winded. And why not? They had spent a lot more time on the court than the players.
The NCAA tournament is one of sport’s great events. The barrage of upsets that occurred Friday — highlighted by Lehigh’s victory over Duke and Norfolk State’s win over Missouri — reminded people why these three weeks dominate the public’s attention every spring. The sights and sounds of the tournament, whether they be the celebrations of a winning No. 15 seed or the shock on the faces of a beaten No. 2 seed, are unique.
The NCAA tournament is so good, in fact, it can overcome the fact that it is run by the NCAA.
The basketball committee sold its soul — at an increasingly hefty price — to television years ago. The latest contract, now in its second year, makes it almost impossible to play anything that resembles a normal basketball game. Most games have absolutely no flow to them because there are 10 artificial stoppages: the eight media timeouts and two team-called 30-second timeouts per half (one for each team) that become full timeouts. The committee and the TV networks will tell you those timeouts are 2:30 each. That may be technically true because a timeout “ends” when the second horn is sounded, but the actual time is consistently a full minute longer — sometimes because the network holds play for an extra 30 seconds to give its “talent” some face time.
If you are in the arena, you can sit and watch the 10 players who are back on court because the officials have waved them out of their huddles after the second horn, trying to stay loose while an official holds his hand in the air waiting for a signal that the face time is over.
In addition to the eight media timeouts and the two 30-second timeouts that become full timeouts, each team is afforded four other timeouts to use as they see fit. Six of them are supposed to be actual 30-second timeouts. They each take between one minute and 1:15, the better for the network to squeeze in a couple more commercials. And then there are the two actual full timeouts, one for each team.
CBS must have hated Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim on Saturday. He didn’t call a timeout. His team’s 75-59 win took just less than 2:20 to play — lightning fast for a tournament game these days. Close games take a solid 2:30, sometimes longer.
Another reason for the interminable length of games is halftime. In 2003, when the war in Iraq broke out on the night before the tournament began, CBS asked the NCAA to extend halftime from 15 minutes to 20 minutes to allow it more time to do updates on the war while the games were ongoing. That was a reasonable request.
There hasn’t been a war update during the tournament in nine years. Halftime is still 20 minutes — actually closer to 22 minutes, because the clock doesn’t begin until one of the coaches has given the obligatory halftime interview to a sideline reporter and has been escorted to the tunnel.
The halftime breaks are so long one almost expects to see Madonna being wheeled in to perform.
Several years ago, when committee members were asked why halftime continued to be 20 minutes, this was the answer: “In some buildings, it can take the teams a long time to get to the locker room.”
Really? Even in the most massive domes, out-of-shape reporters can walk from courtside to the locker rooms in no more than 60 seconds. Of course, answering the question by saying “the networks pay us billions, they need more commercial time” would be out of the question because it would involve, well, telling the truth.
The NCAA does euphemisms better than anyone — on Saturday there were 17 references made to “student-athletes” by the news conference moderator after the Syracuse-Kansas State game. It is the truth that it has trouble with.
If you are watching at home, the never-ending parade of timeouts is hardly a big deal because you can switch to another game. Sort of. With the new stretched-out TV schedule, there was only one game on at any given time before 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. And on at least two occasions on Friday, with four games going on at once, all four networks were in commercial. Seriously.
It is far worse in the arena, where everyone, including players and coaches, does a lot of squirming to kill the dead time.
“You do kind of run out of things to say,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said Saturday in Pittsburgh, where his team bowed out to Ohio State. “Especially when you get that called timeout that becomes full followed by the TV timeout.” He smiled. “I tend to be redundant during timeouts. I guess I end up telling the guys the same thing four times instead of two.
“The good news is you can keep your guys rested. There’s no reason for anyone to get tired.”
Except, of course, the cheerleaders.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more, visit his blog at feinsteinon