NEW YORK — There is a certain predictability to the NCAA tournament. Over the next three weeks, there will be brackets aplenty, most of them busted, and sweetheart Cinderellas. There will be Luther Vandross’s song and the ever-present paradox of a billion-dollar television deal for an event starring amateurs.
And there also will be lots of opportunities to listen to Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Since CBS and Turner Sports partnered on a rights deal in 2011, the two basketball analysts annually take a break from their award-winning NBA studio show on TNT to offer their thoughts and analysis of the college game.
“The toughest thing is you have to watch so many games and you get so many different reports on different players,” Barkley said. “It’s kind of like homework, except now I have to do my own homework. When I was in college, they did it for me.”
The arrangement brings notable star power to whatever studio in which Barkley and Smith find themselves. Barkley’s wit is legendary; Smith is polished and insightful; and host Ernie Johnson, who joins them in the move, is the consummate professional.
But that doesn’t mean the NBA experts — particularly Barkley — haven’t riled college hoops fans over the years with a sense that they have helicoptered in for the sport’s marquee event. The litany of faux pas includes the time when Barkley complimented the play of Kansas star Cliff Alexander during a game he wasn’t playing in (and when he confused Big Ten teams Iowa and Purdue ahead of the tournament). Smith, for his part, drew ire last season when he complimented the defense of former Duke star Marvin Bagley III. (Bagley was generally considered not quite a defensive stalwart.)
“When I first started doing this, I used to just watch the NBA and ACC,” said Smith, a former North Carolina star. “I became more of a college basketball fan, starting, like, year three. This year, I‘ve watched Kentucky play more than I’ve watched the Knicks.”
His colleagues have adjusted their approaches, too. Barkley starts his prep work Jan. 1, and each week after that he receives a report from the Turner research staff on every conference in the country. He estimated he has watched roughly 100 college games this year.
“I actually watched Liberty and what is it, Lipscomb, and it was a hell of a game,” Barkley said of the recent Atlantic Sun conference championship. But, he added, “I don’t have to worry about those teams because they’re not going to win any games” in the NCAA tournament.
Johnson, meanwhile, has files of more than 200 college teams that he updates each year, the cumulative effect creating an ever-expanding base of knowledge.
“When we first started doing this, there was this question of when do I really get serious about prepping for March Madness,” he said. “When is it too early to concentrate on it while neck deep in the NBA? The answer is to start when conference play starts and then constantly ramp up.”
Whatever the prep schedule, though, both Barkley and Smith explained that the crux of their analysis was basketball strategy, no matter the names and the schools involved.
“When we do college basketball, are what we’re saying about the actual game and what happened and the strategy wrong? Never,” Smith said. “Is [Barkley] pronouncing Gon-za-ga 'Gon-zah-ga’? Yeah, sure, it’s incorrect at times. But the nuances of the game? Never wrong.”
Smith added that there are also commentators who promise an expertise on little-known teams and players without any basis.
“The only people who have seen Liberty play are the people who [root for] Liberty,” he said. “So, yes, they have an affinity and they understand who their team is, but the announcers before us didn’t know who Liberty was. These other announcers will tell you, ‘This guy at Liberty did such and such against someone.’ But they didn’t see the game. I didn’t see the Liberty game early in December. No one saw that game.”
He continued: “These other guys have the stats and everything around them and they’re reading off of it — and that’s never been our style. So they were faking it for you for the 10 years before we got here. And everyone believed them!”
Barkley had his own message for the critics.
“I don’t worry about no criticisms,” he said. “You know what they should do? They should just kiss my a-- and thank me for the billion dollars we pay for this tournament.”
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