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NBA announcers cramming for new NCAA assignment

Published: Wednesday, March 16 2011 2:47 p.m. MDT

NEW YORK — Steve Kerr watched plenty of college basketball as general manager of the Phoenix Suns. It didn't really prepare him for his new role as a Final Four commentator.

Kerr and his fellow NBA announcers from TNT will suddenly be offering analysis on the NCAA tournament this year as part of CBS and Turner's joint TV deal.

When Kerr scouted the Big East tournament three years ago in his former job, he was locked in on West Virginia forward Joe Alexander, asking himself, "Can he space the floor well enough with his jump shot? Can he get around an NBA defender?"

"You look at the key moments when he's matched up with a really athletic guy or when he shoots a jump shot," Kerr told The Associated Press last week. "Now it's much more about situation, circumstance. Who are they going to in the crunch? How many guys do they play? What are they trying to accomplish defensively?

"It's more fun this way, actually. It really is about the game instead of the player."

March Madness will have a different sound along with its new look as CBS and Turner combine their rosters of announcers. Marv Albert's trademark "Yes!" could commemorate Cinderella hitting a half-court shot to upset a top seed, with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Reggie Miller debating from the studio whether the defense could have been better.

Two contrasting cultures are meshing together. CBS is the proud big-four broadcast network, known for dramas and sitcoms aimed at older viewers. TBS and TNT are the upstart cable channels, airing pro sports with audacious commentators.

"There will be basketball purists that will not like it," said Miller, the former UCLA and Indiana Pacers star who will call games for two rounds and then move to the studio.

"People don't like change at times, and I understand that. But a lot of times, change is inevitable and things happen. Hopefully we won't say too many things that are too off-color and too off-base, but we're trying to get the game right. The game has not been wrong — it's just we're adding a different flavor to it."

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said he had no concerns.

"We have a pretty lively NFL studio show with Shannon Sharpe and Bill Cowher. They don't pull any punches," he said. "It's not like we're not used to having bigger-than-life personalities. I think Charles will be a great addition and the viewer is going to be entertained and informed better than he was last year."

Cowher, the gruff former Pittsburgh Steelers coach, isn't exactly Barkley, who wasted no time at a CBS/Turner media day last week in offering a taste of his signature rants.

"I hope they don't keep screwing the little schools," Barkley said of the selection committee, going on to grumble about "mediocre" Big East teams.

The TNT analysts agreed they'd be more forgiving of a college kid than a pro. But Smith said he held college coaches to an even higher standard than their NBA brethren because they were responsible for players' education and discipline.

"They're not used to that. They're not used to NBA criticism because they feel they're coaching kids," Smith said. "It will be a little difficult at first. We might ruffle a couple of feathers early. But as long as we don't talk about their character, their heart — we can always say, 'You're not doing a good job coaching. You're not doing a good job monitoring your kids.'"

Former CBS lead analyst Billy Packer said that back when the network aired the NBA, he turned down the chance to call pro games because he didn't feel familiar enough with the teams and players. He wondered whether the TNT announcers would be able to put events during the tournament in historical context.

Smith believes that for the studio commentators, the key is the immediacy of breaking down plays, not encyclopedic knowledge of each team.

"Our job is to analyze why the kid-that-I-don't-know-his-name is open," Smith said.

Kerr knew before Selection Sunday he'd be in Tulsa for the first weekend. He figured Kansas and Texas would be there, but expected there would be several teams he initially wouldn't know much about despite a season of studying.

As Albert put it, it's like cramming for a history test once the brackets are announced.

"The good thing is I've talked to lot of the other guys who have done this for years, and they say it's the same for everybody," Kerr said. "Who really knows who starts for Belmont?"

Miller will have to learn that — he's in Tucson with Belmont the first weekend.

Kerr will work with Albert for the early rounds, then join the broadcast booth as a third announcer for the Final Four with CBS's Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg. Kerr said he was surprised to learn of the assignment.

His new partners have been "so gracious," calling him immediately after the announcement, Kerr said. Nantz and Kellogg are a relatively new pairing themselves, teaming up after Packer departed following the 2008 Final Four.

"It's definitely easier than if I had been breaking in with Billy Packer and Jim two years ago as a third man," Kerr said.

Kerr is already off to fortuitous start. He's quite familiar with one of the other schools sent to Tulsa: his alma mater, Arizona.

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