We've heard all the pretty reasons for why CBS' college basketball ratings are off for this season, and the chief excuse, namely too many games, is actually a valid one.
But the network's telecast of last night's Arkansas-UCLA national championship game points to something, or more to the point, someone, who may have some bearing on the ratings drop.
Maybe it's time for CBS to consider pairing another analyst with lead man Billy Packer, a la the days of his teaming with Al McGuire, or replacing Packer completely.
The reason: Packer, while still technically proficient after 20 years of national tournament coverage, doesn't seem to understand that he works in a medium where entertainment is as critical as information.
For the hoopheads, who debate the relative merits of the 2-3 matchup zone defense vs. a 2-1-2 or man-to-man set, Packer is your guy. He is a serious student of the game and can spot a development or notice a trend a mile away.
When UCLA center George Zidek caught a pass on the baseline in the first half, Packer said, "Here's a hook," and sure enough, Zidek tossed in a hook shot. Likewise, Packer knew that UCLA coach Jim Harrick was trying to conserve his team's energy in the second half to make a stretch run against the Arkansas pressure.
But there's no passion, no sizzle to go along with the steak with Packer. It all seems so cold, so clinical, so analytical, that much of the emotional fire that makes college basketball in general and the NCAA tournament in particular such a great television game is lost.
The rest of the CBS effort last night was mostly on the money, though the Seattle grunge opening to the pre-game show seemed a bit labored, and what exactly did the interview with the guy who puts the light bulb on the Space Needle add to the proceedings but unnecessary babble.
Speaking of unnecessary babble, Pat O'Brien, who has been full of a lot of that recently, was actually measured last night, moving things along at a nice little pace. His halftime interview with President Clinton was surprisingly well-delivered, when the Chief Executive could actually hear his questions.
Guest analyst Mike Krzyzewski came up a winner, asking the best question of the night of former UCLA coach John Wooden about his affinity for current Bruins leader Harrick, and getting off a good exchange by using the telestrator to diagram Clinton's shooting form, a sequence made even funnier when one realizes that Krzyzewski is a staunch Republican.
Reporter Michele Tafoya was golden all night too, pressing Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson first about rumors that he might be leaving the Razorbacks for the Toronto NBA expansion team, then performing the obligatory post-mortem with Richardson after the loss. Tafoya also was good at digging up news on the wrist injury to UCLA point guard Tyus Edney.
Once Jim Nantz was little more than nice hair and a pretty face, but he has developed into the best college basketball play-by-play voice the network has had, including his predecessor, the bombastic Brent Musburger.
Nantz was informational when he had to be, and right on the emotional button when that needed to be pushed, keeping the hokum to a minimum. Even his "There was a Wizard in the stands and some magic on the floor" line at the buzzer, referring to Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 national titles, didn't seem forced.
Led by the usual brilliance of producer Bob Dekas and director Bob Fishman, the CBS technical crew was terrific, getting all the right pictures and the right replays at the right time. Wisely, Dekas didn't force the Wooden story line down our throats, cutting to the former coach sparingly, making the emotional payoff greater.