By: Neil Best
Ian Eagle understood the task ahead as he studied the NCAA Tournament bracket upon receiving his assignments Sunday night from CBS/Turner.Two cities: Dayton and Columbus. Eleven teams: from North Florida to Buffalo to Valparaiso to Albany.
And a grand total of one he had seen in person this season: Maryland.
“That’s it,” he said Tuesday during a break from cramming in his Ohio hotel room. “I went 1-for-11. I’m below the Mendoza Line.”
Not that he is complaining. Play-by-play announcers get as much of a kick from the early rounds of the NCAAs as you do.
Still, there is nothing quite like it for scrambling the schedules — and brains — of those whose job it is to keep names straight on national television.
“It’s my most challenging assignment of the year,” Eagle said. “It is an avalanche of information. And unlike other assignments, you can’t get a head start because of the unknown . . . It’s difficult. There’s no denying it.
“It’s my 18th year doing it, and I feel like I should write myself a letter every year and seal it and open it the night before the first games and have it just say, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’ ”
Eagle drew the First Four this year, greatly adding to the degree of difficulty. As soon as the bracket was revealed, he began researching those four teams and assembling his “boards” with basic information about players.
At about 8:45 p.m. Sunday, he learned he would be Columbus-bound for the Round of 64, an easy trip from Dayton. That was good. His lack of familiarity was less good.He dived into those teams from 10 p.m. until midnight, then again from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday.
He flew to Ohio on Tuesday and kept at it, using information provided by CBS/Turner and his own research.
“My first year doing the tournament was 1998 and I drew Sacramento and I can’t even remember how I prepared back then,” he said. “You just didn’t have nearly as much information. It’s an excess of information now. You actually have to cut yourself off at some point.”
The goal is to familiarize oneself with the basics, then dig more deeply for interesting nuggets. The final step is to watch the players in person in practice the day before the games and talk to the coaches, an “instrumental part” of Eagle’s preparation, he said.
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“You can start putting names to faces and more than anything else, you’re looking for some defining quality that will trigger something in your brain,” he said. “If someone is a lefty, that’s huge. If someone wears a headband, goggles, knee brace, a hair style that’s a little unique, you root for those attributes.”
Learning pronunciations is key. Nothing exposes an unprepared play-by-play man more quickly.
Kevin Harlan did the First Four gig in 2014 and was glad to have a year off from it. Still, with a Thursday slate in Portland to deal with, he had his own studying to do.
Harlan, who has been doing opening week quadrupleheaders since 1999, said he tackles the task in “layers,” first setting up his boards with player information, then learning about the larger story of each team.
“It’s pretty basic stuff, but I think it’s best if you have a routine,” he said. “It kind of keeps you organized.”
Harlan agreed that practices are essential, especially chats with non-famous coaches who are eager to share.
“It’s the smaller-school coaches and mid-major-type coaches who don’t get this kind of exposure that will be much more forthcoming with information,” he said. “You usually get more tidbits from those guys.”
Calling college basketball is easier than most sports, given the limited number of players, the proximity to the action and the casual pace compared to the pros.
Eagle, 46, finds himself pulling for sites based on location and familiarity. “One year I had seen seven of the eight and I got that site and it was like a vacation year,” he said. “And there have been years when I have taken oh-fers.”
By the fourth game Friday night, he will be running on fumes.
“I’m mentally and physically drained [by then],” said Eagle, who never has had so much as a sip of coffee. “You hope that you get a competitive final game. That’s every broadcaster’s hope, so that the game can carry you to the finish line.”