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When George Mason beat UConn in this year’s Biggest Upset of All Time, the underdog’s starting lineup averaged more than 40 minutes of playing time for the overtime game—in other words, longer than the length of a regulation game. All five starters were on the floor for the contest’s final 15-plus minutes.
The Patriots didn’t need a 6th Man. Other than the guy at the scorer’s table calling the TV timeouts, that is.
No sport is as affected by television as college basketball.
Section 10, Article 3, of the NCAA’s hoops rule book goes over the standard allotment of timeouts in games not being broadcast by “electronic media”: Each coach is provided with four 75-second timeouts and two 30-second timeouts per game.
Come March Madness, however, the regular-season allotment of downtime gets dwarfed. In 1999, when CBS signed its $6.2 billion deal to televise the tournament, the NCAA agreed to change the rules to help the network get its money back. So while coaches still get their full menu of timeouts, the game officials now call artificial timeouts at the first whistles—for such things as fouls or shot-clock violations—after the 16-, 12-, 8-, and 4-minute marks of each half. During the Mason–UConn game, every one of these TV timeouts held up the game for nearly three minutes (or, in the case of the contest’s first TV timeout, long enough for CBS to broadcast commercials for Bud Light, Vonage, Chevy, the Chicken Little DVD, Southwest Airlines, and CSI).
Furthermore, the break after each timeout called by players or coaches goes from the regular season’s 75 seconds to, again, nearly three minutes. And the halftimes, sponsored by Cingular all tournament long, are expanded from 15 to 20 minutes. (The break for 30-second timeouts stays at about 30 seconds.)
Add it all up, and an NCAA tournament game can have as much as 27 more minutes of breaks than called for by standard college-basketball rule books. In the CBS broadcast of Mason–UConn, 80 commercials, most of them 30-second spots, aired between the opening tipoff and the buzzer ending the second half. And Mason still hadn’t called two full timeouts, which would carry over into overtime.
“We didn’t used to get any TV timeouts,” says Eddie Einhorn, the longtime Chicago White Sox executive and author of the recent When March Became Madness, a chronicle of the NCAA tournament’s rise to gargantuanity. In the ’60s, long before he became a baseball man, Einhorn began buying television rights to NCAA basketball. He was behind the first prime-time college-basketball broadcast, the 1968 regular-season game between Elvin Hayes’ Houston team and Lew Alcindor’s UCLA squad, played in the Astrodome.
Einhorn generally had to negotiate with the athletic department of each host school over timeouts, and most made no rules concessions to accommodate the young broadcaster or his prospective advertisers.
“I remember at Mississippi State, the fellow in charge wouldn’t even give us time before the tipoff to introduce our announcers,” he says. “We couldn’t persuade him, so my guys came into their gym the night before the game and moved the clock about two minutes to give us time.”
Most changes instituted to the basketball rule book since Einhorn got into televising college ball—the shot clock, stopping the clock after each basket in the last minute, the three-point shot—are designed to reduce the risk of an upstart knocking off a bigger, stronger, faster, and more talented team. The shot clock took away the four-corners stall that Davids once used against Goliaths. Stopping the clock after every basket in the final minute of a game means more offensive opportunities, and the more opportunities, the greater the likelihood that the better offense will score more points. The three-point shot is meant to penalize a team for clogging up the middle on defense and gives an advantage to the multidimensional squad.
But the money-grubbing barrage of TV timeouts promotes Cinderella stories. The breaks would seem to give a puncher’s chance to the so-called “mid-major” schools when they face teams from power conferences with benches as deep as Noam Chomsky.
“This definitely helps the teams that are not as deep,” says Kevin Grevey, owner of Grevey’s, a Fairfax eatery and popular tournament-watching hangout. “What happened with Mason was great, but I think that will happen again, maybe next year.”
There’s no way a big lug like Mason’s Jai Lewis would be able to drag his 275-pound frame up and down the floor for 41 minutes, as he did against UConn, without all the breathers. Yet for all the minutes he logged in his team’s two-point win, Lewis was outplaying UConn’s big men all the way to the final buzzer. Mason head coach Jim Larranaga never had to worry about how Lewis’ backup or any of his second-teamers measured up to counterpart Jim Calhoun’s reserves. On that day, Larranaga’s best five were better than any combination of five players that Calhoun threw on the court.
Grevey, who also broadcasts tournament games for Westwood One radio, knows about team depth. Before becoming a Fairfax restaurateur, he was recruited by Adolph Rupp to play for Kentucky and starred on UK’s 1975 Final Four squad. That team had eight future NBA players (including Grevey, who went on to win an NBA championship with the 1978 Washington Bullets).
“A few schools got all the talent back then. You needed a wide-angle lens to photograph our team, we had so many bodies,” he says. “Every day, I was practicing against future pros.”
And without the bonus rest time, the better team usually won. In Grevey’s day, the better team was usually one of John Wooden’s UCLA squads. In the finals of the 1975 tournament, the first with a field expanded to 32 teams, Grevey’s squad of eight future pros lost to a UCLA team that had nine.
As an ex-player, Grevey misses the pace of the old game—“It’s hard to build momentum with all the breaks,” he says. But he admits he’s become a big fan of the TV timeout, particularly lately. For starters, Mason’s run kept his restaurant packed on weekends for nearly a month. And all the downtime kept fans in his place of business for a lot longer than the two hours a college-hoops broadcast took back in his playing days.
“They come here for lunch, and they’re still here for dinner,” he says. “The games are eternal. If they keep getting longer, I’ll have people here for breakfast.”—Dave McKenna