Dan Shulman on Whether College Hoops Makes it to March Madness

    • Shulman talks about whether he’ll call games in-person or remotely.
    • How do you televise a Duke game without 'Cameron Crazies?'

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College basketball is back and ESPN’s Dan Shulman is in his element.

ESPN’s top men’s college basketball announcer has plunged full-tilt into a season unlike any other with on-air partner Jay Bilas.

As with the MLB season, the Canadian sportscaster knows the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to rescheduled or canceled games. But it’s better than no college basketball, he noted 

Shulman also announces MLB World Series and playoff games for ESPN Radio and Toronto Blue Jays telecasts for Sportsnet.

Front Office Sports asked the 53-year-old Toronto native if he thinks this men’s college basketball season will reach the finish line. And if there will be an NCAA March Madness tournament in 2021 after this year’s Big Dance was canceled due to the coronavirus. Excerpts:

Front Office Sports: Despite the coronavirus, MLB, the NBA, and WNBA all completed their seasons. The NFL is three-quarters of the way through its regular season. But college sports are different. Do you think we will see a champion cutting down the nets at March Madness? 

Dan Shulman: I’m expecting there will be cancellations along the way. Look at the baseball experience. We had the [Miami] Marlins outbreak, then you had the [St. Louis] Cardinals outbreak. It got better after that. … So I’m expecting there will be many cancellations. But I think the season will get to the finish line. I think we will have an NCAA tournament. I think a champion will be crowned. 

But you will look up at the end of the [season] and maybe Kentucky will have played 25 games, and Duke will have played 22 and Kansas will have played 19. Who knows? We have no idea. It is not going to be perfect. But it’s the best we can do. It’s incumbent on everybody in each program to try to keep their players as safe and as isolated as possible in order for them to get through the season. 

I fully expect at some point I will get on a plane to go somewhere or be in a studio to call a game, and it could be canceled the morning of. Or it could get rescheduled. Or maybe it won’t. Who knows. So I’m expecting the unexpected. We all have to roll with the punches.

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FOS: As the season progresses, do you expect to call games from an arena, an NBA-like bubble, or remotely from a studio or at home? 

DS: A large, large percentage of the games will be called remotely. You’ve got three scenarios: You can have announcers on-site. You can have announcers in a studio, such as in Bristol. Conn. or Charlotte, N.C. Or you can have announcers calling games from home. I have been told to expect the first two. 

They may have me call games from home. But I’m Canadian. I have a border issue. So it’s not like I can come home for four days — and go back. I’m either in or I’m out. 

I’ve been told there will be a few crews where the expectation is to call games on site. But the vast majority of games will either be called from a studio or home. I’m expecting mine to be split between on-site and studio. Whether the studio is in Bristol or Charlotte, I don’t know. None of it is entered in stone for obvious reasons. Because this such a moving target … it’s just a question of what airplane I get on — and what hotel I check into.

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FOS: Bilas has long been one of the most frequent and eloquent critics of the NCAA. He recently tweeted they’re not serious about supporting name, image and likeness rights for NCAA athletes. Is Bilas the most brutally honest analyst on TV?

DS: He’s up there. With good reason. He’s an incredibly smart guy who knows what he’s talking about. People listen to him. He’s got a big voice in the sport — and deservedly so.

He and I have known each other for 23 or 24 years. We reminisce about games we did back in the late ’90s. I had been in the business a little bit. He was just getting into the business. I don’t think either one of us maybe thought we’d still be doing it all these years later. Or working together all these years later. 

But he’s terrific. He’s as big a voice as there’s been in the sport. And rightly so. He’s one of those guys who says something and I’m like, ‘Man, why didn’t I think of that.’ … But he’s great at analyzing a game. He’s great at discussing issues. He’s great at all levels and facets of the sport. 

It’s amazing. He and I will walk into a gym for practice at 1 p.m. before an 8 p.m. game that night. I’ll say what did you do this morning? He’ll tell me like 12 things. All I did was go get a coffee and maybe walk on the treadmill a little bit. He’s been solving problems left and right. So he’s an impressive guy, he really is. 

FOS: College basketball telecasts feed off the energy of the crowd. So how does ESPN televise a Duke game with no ‘Cameron Crazies’ crowd shots?

DS: It is what it is. Everybody’s grateful to be working, everybody’s grateful there are sports, everybody’s grateful to be watching sports on TV. Those first few months were tough on many levels. One of them is we couldn’t sit down and watch a game just to have a healthy distraction. I think directors, but especially baseball directors, did a masterful job. 

Compare a three-and-a-half-hour baseball game to a two-hour and 10-minute college basketball game. It’s apples to oranges. We’ll miss the crowd shots from Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky. But so much more of what a director is shooting during a college basketball game is on the court as compared to baseball games between the white lines. Since you have so much more time during a baseball game.