Bill Raftery knows all about being underappreciated because he is from the hinterlands. After all, the guy grew up in New Jersey.
“Lou Carnesecca, I used to try to get him to come to Jersey for an Italian dinner, and he used to say, ‘There isn’t an Italian restaurant any good west of the Hudson,’ ” the CBS/Turner analyst said Monday.
That was Raftery’s joking way of noting that provincialism is in the eye of the beholder. But when he works the Final Four this weekend in Glendale, Arizona, he and his colleagues will chronicle a unique moment in college basketball history.
For the first time, the forever underexposed Pacific Time Zone will have two teams in the national semifinals. Not only that, but both will be from the even more underexposed Pacific Northwest.
Gonzaga and Oregon are not exactly college hoops blue bloods with strong national brands, but hey, at least it will broaden the rest of our horizons.
“A lot of people in the East don’t realize what’s going on in the Pac-12, where UCLA, Arizona and Oregon were terrific basketball teams,” Raftery said. “And of course because of the West Coast Conference a lot of people have overlooked [Gonzaga]. I think it’s going to open up eyes to how good the teams are. They’re really solid.
“They have stars that will become [national] stars this weekend. I think anybody in coaching and in athletics knows how good these West Coast teams are this particular year. I think it’s healthy. It spread the wealth a little bit.”
Fellow CBS/Turner analyst Grant Hill added: “This has been a really good year for basketball on the West Coast . . . I think it’s only fitting that we get representation there from two great programs, very talented teams and coaches.”
No true West Coast team has won it all since UCLA in 1995. With the Final Four in Arizona, count on plenty of talk this weekend about perceived East Coast bias.
“We’ve opened a lot of peoples’ eyes as far as people thinking the West Coast is soft and we’re not as good as the East Coast — East Coast bias and stuff like that,” The Associated Press quoted Oregon forward Jordan Bell saying after the Ducks’ Midwest Regional final upset of Kansas on Saturday night.
Bell, who is from Southern California, has a playing style that is the polar opposite of “soft.”
“I really hope we’ve opened peoples’ eyes,” he said. “I hope people see we’re as good as anybody else. Just put up a court. We’ll see who is best.”
North Carolina is the only traditional power in the Final Four, making its 20th appearance. This is the first time for both Gonzaga and South Carolina, and the first for Oregon since 1939, when there were eight teams in the entire tournament.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said the quality of the games will be the key to Saturday night’s TV ratings, but he acknowledged that some geographical diversity could be helpful.
“I think anytime you have kind of bicoastal representation it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “I’m happy we have some broad national distribution, but I’ll be even happier if the games are close.”
Though South Carolina lacks basketball pedigree, it has one of the most animated, agitated, camera-friendly coaches in recent memory in Frank Martin.
“I think he ranks right near the top,” McManus said when asked how Martin rates among coaches his network has chronicled. “Frank is terrific television, and I think more importantly the way he feels about his players and the affection and love he feels for them really comes out when he’s on the sideline. I think that’s part of the reason the camera likes him so much.”
After being shown on Turner last season, the semifinals and final will be back on CBS as the partners alternate years.
Unlike Turner, CBS will not broaden its reach to other channels as Turner did with school-specific “teamcasts.” McManus said CBS has a different business model than does Turner, and has obligations of exclusivity to its affiliates and CBS owned-and-operated stations.
Hill was asked on a conference call with reporters to recount once again his role 25 years ago Tuesday in one of the most memorable plays in NCAA history. It was his long inbounds pass that set up Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater for Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final in Philadelphia.
“Wow, first of all, it’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” he said. “It does seem like yesterday.”
Hill recalled worrying that Laettner was taking too much time before shooting. “I remember I was thinking, ‘Don’t dribble, don’t dribble, like, we don’t have enough time,’ ” he said. “I had the perfect angle and I could see that it was on line, but it felt like the ball was in the air forever.
“As soon as it went through, the Duke fans were behind the basket and kind of to the left of the basket behind our bench, and it was like everyone was shot out of a cannon for the celebration.”