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CBS, Turner Sports execs ready for return of March Madness

From left, CBS Sports lead NCAA play-by-play announcer

From left, CBS Sports lead NCAA play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, and NCAA analysts Grant Hill and Bill Raftery in 2015.  Credit: CBS Sports/John P. Filo

It is not exactly an NCAA tradition unlike any other, given that the event last visited Indianapolis’ Hinkle Fieldhouse in 1940. But Jim Nantz plans to embrace the moment.

"I’m into it, big time," he said on Monday, looking toward calling NCAA Tournament games there on Friday.

Such is the excitement at Turner and CBS, which last March suffered with everyone else in the sport when March Madness became the first major sports casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now it is back, starting on Thursday, in an altered state but with hopes this will be a marker on the road back to normalcy. As Turner Sports executive vice president Craig Barry put it: "It’s been a year. Let’s go!"

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus last week looked to Sunday’s selection show and said, "It’s like waking up on Christmas morning, to be honest with you. It’s just so much fun."

Now the bracket is set, and so are the broadcasters.

Some things will be easier. Every game will be played in Indiana, most in Indianapolis, cutting back on travel logistics. And with fewer fans to get in the way, more and better camera angles will be available.

Some things will be more difficult. There will be no direct contact with the participants, no close-range access to game action for announcers and the chance a positive test could sideline one or more voices.

CBS/Turner has 10 announcing teams on its roster rather than the customary eight to maintain flexibility.

Most of the announcers will be familiar, including the lead team of Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson, who will work the Final Four on CBS.

But there are tweaks. Reggie Miller and Chris Webber opted out for personal reasons, and analyst Jim Jackson joins Brian Anderson on a team that will work a regional final.

Lisa Byington on Friday will become the first woman to do play-by-play for a men’s tournament game (Baylor vs. Hartford), working with analyst Steve Smith. Former Mets radio announcer Tom McCarthy also will do play-by-play.

Games will appear on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV, as usual, but the days on which they are played are different, starting with a Friday-to-Monday first round, rather than Thursday-to-Sunday.

The third and fourth rounds will be Saturday-to-Tuesday, not Thursday-to-Sunday. The Final Four, per custom, will be on Saturday and Monday, April 3 and 5.

TV ratings will not be helped by the absences of some traditional powers, including Duke and Kentucky.

"Would we like to have those teams? Sure we would," McManus said. "But there still are plenty of stories and plenty of high-profile teams that are going to be showcased on Turner and CBS."

Raftery believes the blue bloods will be missed less this year than most. "The thirst for basketball by the public is going to be an incredible wave," he said.

McManus said nothing CBS has covered during the pandemic — including Super Bowl LV — has been as complicated as the NCAAs.

Said Barry, "Is it different than the last time you saw the tournament? Yeah, it’s going to be different. But we are kind of paddling like ducks underneath so the viewer will have a smooth experience on top."

New York Sports