Did you notice anything different about the college basketball games you watched on TV this weekend?
There were story lines. Compelling story lines. Viewers grew attached to teams they normally don't care about, or even dislike.
There were good guys, bad guys, and bad guys turning into good guys.
But that wasn't all. There were extra camera angles, grade-A announcers, and viewers got to know each team personally.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the folks at ESPN did every college basketball fan a solid this weekend.
Some may chalk it up to the teams playing, but ESPN at least deserves a dime on the stat sheet.
Welcome to March Madness. It has begun.
ESPN brought a ton of games to the table starting March 5. With everything from the Horizon League to the Big 12, we've gotten it all. However, ESPN's little princess this weekend was the Big East Tournament.
It started with a simple game plan—wait for survival of the fittest to take its course as titans clash day after day.
DePaul winning its first round game was cute, and the Blue Demons even gave Providence a run for its money in the second round, but everything went as planned as the top eight seeds advanced to the quarterfinals.
In the quarters, Louisville spanked Providence, likely ousting the Friars from the Big Dance. Villanova beat Marquette on a Dwayne Anderson buzzer-beater, prolonging questions about the Golden Eagles' ability to get a quality win without Dominic James.
Then the aforementioned madness took its toll.
West Virginia disposed of Pittsburgh without using the three-ball as a major asset. DeJuan Blair was in foul trouble and Sam Young and Levance Fields didn't pick up the team on their shoulders.
Not to take anything away from the Mountaineers, but the Panthers didn't look like they had too much invested in making a lot of noise at Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse beat UConn in the nightcap. It was an alright game I guess.
In the six-overtime thriller, ESPN really left its mark. For those of us who weren't fortunate enough to be there, it still seemed as if we were there.
Eric Devendorf had emerged as a villain the day before against Seton Hall. After a few scuffles, Devendorf became enemy No. 1 when he posed as he was shooting a three-pointer.
The showboating was unnecessary, and the announcers let him have it, and that was how he was characterized for the tournament.
The onslaught continued when the Orange faced the Huskies. Nothing Devendorf did warranted a pat on the back—he was in the dog house. Hasheem Thabeet, on the other hand, could do no wrong.
Sean McDonough and Jay Bilas were singing his praises on every defensive possession. It's too bad Dick Vitale wasn't there, or we could double the love-fest. You know Dickie V loves Thabeet on offense.
"Get the rock inside, you gotta get the big fella some touches, baby!"
Devendorf almost redeemed himself as the buzzer signaled the end of regulation, hitting a triple, beaten by the buzzer by about a tenth of a second. As I groaned, he did his best Dwyane Wade impression, standing on the table in front of press row.
Get down from there. It didn't count.
We all know the story from there. Every player played their hearts out. Devendorf fouled out (the world cheered), Thabeet fouled out (nobody honestly felt bad for UConn, did they?), but one man remained: Jonny Flynn.
Our hero, Jonny Flynn.
The media has been waiting for someone like Flynn to emerge this season since Stephen Curry hasn't worked out. Kevin Pittsnogle or Gerry McNamara, reincarnated.
A pass-first, even-tempered point guard, there's nothing not to love about Flynn. He played 67 of a possible 70 minutes, had 11 assists, six steals, and 34 points.
Oh yeah, and he went 16-for-16 from the free throw line.
Then he came out the next night against West Virginia. The game went to overtime. Flynn played all 45 minutes, scoring 15 points and making another 90 cents giving his teammates the ball.
Are you kidding me? If you weren't already in love with Jonny Flynn, you were at this point. And it's thanks to you, ESPN.
If they were concerned about the economic repercussions of producing such a high-profile event, they could have limited the number of cameras send to shoot the game. ESPN did no such thing.
There were so many different perspectives available, we were able to follow Flynn's every move. Every gasping breath, every wince of pain, then the sly grins after something went better than you or I could have scripted it.
With the same core of announcers spending several consecutive days with the Big East teams, they really got to know them.
For the first time this season, Dan Shulman and Bilas seemed as passionate about and emotionally invested in the games as the fans were. And it was reflected in their call of the game and leaked to the audience.
With a matchup against Louisville on the horizon, everybody wondered what Syracuse had left in the tank. But considering how the Orange came out of the shoot against West Virginia, everybody expected them to be ready to play.
They were—for one half. This is where Louisville, which had been mired in UConn and Pittsburgh's shadow for most of the season, acquired its personality.
The Cardinals are big, tough, and athletic. They will wear you down with their cut-throat defense and expose any weakness. A complete team inside and out, Louisville isn't the lovable, feel-good story like Syracuse, but rather the result of Rick Pitino being back atop the coaching world where he belongs.
Pitino's style of recruiting and coaching is much different than Jim Boeheim's, Mike Krzyzewski's, or Jim Calhoun's, but like those other legendary coaches, the way he constructs a team is lethal when he gets it exactly how he wants it, and ESPN made sure to let us know.
There were many questions looming around the Louisville locker room concerning the legitimacy of the team as a contender.
The Cardinals didn't play at Pitt or at UConn, so despite winning the Big East regular-season crown, many still debated whether or not to give it the old Barry Bonds asterisk.
After their performance against the 'Cuse, the answer for now isn't just "no," or "nah," it's "absolutely not."
This team is legit. Thanks to ESPN's coverage of the Big East Tournament, Louisville will be taken much more seriously when the brackets come out. Many more people will take them into the Final Four, and a good chunk might even have them cutting down the nets.
With Syracuse's remarkable run and Jonny Flynn winning the tournament's MVP award in a losing cause personified the Orange as a team which has the heart and skill to make a semi-Cinderella run. They don't give up.
Just don't forget what happened in '05 and '06 when 'Cuse had tons of confidence heading into the Dance. First round losses hurt a lot of brackets.
Though the ACC has had just as many amazing games, things haven't fallen into place for ESPN in Atlanta. UNC, Wake Forest, Duke, and Clemson all avoided playing each other.
Maryland's dream was cut short by Duke, but Florida State emerged as a team some people might feel inclined to take the extra mile when they fill out their brackets.
However, being manhandled by a smaller Duke team in the ACC Championship may have hurt those dreams.
Duke isn't the team to capture the hearts of millions. They're simply the second-best team in North Carolina and the most hated team in America. Even ESPN can't bring outsiders over to their side.
But at least there was the Big East.
ESPN has really set the bar. It will be interesting to see how CBS counters next week when the NCAA Tournament starts.
CBS has a more conventional way of producing games in the Big Dance, showcasing the glitz, glamor, and pageantry of the event, but given the way ESPN handled Championship Week, they may have to kick things up a notch to keep the common fan engaged.
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