Suddenly, ex-Duke players call many big college hoops games

NEW YORK (AP) All of a sudden this season, former players from a certain school seem to be analyzing nearly every big college basketball game.

Jay Bilas ascended to the top commentating team at ESPN. Grant Hill was picked to do the Final Four. Jay Williams joined Bilas on the hoops version of ''GameDay,'' Shane Battier was hired for the ''Big Monday'' ACC slot, and Jim Spanarkel was promoted to announce the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Tar Heels fans fuming that they so often must hear the voices of Blue Devils can partly blame one of their own: ESPN President John Skipper is a proud North Carolina alum.

In case there's any doubt about his loyalties, Skipper had this to say through a spokesman, tongue firmly in cheek: ''Every Duke graduate we hire is enjoying the benefit of working for a Carolina graduate. I am happy to assist in helping them overcome the handicap of their collegiate experience.''

During the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend, three of the eight announcing teams for CBS and Turner Sports feature a former Duke player: Hill, Spanarkel and Mike Gminski. For the regional semifinals and finals, it will be two of the four crews. Studio analyst Seth Davis is also an alum.

Turner Broadcasting System President David Levy, whose company first hired Hill as an NBA analyst, rattled off a list of big-time play-by-play announcers from his alma mater, Syracuse, who could fill up a roster: ''(Bob) Costas, Ian Eagle, Marv Albert, (Dick) Stockton.'' Viewers, of course, are far less aware of which school the play-by-play man attended. The decision to put Hill on the Final Four was made by Levy and CBS Sports Chair Sean McManus, who did happen to go to Duke.

''I think their performance - whether it's Jay Bilas or Grant Hill or Mike Gminski - speaks for itself,'' McManus said.

ESPN senior coordinating producer Dave Miller, whose network now employs Bilas, Williams and Battier in prominent roles, called the trend mostly a coincidence.

''We're not just looking for Duke guys,'' he insisted.

Then came the punch line: ''We're looking for bald Duke guys.''

Duke guys such as Hill, Williams and Battier benefit from the same phenomenon that inspires conspiracy theories in fans of other schools in the first place. With so much attention paid to the Blue Devils, so many games on national TV, so much success, those players were college basketball celebrities. And that can open doors in broadcasting.

''They happen to be name brands in their own right,'' Miller said.

Chris Webber would have no problem with a network hiring former Duke players based on their coach. Webber, whose Fab Five at Michigan forged a rivalry with the Blue Devils that included a loss in the 1992 title game as freshmen, figures that the teachings of Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski uniquely qualify them to analyze basketball.

''You have to trust the acumen and the IQs of those guys,'' said Webber, who is working his first NCAA Tournament as a game analyst. ''I know maybe North Carolina and Michigan, Ohio State people may be tired of hearing them, but I think it's good for the game.''

What Webber doesn't want to hear is any ex-player calling his alma mater's games, which he views as ''a pretty curious situation where you can't praise too much and you can't beat up too much.''

Webber's out of luck on that one. Hill is working the Blue Devils' NCAA opener Friday.

Krzyzewski's longevity makes the connection particularly close: Hill, Bilas and Battier are the only analysts regularly calling high-profile games whose former head coach is still on the sideline.

Considering the history of commentators announcing family members' competitions over the years - the Grieses, the Waltons, the Van Gundys, the Grudens - TV executives have repeatedly concluded that analysts can separate the personal from the professional. Still, ESPN's Miller said his network tries to keep ex-coaches and players off their former schools' games when they first start working as analysts, which ''gives them time to establish credibility in the eyes of the viewer.''

That restriction wasn't used this season with Battier, who stepped right into ''Big Monday'' after retiring from the NBA. Hill was a studio analyst during last year's NCAA Tournament following his own NBA retirement, before he and Bill Raftery were tabbed to join Jim Nantz on the Final Four crew.

Miller, who oversees studio and game production for college basketball and football for ESPN, said network executives did discuss whether adding Williams to ''GameDay'' would make the show too Duke-heavy.

Watching his fellow former players call the Blue Devils' games over the years, Hill sensed that, if anything, ''sometimes they err on the side of being very judgmental of Duke.''

He might find himself doing the same.

''It will be interesting. It is a little awkward,'' Hill said. ''But if and when that happens, I'll probably err on the side of being - I don't want to say overly critical, but try to show that I'm not too biased.''

Apparent bias wouldn't offend former UNC star Kenny Smith, who works the tournament's studio show. When Smith used to call ACC games, he recalled, he had to stop himself from saying ''we'' about the Tar Heels.

''But so what?'' Smith said. ''It doesn't make me help the team win, even if I have a preference of who I'd like to win. It doesn't change the action on the court. It doesn't change my viewpoint on analyzing the action.''

What the commentator says may mean less to many fans than the simple knowledge of where he played. Ryan Thornburg, a North Carolina alum who now teaches in the university's journalism school, likened the mindset to superstitions. Believing that misplacing the remote control caused the Tar Heels to fall to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament final may be illogical, but it's also comforting.

So you get this thought process, he said: ''We couldn't possibly lose because we didn't play as well - we must have lost because Jay Bilas mentioned how much he learned from Mike Brey,'' the former Duke assistant-turned-Irish coach.

Smith, for one, sees no cause for alarm.

''Those guys in Durham couldn't have a guy do NASCAR and then do basketball,'' he said, holding up UNC teammate Brad Daugherty's work in the two disparate sports for ESPN. ''They're not as versatile as we are. ... We could play, and then we could announce, and we'd still win.''

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