Time to Pull The Plug on Kenny & Charles
By Jim Weber
When Seth Davis became a studio analyst for CBS’ college basketball coverage in 2004, the general reaction was, “Who the hell is this guy?”
After all, Davis had never played college basketball and didn’t have much television experience before landing such a highly coveted job. And there were plenty of skeptics who thought Davis was just another smug Duke alum.
What people didn’t realize is that Davis had worked his ass off to get where he was. In a little over a decade since graduating college, he had gone from an aspiring sports writer covering high schools in Connecticut to a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated to an SI college basketball writer to a CBS studio analyst (the story of how much work Davis put in to accomplish this is for an entirely different column).
And while the hire by CBS seemed questionable at the time, Davis proved his worth by displaying an encyclopedia-like knowledge of college hoops that proved especially useful on the Selection Show where there are so many teams and players the general public has no knowledge about. Over the years, Davis firmly established himself as the go-to source for college basketball news and information like Adam Schefter is to NFL coverage.
Unfortunately, everything changed for Davis last year when CBS and Turner struck a huge deal to broadcast the NCAA tournament together. You see, broadcast networks simply can’t afford the rights to big sporting events like March Madness or BCS bowl games (yes, even the Super Bowl appears destined for cable one day ...) without the subscriber fees that cable networks receive. It’s a dirty little secret that CBS was going to lose a ton of money on last year’s tournament until the deal with TNT was inked.
The CBS-Turner deal was widely hailed as a god-send for putting every single game on television and also came with Turner wanting to put its stamp on March Madness by adding Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr to game broadcasts and Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley to the studio show. That meant Davis, who had proven himself an invaluable asset to the studio show but didn’t crack jokes or draw ratings, was relegated to Atlanta for studio shows on the lesser games.
Kenny and Charles bombed last year on the Selection Show. Making it abundantly clear that neither watched college basketball, Barkley consistently referred to players as “The kid from [Insert school]” while Smith was grilled for calling Xavier star Tu Holloway “Tu Holiday” - likely confusing his name with that of Philadelphia 76ers point guard Jrue Holiday.
The rest of their work on March Madness wasn’t much better.
So for this year’s tournament CBS made an audible by pulling Barkley and Smith off the Selection Show and reinserting Davis with Greg Gumbel and Greg Anthony. While CBS never came out and said it, the reason was clear: Barkley and Smith knew little about the regular season and nothing about teams outside the Top 25 and would be badly exposed again when talking about seedings, bubble teams and key players from mid-major programs.
But the two remained on the in-game studio shows because the thinking is that Barkley and Smith can still do a good job breaking down a game if they watch it live. The problem with that thought process is two-fold:
#1: You can’t watch any game without context and give thoughtful analysis.
#2: They aren’t that good at breaking down a game either.
Case in point: Syracuse trailed No. 16 seed UNC-Asheville at the half on Thursday, 34-30, and it was up to the studio crew to break down what had gone wrong for the Orange. Kenny and Charles talked about how Syracuse’s 2-3 zone wasn’t working and that Jim Boeheim should switch to man-to-man in the second half.
As Boeheim later pointed out to Reggie Miller, Syracuse never plays man-to-man defense. If you want to question that, fine. But don’t recommend Boeheim switch to a man-to-man in the second half when it only shows your lack knowledge of the college game.
Oh yeah, and Syracuse’s zone defense wasn’t the problem. After all, UNCA’s best player, Matt Dickey, was 1-13 from the field in the game. As the insightful Greg Anthony pointed out, Syracuse was trailing because it couldn’t hit any shots.
Some of the other lowlights from Kenny and Charles? On Saturday, Smith referred to Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine as “Scoop Hardine,” as if the name was French. Or take Barkley’s entire analysis of the St. Louis-Michigan State game on Sunday, which was of course expected to be a defensive slugfest: “I think the first team to 60 wins this game.” While he was technically correct, it was just a fancy way of saying it would be a low-scoring game and about as insightful as saying the team with more points will win.
While Kenny and Charles still make the occasional clever wise-crack like you would see on their NBA coverage, the joke is usually on them.
Meanwhile, Davis has been relegated to an Atlanta studio for the cable games that looks like it is broadcast out of someone’s basement. While he technically still got a lot of air-time on Thursday and Friday, it’s an inexcusable downgrade for Davis. It should be Kenny and Charles in Atlanta like they are for “Inside the NBA” and Davis that is back in his old chair at CBS.
While it should never be a surprise what television networks will do for ratings and how much they will sacrifice quality to meet that end, CBS Sports is the last place I would expect to do it. This is the old-fashioned network of Jim Nantz, PGA Golf and The Masters, the one that let Gus Johnson and his March Madness hijinx walk to FOX Sports because for all his theatrics, he’s only an average play-by-play guy.
I’m sure there are plenty of casual fans who could care less about their mistakes and love the switch to Kenny and Charles, but real college basketball fans are fed up. Check out Tweets such as these over the weekend:
• “Ashley Judd gave me more insight into college hoops in a 2-minute interview than Charles Barkley has in 2 years sitting in a studio @ CBS”
• “Seeing Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley breaking down NCAA’s like watching a 16 year old drive. Capable of doing it, but not too comfortable.”
• “Charles Barkley is quite possibly the worst college basketball analyst out there. #Turrrrible”
• “charles barkley is a giant finger nail and the basketball fans listening are the school’s blackboard. #turrrrible”
I realize that the CBS studio show team is part of a much bigger business deal with Turner and that removing Kenny and Charles would come with lots of red tape. But CBS has built its reputation on substance over style and staying true to quality sports television in an era of “Booyah!” broadcasters.
So after taking Kenny and Charles off the Selection Show this year in a meager attempt to hide their poor work on March Madness, it’s time CBS takes them off the network entirely.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of Lost Lettermen. His column appears each Monday.