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Column: For CBS lead college basketball producer Mark Wolff, each March brings fresh dose of madness

Mississippi coach Kermit Davis and players watch the broadcast of the NCAA Division I men’s basketba
Mississippi coach Kermit Davis and players watch the broadcast of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament selection show in Oxford, Miss., on Sunday.
(Bruce Newman / Oxford Eagle via AP)

There’s a certain degree of repetitive madness at this time every March for CBS lead college basketball producer Mark Wolff.

Within about 15 minutes after he ties everything together for the network’s broadcast of the Big Ten Conference championship game in Chicago, the hourlong NCAA men’s tournament bracket show begins — this time with no artificially delayed gratification or an insistence on alphabetical order based on the whim of a different network partner that wants a new twist on a tried-and-true method.

But as that unnatural selection process takes place, Wolff is already en route to O’Hare Airport. He’ll check his phone as best he can for updates on the 68 chosen NCAA tournament teams, made easier by today’s technological standards than when he was promoted almost seven years ago to produce for the network’s No. 1 broadcast crew.

Yet his mind is already in fastbreak focus.

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“I had a pretty good idea how [the bracket] might go, but mentally, I’m already thinking about the next project,” Wolf said in the minutes before jumping on his next plane Sunday. “I’m just trying to get to the airport, get home, and know by the time I land, I can start plotting the course for the next part of the wild ride.

“I don’t know if you ever get used to it. It’s taxing, and there’s some intense preparation and production. But you’re all in. From a production perspective, every year is like Christmas morning dealing with something new and creative.”

Wolff will be with director Bob Fishman and the team of Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill in Columbia, S.C., on Friday for first-round games in the East Region. That’s where No. 1 overall seed Duke has been slotted in a 4:10 p.m. Pacific time telecast on CBS, something we appreciated learning just two minutes into Sunday’s tournament TV reveal broadcast.

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“I did hear rumblings I’d be following around a guy named Zion,” Wolff said of Duke star freshman Zion Williamson with some sly humor. “You know, the really hard job today in all this has to be the TV programmers, the ones who decide when’s when and what’s what. The rest of us just have the fun part.”

For 35 seasons, the UCLA graduate who grew up worshiping Bruins basketball from his San Fernando Valley home has been part of the CBS tournament coverage. Fishman has been in his role for 38 seasons.

Nantz, coming off a Super Bowl and soon to head to the Masters golf tournament, has been the lead play-by-play man on college basketball since replacing Brent Musburger in 1991, so there’s another 28 years of experience added. Add to that Raftery’s broadcasting career that started in 1982.

The Nantz-Raftery-Hill team starts its fifth tournament together.

“When I first started [as the lead producer], we had been through three different broadcast teams for three straight seasons,” said Wolff, recalling how Greg Anthony, Steve Kerr and Clark Kellogg were all in the mix with Nantz before 2015. “But I think this group [Nantz, Raftery and Hill] have really hit a stride, including [sideline reporter] Tracy Wolfson.

“It’s all about Jim setting the tone and watching the interesting chemistry between Bill and Grant. It’s a respectful relationship. You can see Grant put his coaching hat on, and Raftery will jump in, and I find myself saying to Fishman: It’s not fair one guy, Grant, is so good at so many different things. He’s just so solid.

“And the thing many may not think about Raftery is, as he’s known for his sense of humor, he works so hard and has great insight. I adore all of them because they all tackle every assignment like it’s their last one, and it’s been very rewarding to get a chance to guide and produce them.”

More madness mentions

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— CBS studio analysts Seth Davis and Kellogg picked No. 13 seed UC Irvine in the South as a team destined for a Sweet 16 spot. Kellogg called the Anteaters “aggressive and efficient and in position to do some real damage. … [This is] the team I like the best” for an upset run.

UC Irvine starts the tournament at 11 a.m. Friday in San Jose against Kansas State on TBS with the crew of Spero Dedes, Len Elmore and Steve Smith, who also have Oregon-Wisconsin later that day.

The Brad Nessler team with Steve Lavin and Jim Jackson is assigned to Tulsa, Okla., for TNT broadcasts Friday of Northern Kentucky-Texas Tech and the winner of St. John’s/Arizona State vs. Buffalo.

— As the tournament shakes out, Turner has 43 games to air across TNT, TBS and truTV, the latter of which has 13 games, including the four play-in games Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. After the second round, truTV disappears. CBS has 26 games, including the Final Four and national title game.

— Including the desktop and mobile web home base of NCAA March Madness Live, all 67 games stream on a record 17 platforms — usually after one inputs a local TV provider login. Other options: Android TV, Oculus Go, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Android handset, Android tablet, Amazon Echo devices, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Samsung Gear VR, Roku players and Xbox One.

Tune it in

Showtime’s four-part documentary series “Action” — which follows a somewhat depressing narrative of how various pro gamblers, handicappers and new media faces such as Musburger and “Cousin” Sal Iacono are all delusionally connected by the legalization of sports betting since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling — launches this coming Sunday at 8 p.m. Says Showtime president Stephen Espinoza: “The world of sports gambling has fascinated Hollywood for decades, but never before has a documentary captured the essence of the industry at such a pivotal period.” Austin, Texas-based Luke Korem, 36, is the series’ executive producer and director. The series begins in Las Vegas using the recent Rams-Patriots Super Bowl as the foundation of “the biggest betting spectacle on the planet.”

Tune it out

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Fox Sports might be under the influence of its own spell cast when rehabilitating the images of Alex Rodriguez and Pete Rose by adding them to its MLB studio shows. It’s one of the few reasons that seems plausible for their hubristic hiring of retired Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and deposed USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush to be part of a new college football studio show come this fall. Sure, Meyer can lead a discussion in coaching ethics and Bush can push his insight on how best to derail a program with illegal family benefits. By all means, let’s sell more notoriety among the panelists — lumped in with Matt Leinart and Brady Quinn, who, aside from Joel Klatt, has been the network’s most effective live game analyst — as a way to divert attention from ESPN’s successful run of “College GameDay” and snuff out the otherwise stale discussions taking place on CBS, ABC or NBC’s Notre Dame sing-along.


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