Stan Van Gundy Can’t Wait To Get Back On The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Call

A year ago, Stan Van Gundy got quite the introduction to March Madness as the first NCAA Tournament game he ever called was the wild finish between Furman and Virginia that saw the Paladins stun the Cavaliers in the first round.

The announcer cam footage of a stunned Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, mouths ajar, watching as Virginia melted down against the Furman press was an unbelievable juxtaposition to the eruption from Kevin Harlan, who delivered one of the signature calls of his Tournament career. That game gave Van Gundy a quick introduction to what a wild ride the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament can be, and as he gets set for Year 2 in the booth for TNT Sports alongside Harlan and Bonner (with Andy Katz roaming sidelines), he cannot wait to get back.

We got a chance to speak with Van Gundy last week prior to the bracket being revealed, because as he explained, he needs every possible moment early this week to study film and get up to speed on the eight teams he’ll be calling games for starting on Friday. We talked about how much fun he had calling games last year, his preparation plan for the marathon that is the first day of games, what he looks for in each matchup, and how honored he is to get to call games with Harlan and Bonner.

What was your experience like calling your first NCAA Tournament last year? And what are your takeaways and lessons coming into this year for year number two?

Yeah, look, it was so much fun, I can’t even tell ya. I mean, it was just so much fun. First of all, the tournament, every game is Game 7. It’s win or go home, the single elimination part of it. And, let’s face it, the basketball in the NBA is at a higher level, no question about it, but a lot of series we go into in the playoffs are pretty much foregone conclusions because the team’s got to beat a better team four times and it’s pretty rare to happen when there’s a discrepancy. Whereas, in the tournament it’s one night and anything can happen. So the tension, and I mean that in a positive way, the tension, the excitement, is just incredible. The very first game I ever did was Furman and Virginia. That was our first game. It’s phenomenal.

And then working with guys like Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner, who are pros period at broadcasting but also at doing college games and the tournament, and Ken Mack, our producer, those guys because of their knowledge, made it really, really easy for me and fun. One of the big differences for me is just the rules and the way the game is called. They play by different rules. And I was really lucky because I had a bunch of people Kevin, Brian Anderson, told me straight out, ‘Hey, there’s no one that knows the rules better than Dan Bonner.’ Referees come to him with questions, which I saw firsthand that they do, like before games, and that really took a load off my shoulders because I didn’t have to be the guy commenting on the rules things. I learned the best I could going in, and I learned from Dan as we went on, but I didn’t have to comment on a lot of that stuff. Dan could handle that better than anyone. And so, those guys made it easy on me where I could just sit back, enjoy the game, comment on strategy and things like that and not have to do the parts that would have been really, really difficult for me.

I want to go back to that Furman-Virginia game because the announcer cam of you guys went viral. It was a lot of fun to watch you guys taking that in and I mean, for you, it’s your first game. You’re getting your first taste of all this and you get arguably the craziest finish of the tournament last year. What was going through your mind as you’re watching all this and also understanding when to kind of lay out and let Kevin Harlan paint the picture for the audience?

Well, I think that’s something I’ve learned over my time here with Turner. I mean, you saw Kevin on the camera spread his arms out, that’s basically what he’s telling us right there just to lay out. So first of all, he’s telling us, but that’s something I had to learn how to do from Ian Eagle first and then Brian Anderson and Kevin and Spero Dedes. I mean, I’ve worked with great people and the producers that I’ve worked with, that when you get down to those situations, you leave it to the play-by-play guy to call. It’s not easy on a play like that, Robby, because your natural reaction is to say “Holy sh*t!” So to be quiet, just the fan in you at that point wants to just blurt something out.

My feeling in that point is probably different than a lot of people. I empathize in that situation with the coach who’s on the wrong end of it. First of all, I have unbelievable respect for Tony Bennett. And his dad who’s the best college coach I’ve ever seen, Dick Bennett, was somebody who’s always been very good to me. So I have this unbelievable respect for their family to begin with, but even just naturally in that situation I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I identify with that guy there.’ It’s a senior point guard, who’s been a big part of a national championship team. It’s not like there’s some freshmen down there in his first tournament game. Like, if you’re Tony Bennett, if you’re any coach, who do you want with the ball clock running down in that situation? Pick anybody. I’m taking Kihei Clark. And then he just puts the ball up in the air! He just throws it up for grabs.

So even before the rest of the play was going on, I was sitting there going, like, ‘What the hell?!’ in my mind. And so to sit there and just let it play out and let Kevin make the play call, I know that’s what needs to happen. I know that Kevin’s unbelievable in that situation, and all I could do is screw it up. But it wasn’t easy. It really wasn’t easy to be quiet in that situation. And I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. As we all were, and I don’t think anybody could have played that situation any better than Kevin did. You know, that’s why it went viral. He was just incredible. And it was such an honor to be beside the guy that good in that situation.

His energy, like, what does that do for you on a broadcast call? Because it’s something that’s really incredible to me. He brings it early and he’s able to sustain it through a call. And it’s hard to do that for two and a half hours on the call and keep that energy level up, and he always seems to have that way of meeting the moment, which is something that I think is so important for a good broadcaster. What’s that do for you on the call to feel that energy next to you with someone like Kevin or Ian or any of the other guys that you’ve been able to work with?

Yeah, I remember my brother saying to me early on in his broadcasting career that it’s the play-by-play guys that make the broadcast. Those are the pros. They know what to do. All I’ve got to do is just follow them. I’ve worked with some of the best in the business with Kevin and Brian and Ian obviously now has the Final Four and Spero. It’s really an honor to sit next to those guys and I can, as I’m doing now with you, I tend to be very verbose and talk too much, and I’ve had to learn — and I think I’m getting better — to shut the hell up for and let the pros call the game. And what they do is amazing to me. Like you said, to bring that every single game, you know, look, it’s easy to get excited at the end of the Furman-Virginia game, but to bring that every game and go back and forth through as many sports as these guys do, and as many different levels. It’s phenomenal.

And then working beside an experienced guy like Dan too, who’s been doing the tournament for years and brings that historical perspective to it. Like, I’m sort of superfluous on that crew, to be honest. And I know that, right? So I tried to figure out like, what is it I can add to that group? Because they don’t need me. Like Kevin and Dan and the producer Ken Mack, they’ll be doing the A-10 Championship on Sunday. Last year I know they did the Mountain West championship because I remember watching. I mean, they’ve done it for years. They don’t need me. So like my main job, and I mean, this my main job is try to stay the hell out of their way and not screw it up.

As a coach is it fun getting to go and call the college game? You watch the NBA every every week and your calling games and, you know, there’s differences in how NBA offenses work, but a lot of it is kind of homogenous, and it is kind of that copycat league thing. But I feel like in college you get so much diversity in scheme on offense and defense. Is that fun for you to kind of dig into all that when you get to come into the Tournament and break down some things that you’re just not going to see in the NBA with some of the way they press and some of the way they run different zones and then offensively the different styles that you see?

Yeah, Robby, you make a great point there. It’s one of the most fun things about doing the tournament. You see everything. Different teams play at different paces. Some teams will be multiple defense-type teams. You’ll see pressing. You’ll see more teams that just stick to their halfcourt. You see teams that are real physical. You see teams that want to play inside and pound it in. And then you see teams that are more on the perimeter. I mean, that is really fun. The other thing that as a former coach that I had a lot of fun with were going to the practices both weeks. Because college teams still sort of practice the way we always used to practice, even in the NBA and don’t as much anymore. So to see teams go out there and practice and how they approach their preparation for the game is fun. And then the third thing that’s really fun is just the excitement of everything. Watching each group’s fans come in and watching the kids being excited.

I remember the practice before the Virginia game, Furman’s coming out and Bob Richey, I loved his whole approach throughout the whole thing. But you know a lot of guys will tell their teams, especially you’ve got a 14-seeded team like, ‘Hey, we’re not just happy to be here’ and the whole thing. And Bob sort of walked the fine line. Like his kids came out on the floor to practice in Orlando and he gave them five minutes or so and they all came out there on the floor with their phones, took pictures and had a great time, and then they put the phones down and went to work. I said this long before the results of the game, we said it during the game, those kids thought they were going to win. They believed they could win. So it wasn’t any of the, ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here.’ Now, they were happy, but you can be both right. And I love that approach that Bob had. You can be happy to be there and still be there to win. They weren’t happy just to be there, but they were happy to be there and he let him enjoy it. Look, you work all year, especially in those one-bid conferences. You’ve worked all year for that opportunity. Sometimes those kids wait four years to get that opportunity, like to me, to not enjoy it would be criminal. But that doesn’t mean you’re still not there to win and I thought they walked that line as well as you possibly could. And I’m not talking about the way they ended up winning, I’m talking about what we saw in their preparation and in their confidence and everything else.

When we get the bracket and you get the matchups that you’re going to be calling, what are the things that you’ll be looking for in terms of — we often talk about point guard play and three-point shooting always come up especially now with how important that three-point shot is. But what are the aspects that you look at in the matchups that, especially when you get those higher-seeded versus lower-seeded teams, you think can be the differentiator or be the thing that bridges the gap and provides an opportunity for the upset?

First of all, what I’ll do when I get my assignments on Sunday, I’ve got a few hours left in the day on Sunday, I’ve got all day Monday and I’ve got Tuesday until I fly if we have Thursday games to get through eight teams. Probably at least seven of them I haven’t seen during the year because I’m mainly focused on the NBA. So I’m digging into the film and I’m trying to get through a minimum of two films on every team. So it’s gonna take me every possible minute and the first thing I’m trying to get a handle on is just, style of play, schemes, how those teams want to play. What do those coaches do when they’re down? What are the adjustments that they’ll go to? And I’m trying to get as much as I can in two games, as good a sense of personnel as I possibly can — strengths and weaknesses on all of the players out there.

And then, like you say, then as you get to the matchup part of it, whether it’s a mismatch in terms of or say an 8-9 game, it’s still ‘Where does each team have an advantage?’ But in those games where there’s a disparity, like what gives that lower-seeded team a chance? And even if you don’t think they have a great chance, what would give them a chance? What is the thing that could put them over the top? One of the things I remember talking about with Furman is the great experience those guys had in a number of big games they’ve been in. They lost their conference tournament final the year before and then they won that last year. So they’ve been in those one-and-done games and Slawson, Bothwell, and even Pegues, even though he was only a sophomore, those guys have been in those games and so we didn’t feel like they be intimidated by the situation. I mean, Slawson’s in the NBA now. I mean, these are high-level guys. So yeah, just looking for what gives them the edge.

As you said, you look at the three-point shooting. That’ll sort of give — if a team can really knock down threes, they’ve always got a puncher’s chance. But Louisiana, they had the big kid inside who was a great low post presence, which is not normally what you see in the smaller conferences and the one-bid leagues, but he gave them a chance. So that’s sort of what you’re looking at. I know we identified in the Tennessee-Duke game that, you know, Tennessee’s physicality against Duke, which played out right from the beginning of that game when Filipowski got cut over the eye. Like, hey, this is one of the most physical teams in the country. It’s a young Duke team. We’re not sure they’ve been up against this level of physicality. So, trying to just create the scenario of where does each team have an advantage?