Top Talent Will Be on the Court and in the ESPN Compound at Champions Classic

The madness of March may still be far, far off (heck, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet), but ESPN is already prepping for, perhaps, its biggest college-hoops productions of the year.

ChampionsLogoTonight, four of the top five men’s hoops programs in the latest AP Poll meet at Chicago’s United Center when ESPN hosts the State Farm Champions Classic, a doubleheader that pits top-ranked Kentucky against No. 2 Michigan State and No. 4 Duke versus No. 5 Kansas.

“It’s like having the Daytona 500 start your NASCAR season,” says Jay Levy, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s men’s-college-basketball coverage. “I can’t imagine a Final Four that could ever be this great from a matchup standpoint.”

Led by the producer/director tandem of Eric Mosely and Doug Holmes — fresh off the successful broadcast of the Armed Forces Classic in South Korea last Friday — the top ESPN college-basketball production and operations team is in the Windy City for the event.

According to Tom Gianakos, director, remote production operations, ESPN, setup could not begin officially until early this morning because of the Bulls game last night. F&F Productions’ GTX-15 A and B units were able to park yesterday, and some early work on graphics and preproduction was able to get done, but in-arena equipment setup began this morning at 6 a.m.

ESPN will deploy 18 cameras throughout the United Center for game coverage as well as College Gameday, which will have its traveling set in place in the northwest corner of the lower bowl. In the arsenal are a healthy bunch of specialty cameras, including two super-slow-motion units (one a midcourt handheld, the other in a slash position) and Fletcher cameras both above the backboards and behind the glass.

Levy says much of his inspiration for the camera positions for tonight’s event were inspired by ESPN’s coverage of this year’s NBA Playoffs.

“I remember, I saw Lebron go up for an alley-oop in a Heat game and thought that the shot behind the glass looked incredible,” he says. “Now, you can’t afford to do that on all of your games, but, for games like this, it affords us a special look that I think will be interesting for fans, and it’s probably not an angle we’ve shown much, if at all, for college games.”

There will also be a jib as well as a collection of roving RF cameras provided by Broadcast Sports Inc. with help from CP Communications on the audio side.

The opportunity to broadcast a college game out of an NBA venue had Levy, Gianakos, and the rest of the operations team considering even bringing in a FlyCam.

They chose instead to add a third up camera near the two primary game cameras, offering the opportunity for more isolation shots, a key feature for a pair of games loaded with big-name talent like Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker.

On the gear side, this year’s Champions Classic marks a new level of commitment to on-site technology. In the previous two years of the event, the HD team shared resources, including an I-MOVIX super-slo-mo, with the ESPN 3D crew. With the 3D department shuttered, however, Levy’s team is on its own.

Today, there is no less a technology complement, although, for the first time, all that gear is dedicated to the HD production.

There will be plenty of top-notch graphics as well. The ESPN-designed ART (Advanced Replay Tool) system will see airtime. The high-end telestration system allows graphics to be instantaneously embedded within a replay, providing commentators greater visual resources to communicate analysis to viewers.