TV covering Marquette’s Markus Howard like a star — not a phenomenon

It’s impossible for a player to score 53 points in a high-major college basketball game and go unnoticed. But after Marquette point guard Markus Howard lit up Creighton in his team’s overtime victory in January, there were college basketball fans who wondered why he wasn’t getting more attention in subsequent games.

They’d seen how Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was hyped last year, after all, and he never even hit the half-century mark. The coverage ESPN provided of the Sooners sensation included a constant scoring tracker during games and eventually was included over the scoreline in other games (if OU was playing at the same time).

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Howard’s production might engender the occasional on-screen graphic to let you know how he’s performing, but the same is true for teammates Joey and Sam Hauser and players on opposing teams. Steve Scheer, Fox Sports’ senior coordinating producer, will work Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Big East game between No. 10 Marquette and No. 14 Villanova on FOX. He told Sporting News there will be only subtle changes in how FOX will cover the game, relative to Howard’s presence in it.

Howard averages 24.6 points for the No. 10 Golden Eagles, but when his games are on TV — Fox Sports holds rights to Big East games, not ESPN — he generally is treated as a star player, but not as a phenomenon.

There are reasons for that difference in TV coverage:

1. What Young was doing truly was a singular achievement. When Young became a sensation last season, he was leading the nation in both scoring and assists. No player ever did that for a full season at the major-college level, and he wound up first in both categories.

Young went through a 14-game stretch in the first half of last season in which he did not score fewer than 26 points. Through 17 games, he’d led an unheralded Oklahoma team to a 14-3 start.

Howard has been amazing, but he ranks “only” fifth in Division I scoring, and 129th in assists. He has had six games of 30 or more points. Those are the numbers of a serious candidate for first-team All-American — but perhaps not those of a never-before-seen sensation.

Before many college basketball analysts reacted with a surprising harangue to his 39-shot performance against Oklahoma State — he scored 18 points in fewer than 8 minutes to help get OU to overtime in a road rivalry game but was excoriated for the volume and nature of his shot attempts — Young genuinely fit that category.

“Our goal in tracking his stats in real time on the screen during the game was to best serve the fan,” David Ceisler, ESPN’s college basketball coordinating producer, told SN. “We wanted to deliver constant and immediate stats to the viewer that was watching from the beginning of the game as well as the fan just tuning in.”

ESPN’s approach to covering Young’s unprecedented production was itself pioneering, but not unwarranted — just as it is understandable the network would use Duke freshman superstar Zion Williamson’s highlights in just about every “play to break” that precedes a commercial package during Blue Devils games. It can lead to criticism, especially in the Twitter age, about overhyping a player. But ESPN contends it helps draw a larger audience.

“Our productions will continue to push video and statistical treatments to players in games whose stats dictate that direction,” Ceisler said. “Our choices were prompted by fan interest as well as ratings results.”

2. FOX handles its coverage of college basketball games differently than ESPN. When Marquette plays at home or in conference, the games are aired primarily on cable network Fox Sports 1 or the over-the-air channel known in the industry as “big Fox.” Those in charge of televising college basketball at FOX take a different approach than ESPN in their presentation.

“ESPN is just a little bit different as far as what they do,” Geordie Wimmer, vice president of production for Fox Sports, told SN. “You can see it with what they do with Zion now. He’s hyped on every single program. To me, as a little bit more of a purist, it takes away a little bit from the team aspect when you’re trying to slice it down to just one guy, one player.

“I think with the Big East Conference, which we have, as well as the Big Ten, it’s more about team. It’s more about everyone kind of competing to make their teams better.

“If you’d told me out of the teams that we cover who is a player to hype, I would have probably said Carsen Edwards. Or Shamorie Ponds, with St. John’s, the Big East Player of the Year. And Carsen was the AP (preseason national) player of the year. But even with those guys, I don’t think you go out of your way to pull them from the team.”

Scheer put it succinctly in a conversation with SN: “We’re always talking about, in college basketball, the name on the front of the jersey. That’s the way I’m approaching it.”

When Scheer is assigned to a game, he generally will use a secondary camera for isolation shots, almost always on a star big man.

“Rarely do I isolate a guard,” Scheer said. But in this case, he will. “I’ll follow him to see how he gets himself free, how he comes around screens, how they set the screens for him. I want to see: How is he getting himself free for these shots?”

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Wimmer explained FOX will feature a high-performing player in advance of a game, with a series of highlight plays or some statistical graphics to introduce viewers to an important component of that matchup.

“Obviously, Markus Howard has been tremendous this year. But that team needs Joey Hauser and Sam Hauser and Theo Johns and Sacar Anim to win,” Wimmer said. “I feel like when Markus gets hot, that’s when it takes off. So you saw it in the game against Creighton, where in overtime he was unconscious. So, at that point, you’re following him, updating what his numbers are, showing how good he is, what his numbers have been the past couple weeks.

“It’s not to say what ESPN did with Trae Young was right or wrong. I do think if you have a guy like Zion who is going to be the No. 1 pick overall and he’s going to be a franchise-changer in the NBA — when you have somebody like that, it definitely warrants more attention.

“But I don’t think ESPN does that much, either. I think they know that team has Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett and that team’s got a lot of talent. So you can’t make every Duke game just Zion.”

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