NASHVILLE — ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas rose from his hotel bed at 5:45 Central time Saturday morning. Top-ranked Kentucky wouldn’t tip it off against host Vanderbilt for another 15 hours and 15 minutes.
“But I was here by 6:45,” Bilas said later in the day from the bowels of Memorial Gym. “And I’ll be here until late tonight.”
Bilas then broke into a wide grin.
“It’s hardly breaking rocks, though,” he said. “You’re indoors. We’ve got an amazing guy named Patrick Abrahams who brings us everything we want. I mean, this guy ought to work for the White House. It’s a pretty good gig.”
Welcome to “GameDay,” the ESPN road show that never ends.
No, there’s no Lee Corso donning crazy mascot hats to pick the winner, as happens during football season. Instead, it’s pretty much a thumbs up or thumbs down from the three-headed monster of Bilas, Digger Phelps and Hubert Davis with the network’s Rece Davis as moderator.
And just for the record, Digger predicted a Commodores win while Davis and Bilas chose the Wildcats roughly 11 hours before UK won 69-63 inside a crazed and cramped Memorial.
But that didn’t make the second “GameDay” visit to the Music City — the football team welcomed Corso and Co. back in 2008 for a victory over Auburn — any less exciting for Vanderbilt sophomore Frank Shapiro, who got to attempt a half-court shot near the close of the morning edition of the show for $18,000.
Two of his five attempts caught the rim, the second one probably four inches from a major payday.
“I played some ball in high school in California, and I thought the fourth one was in,” said Shapiro, who received a check for $1,800 for his effort. “I guess I’ll put this money in the bank.”
Vanderbilt’s David Williams, who serves as the school’s unofficial athletic director, said there might not be enough money in the bank to buy the free publicity the school received Saturday.
“It’s kind of like an all-day infomercial for both your university and your basketball program,” Williams said after watching more than 1,500 VU students arrive at 6 a.m. for a “GameDay” show that wouldn’t begin for three more hours on ESPNU.
“You can’t buy this kind of positive exposure. And as far as I know, we’re the only private school in the country that’s had ‘GameDay’ here for both football and basketball.”
Vanderbilt certainly is only one of five Southeastern Conference schools to have hosted “GameDay” for both sports — Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee being the other four.
And it is a huge production. Vanderbilt credentialed 115 ESPN employees, as opposed to 65 for a normal ESPN production. The group also arrives on Thursday instead of Friday with four production trucks.
“If you’re not careful, it can be a distraction,” VU coach Kevin Stallings said. “But it’s also a thrill to have them here.”
Not that Kentucky allowed the Commodores to have Memorial to themselves. Ignoring UK coach John Calipari’s Friday pleas to stay away from Memorial during the morning taping, the Big Blue Nation pushed an “Occupy Memorial” movement over social network sites that resulted in at least 35 percent of the crowd chanting “Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!” on more than one occasion.
Yet the Vandy brass also forced them to shout such cheers from the second level, the Commodores faithful allowed to keep the lower floor for themselves.
“We’ve had the other school’s fans before,” Bilas said. “Maybe not as prominent as this. But I thought the crowd was really good. This was one of the louder crowds.”
The loudest cheers, of course, were for the Vanderbilt players, especially senior teammates Lance Goulbourne and Jeffery Taylor, who took part in a “Know Your Teammate” skit on the order of the old “Newlywed Game.”
Asked what he thought Goulbourne would say Sunday’s headline about the game would be, Taylor said, “Memorial Magic strikes again,” which was pretty much what he’d written.
As for Taylor, he wrote, “No. 1 Goes Down.”
But it was actually one of those students who arrived at 6 a.m. who was assured of the best ending.
“I grew up a big Wildcat fan in Owensboro, Kentucky,” said VU senior Matt Holbrook, who was dressed out in Vandy black and gold. “So if UK wins I’m happy and if Vandy wins I’ll get to storm the court, which I’ve never done.”
As a fan, that’s a pretty good gig.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...