Maryland edges UNC in sportswriting showdown


photo/U of Maryland Diamondback

Michigan relied on a 40-foot desperation shot to defeat Wisconsin women’s basketball this weekend. And Maryland’s men celebrated when Tyler Hansbrough’s last-second shot bounced off the rim in Chapel Hill, N.C., in arguably the biggest upset of the season.

Nothing is more exciting in college sports than a hard-fought game – especially when that game is against a regular rival. Sprinkle in last-minute heroics or a major upset and the drama increases and the bumps starting goosing up though the skin.

The college journalists covering these games were up to the task of revealing these exciting games, even if the stories lacked some perspective at times. These sportwriters grabbed readers by writing solid stories that offered context, analysis, and good writing.

Sources, though, seem to be the biggest problem in college sports reporting. Too often, college journalists fail to offer sufficient perspective, relying too heavily on comments from their own coaches and players. Always speak to athletes on both sides. (More about this later this week when I offer the results of a survey of college newspapers across the country.)

In order to more clearly illustrate how games should be covered, each week I plan to compare stories written about the same game, essentially pitting the two writers against one another. This week I have selected two games – the men’s basketball game between Maryland and North Carolina and the women’s game between Wisconsin and Michigan – since they are both exciting and accessible.

Each week, we’ll have a sports writing showdown. I want to first acknowledge that this assessment is intended for education and fun – NOT to demean the work of college journalists who work hard learning their profession. Unlike other college students, journalists have their homework graded by the public. As a newspaper adviser, I understand how challenging this can be. Still, let’s have a little fun with this exercise in the spirit of friendly competition. Please, feel free to offer your own comments below these stories as well.

Stories will be scored based upon the following criteria – leads, context/analysis, sources, language/writing style, and originality.

This week’s showdown pits the Daily Tar Heel (North Carolina) against the Diamondback (Maryland) in one match-up and the Michigan Daily against Wisconsin’s Badger Herald in the other. We’ll dig into the ACC match-up first. Tomorrow, we’ll assess the Big Ten battle.

In what may prove to be the biggest upset of the year, Maryland defeated previously undefeated North Carolina 82-80 on Saturday. The Tar Heels had won 18 in a row, but extending such a streak through a rigorous ACC schedule is a daunting task. Maryland, now 12-7 and 2-2 in the conference, has defeated UNC several times during the past several seasons. Let’s break down the coverage of this big game by category.

Andrew Zuckerman focuses on the final play of the game, observing how the players reacted when UNC’s final shot bounced off the rim. This writer did a fine job describing the final scene:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Tyler Hansbrough’s last-second 3-pointer hadn’t even yet clanked off the rim, but the Terrapins could tell it wasn’t going in – so much that Cliff Tucker even threw his arms in the air to celebrate an improbable win.

The lead could have been offered in two shorter – punchier – sentences by replacing the dash with a period, deleting “so much that,” and starting a new sentence with “Cliff Tucker even threw…” But that’s picky. … It’s much more difficult to write a story when your home team loses in a wild upset, but Gray Caldwell does a great job finding the appropriate angle: “It couldn’t last forever.” EDGE: Maryland (slightly).

Zuckerman includes comments from the hometown team – coach Gary Williams and three Terrapin players. … Caldwell doesn’t do much better, offering only the thoughts of his hometown coach and players. A story that mixed comments from both teams would have offered great insights. The sources are limited. EDGE: Even.

Both writers did a fine job putting this game into perspective, but Zuckerman did a slightly better job. He states this game is an upset for the ages (an exaggeration, perhaps, but this is a big upset considering UNC’s record. Yet, this hardly stacks up against a real upset for the ages — N.C. State’s win in the NCAA final.) And Zuckerman also assesses that Maryland seemed to be playing for an NIT bid, that it was the seventh time a Gary Williams team had defeated a No. 1 team, and that Maryland had stifled Hansbrough for most of the game. … Caldwell puts the loss in perspective (it’s only one loss, after all) and assesses the final sequence of plays, which works well; however, it’s tough to beat writing about a major upset. EDGE: Maryland.

The ‘upset for the ages’ statement could have easily gone overboard, but this writer puts it in perspective. Caldwell also inserted borderline clichés (dominating the paint and trying to bounce back). Otherwise, these writers eschewed using clichés and jargon, instead offering fluid transitions and concise language. EDGE: Even.

Again, this is a close match-up, one that lends itself more to the one writing about the upset winner than the journalist describing the upset loser. Zuckerman relies heavily on description to lead into the story – and returns to that in the conclusion, shown below.

And when Hansbrough’s final shot harmlessly bounced to the floor to complete the upset, Williams showed the most emotion he has in a long time, much like his team did. Williams raised both arms into the air, turned around to the Terp fans and gave numerous fists pumps.

Caldwell, meanwhile, does an exemplary job of putting the game into context, keeping the focus there throughout the beginning. He also gets his sources to explain how it all happened, a key for every sportswriter. Here’s a terrific quote from Roy Williams.

Williams said that he was angry at his team’s lack of transition offense in the game and that he felt Maryland probably outran the Tar Heels.

“We had one time two guys give me the tired signal running back on defense,” he said. “That should never happen. If you’re going to be frickin’ tired, tell me on offense, don’t tell me as you’re running back and the other team’s laying it up on the other end.”

Once again, the choice is difficult here. So, again, I’ll be a fence-sitter and split the vote. These two young journalists did a fine job, though, which made the decisions close. EDGE: Even.

OVERALL: Maryland wins off the court as well, 2-0 by my score. But both writers should be commended for their stories. I would strongly recommend everybody consider one crucial part of reporting: interviewing. Speak with sources on both teams in all situations so you – and your readers – can learn more about the game. Head over to that other locker room and listen in.



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