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Bobby Knight and Billy Packer take a Las Vegas seat for tournament

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Billy Packer, left, is joined by Bobby Knight, George Raveling and Jerry Tarkanian at the Wynn for filming of Packer’s March Madness sports show Billy Packer’s Survive and Advance in March 2009.
Photo: Brett Okamoto

Throughout his entire career, Bobby Knight has been known for doing things his own way. It makes sense then, that when booking his trip to Las Vegas for this month’s filming of Billy Packer’s Survive and Advance March Madness show at the Wynn, Knight took a route that likely no one else would.

“That first week of the tournament he was doing an interview in a small town in Kansas before he came out,” said Packer, a long-time sports broadcaster and close friend to Knight. “I told him we’d have dinner when he got to Vegas and asked him what time he landed. He said, ‘I won’t make it in time for dinner I’m landing at five o’clock.’ And I said, ‘Bob, the airport is three minutes away from the hotel.’ He goes, ‘I’m landing in Albuquerque then driving there with my wife.’ Albuquerque - That’s like an eleven hour drive.”

With March Madness now down to its Final Four, Knight and Packer hooked up Sunday to analyze the games on their first-year series, which aired nationally at midnight local time on Fox Sports Net. The same quirky confidence that made Knight a polarizing figure in sports, and apparently an odd traveler, helped bring a healthy crowd to the show’s first week of filming.

It’s the first time Knight, 68, has ever watched the games from Las Vegas but it might not be the last, as he said that filming the show in this atmosphere has been a great experience.

“It’s like being at the game, there’s a real excitement in the place whenever the games are being played,” Knight said. “There’s obviously a lot of basketball fans here and when you get them all together there’s certainly going to be a lot of excitement. The fans have been good, and I’m really pleased that I was asked to be a part of this and have enjoyed it immensely.”

The show has relied on its ability to interact with the audience, hosting Q&A time with both Knight and Packer as well as providing free access to its filming. Packer, who came up with the project, said that has provided some of the better moments of the entire process.

“Our best story was during a trivia time we had with the audience,” Packer said. “Last week there was a girl sitting there, acting very nondescript, not looking like she wasn’t even paying attention, so I called her up.

“My question was, ‘Who was the former great coach at Arizona?’ And she knew it was Lute Olson. And I was like, ‘Holy cripes, she got it right.’ So then I asked her what was the first school Olson took to the Final Four, just knowing no way she knows the answer. And she goes, ‘Iowa, 1980.’ It was incredible.”

Although the audience shrank a bit for Sunday’s show, UNLV fans would be happy to hear that former Rebel legend Jerry Tarkanian made the show’s short guest list of appearances. Tarkanian, who led the Rebels to the NCAA title in 1990, sat alongside former college coach George Raveling and former Duke star Christian Laettner.

According to Packer, who ended a run of 34 straight years calling the Final Four this year, selecting Tarkanian as a guest was one of the easier decisions he’s had to make about the show.

“All our guests have a purpose, they’re not just there to get people to watch,” Packer said. “They all have stories that are part and parcel to what’s happening this year. The thing about Tark is he really set the pace for what modern basketball looks like now. He’s one of the most brilliant coaches and teachers of the game that’s ever been.”

The show will have another two recordings on location at the Wynn on April 3 and April 5. Although there are no concrete plans for next March, Packer says that Vegas in March could become an annual trip.

“I would love to do it again and I think we can do it even bigger and better next time,” Packer said. “I always had buddies that would tell me when I was in broadcasting, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a great seat but you haven’t seen our great seat in Vegas.’ It’s been a very neat thing.”

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