Final Four Say


The San Antonio and Tampa runs are done. Brackets aside (thanks, John Calipari and Mario Chalmers for making me a tad richer), the action was fairly maddening.

First the men. Four No. 1 seeds for the first time. College basketball royalty in the form of UCLA, UNC and KU. The fourth entry: the upstart men from Memphis, top-ranked in the land for most of the season. The group should have produced big Nielsens for CBS. But the action in the semifinals didn’t comply. UCLA missed tons of open shots, the Tigers’ Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts were superior in the backcourt and you never got the feeling that the Bruins were in the game in the second half.

In the Final Four nightcap, UNC came out flat; Kansas amped. The result a 40-12 lead for the eventual national champions and the sound of many TV clicking to Spike TV and TNT’s presentations of Attack of the Clones and The Two Towers, respectively. Then, as KU coach (for now) Bill Self said his team lost its mind from the three-minute mark of the half until 10 remained in the game. The Tar Heels drew within four, but the Jayhawks regrouped and a gassed Tyler (bumpkin) Hansbrough and Co.collapsed down the stretch. For Black Rock, the results had to be disappointing: Memphis-UCLA was down to a 7.2 rating from an 8.4 for Georgetown-Ohio State the year before, while KU-UNC dipped to an 8.8 from an 8.9 for Florida-UCLA in 2007.

The Monday night final was tight throughout, until Self’s decision to box and one Douglas-Roberts with Brandon Rush liberated Rose, whose banked three with one tick left on the shot clock helped push the Tigers to the brink of a championship—up nine with two and change remaining.

But Memphis’ Achilles heel frayed. One key turnover and several missed free throws drew KU within a deuce. Douglas-Roberts appled a pair, but the Tigers retrieved the second miss. Now it was Rose’s turn with 10 seconds remaining: The freshmen point guard clanged the first, before swishing the second.

Calipari didn’t call time out to set the D and instruct/hammer home/mandate that “we’re going to foul” before they shoot. Chalmers took a handoff pass from Sherron Collins and hit an off-balance three to send to OT! The extra session was all Jayhawks and Memphis blues. Even though it wound up being a thriller, CBS’s viewership for the title tilt dipped from 19.6 million viewers in 2007 to 19.5 million Monday night.

All told, the tourney’s 26 telecast windows averaged 8.8 million viewers for CBS, down 8% from 2007 and the lowest behind the start-of-the-Iraq-War-interrupted-2003 tourney.

Maybe, it was the flocks watching online. At press time, CBS was still tallying the record-setting numbers for its March Madness on Demand, which covered all 63 tourney games for the first time and was opened up to multiple access points.

While CBS pulled in $450 million for its linear coverage, the on-demand offering supplied another $23 million assist to the Sean McManus/Les Moonves pool. How the dollars shift, and will there be sponsors attached to cable, satellite and telco distributors’ on-demand “NCAA March Madness Highlights” package — which is expected to become a rite of early spring — are two of the things to handicap when considering 2009’s march into men’s madness.

On the ladies side of the court Sunday night, a pair of No. 2s dueled with the distaff chalk: UConn and Tennessee. Candice Wiggins hit a number of big shots and handled pressure to stave off the Lady Huskies and their budding superstar Maya Moore to make it to Tuesday night. ESPN netted a 2.1 rating, compared with a 1.6 for Rutgers-LSU in the 2007 Final Four opener.

Then came the first half of the nightcap, a game that set the women’s game back a decade, as both LSU and the Lady Vols missed wide open jumpers and repeatedly turned it over, often without duress. Free throws clanged and Candace Parker’s dislocated shoulder harnessed her all-around skills. The result:  a 22-18 count at the half, the lowest ever for a national semifinal, said the ESPN studio trio of Trey Wingo, Kara Lawson and Stacey Dales.


But the second half improved. Parker and 6-6 LSU center Sylvia Fowles became more engaged with the former’s footwork occasionally succeeding inside over the latter’s length. Fowles, despite missing a bunch of chippies and free throws (fatigue perhaps, she played every minute), did enough to keep the Tigers close. And when Erica White nailed a couple of free throws with seven seconds left, LSU looked like it would finally exchange the fifth of five consecutive Final Four tickets into a championship game reservation.

Unlike Calipari, LSU coach Vance Chancellor did the right thing. He called time out to set up his full court D. Foolishly, though, his strategy didn’t call for a double team of Parker, whose long strides and ball-handling prowess enabled her to easily race past her smaller defender and draw Fowles toward her. The beautiful dish went to Nicky Anosike, who blew the bunny, only to have Alexis Hornbuckle tap in her only bucket of the night with less than a second remaining.

ESPN was rewarded with a 2.8 rating, versus a 2.4 for Tennessee-UNC the prior year.

Together, the distaff Final Four’s average grew 20% to a 2.4 ratings average and 25% to 2.35 million households.

Tuesday night was no contest, with Candace’s crew all over Candice’s Cardinal. Jumping out quickly behind tiny point guard Shannon Bobbit’s trio of three balls, Tennessee’s trapping and size disarmed Stanford at virtually every turn. It was impressive to see the 6’3” Parker heading the Vols’s full court scrum, making it difficult for Stanford to throw through and/or over her.

Despite a never-in-doubt, 16-point triumph that gave Parker and coach Pat Summitt back-to-back championships and the Lady Vols an eighth national crown overall (the Wizard of Westwood’s 10 titles with UCLA are clearly in Summitt’s steely-eyed sight), viewers stayed with the game: the 3.0 rating was a 30% increase over last year’s 2.3 for Tennessee’s defeat of Rutgers, translating into 3.86 million viewers, versus 2.92 million.

Overall, the 2008 tournament was the most-viewed ever on ESPN and ESPN2. The latter recorded a 31% rise in audience to 560,000 from 427,000, while the total sports network shot up 47% to 1.78 million viewers on average

One can only imagine the numbers if UConn-Tennessee and Summitt and Geno Auriemma (five titles in Storrs) had been able to renew their on-court contretemps. Sadly, the programs’ rivalry now can only continue on the recruiting front and in the tournament, now that Summitt has shuttered their longtime regular-season meetings.