March Marks

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Hardwood ratings have been hard-core for ESPN of late.

Shaquille O’Neal’s Feb. 20 debut with the Phoenix Suns against the Los Angeles Lakes pulled in 3.62 million viewers, ESPN’s third-best ever regular-season game. Two nights later, the Suns-Boston Celtics became the total sports network’s fifth most-viewed pro hoops contest.

Then, ESPN scored even bigger than with the Big Cactus’ bloom. Last Saturday night’s primetime tussle in Tennessee — in which then second-ranked Volunteers removed then top-ranked Memphis from the top spot, with a 66-62 triumph in John Calipari’s — became ESPN’s most-watched college regular season basketball game ever, averaging 5.28 million viewers.

But Tennessee’s reign atop men’s college basketball heap was extremely short-lived.

Less than 29 hours after being named No. 1 last Sunday, the Volunteers were defeated in Nashville by No. 14 Vanderbilt.

The Tennessee-Memphis viewership mark may last only slightly longer.

Circle March 8 at 9 p.m. (ET) on your calendar. That’s when North Carolina, which barring an upset, should be ranked first in the nation, visits the Cameron Crazies in Durham. Duke will likely rank in the top 5 in the country at that juncture, so Nielsen records could fall in another primetime Saturday night tip-off.

The women’s regular-season mark may be in jeopardy as well. Barring defeats this weekend, UConn will play host to Rutgers, as the nation’s No. 1 and No. 4 teams,  Monday night on ESPN2.

The Scarlett Knights, who were jobbed by the referees and the clock in their Feb. 11 visit to Knoxville against Pat Summit’s Lady Vols, just gave coach C. Vivien Stringer her 800th career victory with a 60-46 win over DePaul Wednesday night.

Now the team with some of the best names and games in the business — Epiphany Prince, Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson — is taking dead aim at Geno Auriemma’s crew, led by freshman sensation Maya Moore.

From a Nielsen perspective, the Feb. 1, 2003 matchup between UConn and Duke that made almost 1.23 million household impressions is the target.