One final shot in Final Four for Big East teams

Louisville's Russ Smith shoots over Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas Louisville's Russ Smith shoots over Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas and C.J. Fair during the first half. (March 16, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

Television and sports are tough, tenuous businesses, a reality that will be on full display on screens across America in the coming days when the eight surviving NCAA Division I men's and women's basketball teams take the court.

You can't make this stuff up: The Big East, created of, by and for TV, will occupy five of the eight available spots -- none of them with schools that will be part of the conference that will take the name into 2013-14 and beyond.

This is red meat for college sports cynics, but when I asked CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus about it, he offered an upbeat take.

"I think it's a fitting end," he said, referring to Louisville and Syracuse being in the men's Final Four. Then, mindful of the fact that CBS will continue on with the newly renamed American Athletic Conference, he added, "The Big East isn't ending. The Big East as we know it is ending. I think it's a nice cap to what has been a terrific conference and one that will live on, albeit in a different form.

"It's a nice little poetic justice that there are two teams coming to Atlanta."

Meanwhile, Louisville, Notre Dame and Connecticut will be in New Orleans for the women's event, joined by Cal, which in its history has been a member of the PCC, Big Five, Big Six, Pac-8, Pac-10 and Pac-12 but presumably is not bound for the ACC, unlike Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse.

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So far.

All of this couldn't have happened to a more appropriate group than the school presidents and TV executives who operate the levers of college sports. At least Michigan is staying put, in the soon-to-be 14-team Big Ten, whose latest expansion, to include Rutgers and Maryland, is aimed directly at the Washington and New York media markets.

Fortunately for those in charge, viewers largely have become numb to all this and will watch the games on their own merits. They have so far.

CBS/Turner said its average viewership for the tournament is the highest since 1994 and that its average rating of 6.2 percent of homes is the highest since 2005. Sunday's regional finals averaged 12.8 million viewers, up 31 percent from last year.

"All we need now is three close games to finish off what's been a terrific tournament so far," McManus said.

Unpredictability helps. Only 47 of the 8.15 million brackets entered in ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge got the Final Four right.

The interest level Saturday also will be enhanced by the saga of Louisville's Kevin Ware, who became a crossover star last weekend for a very bad reason: a nationally televised compound fracture in his right leg against Duke.

"I've never seen anything like that before," announcer Jim Nantz said the day after it happened, "and when you're there and you're that close to it, it's really hard to get the image out of my mind."

Nantz's partner, analyst Clark Kellogg, said he barely could speak in the immediate aftermath, in part because he was busy praying. He called it "as raw and emotional a circumstance as I've been involved with as a broadcaster."

The fact that Ware's Louisville teammates will tip off against the appropriately nicknamed Wichita State Shockers in the first semifinal is a testament to the brand-name (and alumni) power of Michigan and Syracuse.

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Usually, the No. 1 overall seed would warrant the showcase slot over two No. 4s. McManus said part of the consideration was -- not surprisingly -- the Big Ten's traditional television drawing power. "It just felt to us this was the right order this year," he said. "It's not an exact science."

The end of the original Big East is not the only reason this year's men's finale has historical undertones. Sports Business Journal reported Turner Sports likely will begin alternating Final Fours with CBS in 2014 -- two years earlier than originally scheduled.

That would mean this marks the end of the line for the men's run of 44 Final Fours on live broadcast network television, a streak that began 10 years before the Big East was born. Click.

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