The casual college basketball viewer might well look at the NCAA tournament’s VCU-Butler semifinal Saturday at 6:09 p.m., turn the channel, and watch the evening news.
And then come to regret it.
Though this is a matchup between two mid-major programs with nary a national championship between them — the polar opposite of the Kentucky-Connecticut game that follows — VCU vs. Butler presents a fascinating clash of style and back story. That alone makes it worth watching.
But the Final Four’s first-ever meeting of teams seeded No. 8 or lower has drawn shrugs from some quarters, and outright hostility from others. ESPN commentator Skip Bayless jumped right in Sunday after the 11th-seeded Rams, who barely made the tournament, upended Kansas 71-61.
“VCU still did not deserve bid,” he tweeted Sunday after the Rams upset No. 1-seeded Kansas 71-61. “Can’t improve resume after the fact.”
Unfortunately for the ratings, a lot of viewers might think the same thing.
Or, that they simply had never heard of VCU or Butler, even though Butler’s 61-59 loss to Duke in last year’s final drew 48 million viewers to become the most-watched NCAA final since 1999.
While that was attributable more to Duke’s legendary status than Butler’s unlikely rise, the eight-seeded Bulldogs should have accumulated some viewer equity from that experience. But the same can’t be said of Shaka Smart’s tough-talking Rams, who had to beat USC in what amounted to a play-in game in the first round, and then get past Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas in one of the most magical runs in history.
“Even though it’s a great story, to the vast population of casual followers, it’s hard to understand what VCU and Butler are all about,” said Neil Best, who writes Newsday’s popular media column Sportswatch. “They’ll be more attracted to brand names, and that’s going to take a bite out of the ratings.
“It’s like Boise State-TCU football. Great matchup. But to the casual fan, it’s not Ohio State-USC. That’s the reality.”