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TOURNAMENT SHINES IN WNYERS EYES

Like the rest of the nation, Western New Yorkers have been watching all the shining moments of March Madness in record numbers.

According to WIVB-TV researcher Bob Gallivan, ratings for the men's basketball tournament are up 17 percent overall from 2004 on Channel 4, and last weekend's tense regional finals were up 30 percent.

Going into today's Final Four, the tournament has averaged a 5.3 rating locally, the highest since meters began measuring audiences here five years ago. It is only one point below CBS's national average of 6.3, its highest in seven years.

The number of high school players who bypassed college for the pros last season would appear to have leveled the playing field somewhat between the top schools and the mid-majors, leading to surprises that fueled ratings. After all, the kids who headed to the pros were not likely to go to Bucknell, Vermont or other Bracket Busters.

Besides being good for CBS's ratings, the upsets have helped some charities. Play-by-play man Jim Nantz revealed he has a bracket contest, with money going to charities when he loses.

"I'll be making out some healthy checks," said Nantz in a conference call.

Local ratings would have been higher if two of the biggest local draws, Syracuse and Duke, had advanced further. Syracuse's first-round loss to Vermont had a 6.6 local rating. The drawing power of Syracuse was apparent in its national run in 2003, when the final had a 14.7 local rating. A year ago, UConn's triumph over Georgia Tech was only a 9.3. Duke also is a strong local draw, with its regional semifinal loss to Michigan State getting a 6.8 rating.

The reasons for the surge of local interest extend beyond the competitiveness of the tournament, which saw three regional finals head into OT. Let's list them.

The Niagara-UB Effect: No question, the strong seasons of two of the area's Division I basketball teams heightened interest in college hoops. Niagara qualified for the first time in 35 years, with its first-round loss against Oklahoma starting the ratings surge. The game had a 6.7 rating locally even though it was played around noon. It was the highest-rated game in the tournament locally until Duke's loss to Michigan State. UB came within one play of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament and made the NIT, where it lost to runner-up Saint Joseph's University.

The Beilein Effect: The popularity of former Canisius College coach John Beilein is evident, judging by local ratings for the two games involving his West Virginia Mountaineers. The Cinderella team's victory over Bobby Knight's Texas Tech team in the regional semifinals had a 6.1 rating, and the Mountaineers' overtime loss to Louisville in the regional finals had a 6.6 rating. The fact Mike Gansey, a St. Bonaventure transfer, plays for Beilein also increased local interest. Unfortunately for Channel 4, CBS didn't send most of the Mountaineers' double-overtime upset of Wake Forest here. I saw that game in Cleveland and certainly understood why TV commentators called it one of the greatest tournament games in the last 20 years. Who knew that three regional finals would compete with it for the title of best game of this season's tournament?

The NHL Lockout Effect: The absence of the Buffalo Sabres as a TV competitor meant local sports fans weren't torn between viewing options.

After all the upsets, CBS was fortunate to get four big-name schools -- Louisville, Illinois, Michigan State and North Carolina -- in the Final Four. That should help ratings nationally. But if Beilein's club had held off Louisville, WIVB would have been doing a victory dance.

Beilein deservedly became one of the biggest national stories, with the New York Times and USA Today among the publications documenting his rise from junior varsity high school coach to Erie Community College to LeMoyne to his first Division I job at Canisius before he landed at Richmond and moved to West Virginia.

He would have been a fresh face and big underdog on the sidelines today, but the four coaches who qualified also have good stories for CBS analyst Billy Packer to tell. Bruce Weber of Illinois is coaching a few weeks after his mother passed away. Rick Pitino lost a relative in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and is coaching his third school in the Final Four. Michigan State's Tom Izzo is coaching the lowest seed. UNC's Roy Williams is looking to do what Syracuse's Jim Boeheim did in 2003 -- get a national title at his alma mater and the never-won-a-title monkey off his back.

No matter who wins, CBS can't lose. The network's toughest task Monday night should be editing its annual "One Shining Moment" closing montage to under five minutes.
e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com