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CBS missing story of the tournament

During the early rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, CBS made a few infuriating calls about which games being played simultaneously would be carried in Western New York.

They were tough calls that were bound to upset some fans. I think CBS is making a far bigger scheduling mistake again on Final Four Saturday. It is starting the George Mason-Florida game at 6:07 p.m, the UCLA-LSU at about 8:45 p.m. rather than the other way around.

On a conference call, I asked CBS Sports and News President Sean McManus about the rationale for carrying the George Mason game when fewer viewers usually are available. He said it was a tough call that could have gone either way and "we made it with our gut." UCLA's West Coast location played into the equation. He also believed the George Mason-Florida game would bring viewers to the nightcap.

His reasoning is understandable. The UCLA-LSU game involves bigger basketball names. The Bruins have returned to national prominence, LSU is trying to provide an emotional boost for its area needed after Hurricane Katrina.

But George Mason is The Story of the tournament. Much of the conference call with announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer dealt with George Mason's achievements. Nantz said the upset of UConn "changed the landscape of college basketball" and GMU is America's team.

Now I was at the Verizon Center with my brother watching GMU's overtime victory Sunday over top-seeded UConn. I'm sure 500,000 other people will say in 50 years they were at the historic game, too. After I returned home, I headed to a local Ted's. "George Mason," shouted the guy cooking hot dogs to the guy cooking french fries. He was speaking for much of America. "George Mason" is on the lips of every underdog lover. CBS should have seized the moment and sent its game entirely to prime time rather than the game between the alphabet schools that is expected to be an ugly defensive struggle.

I bet it would have paid off in the ratings. The GMU-UConn game was last Sunday's early game. It had a 6.4 rating here, rising to a 10.7 in overtime. Florida's win over Villanova couldn't maintain that lead-in, scoring an 8.5 rating here.

George Mason's appearance in the Final Four has pleased Packer bashers. He's been criticized for his pre-tournament questioning of the head of the NCAA Selection Committee. Packer suggested that teams from the so-called power conferences were more qualified than some of the mid-major teams chosen.

I gave him credit for criticizing the field in an event carried on his own network. These days, you don't see or hear strong opinions like that often. However, some columnists have acted as if Packer was the first analyst to ever be wrong.

And it's even a little unfair to say he was wrong. After all, who is to say that some power conference team left out of the tournament, like Cincinnati or Florida State, couldn't have had the same magical ride that George Mason has had in these days of basketball parity?

On the conference call, Packer wouldn't apologize and said he had no regrets. His defense was as strong as UCLA's. He noted he never mentioned George Mason or any other mid-major team by name. He added no one is asking the Selection Committee to apologize after none of its four No. 1 regional seeds made it to the finals and they shouldn't apologize.

"That's just the way it falls," said Packer. "I have the right to my opinion. This is not a matter of someone having a corner on the market of brains."

Then he pointed to the pre-tournament Associated Press poll of the Top 25 teams, which is voted on by knowledgeable writers. "George Mason did not receive one vote," Packer said.

And the voters included people who had actually seen George Mason play before they had pulled off stunning tournament victories over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and UConn in 11 days. "I'd say [of the chances of that happening], not in a million years," said Packer.

Who knew George Mason would have more trouble getting prime time exposure than winning those games? If this million-to-1 shot upsets Florida, prime time beckons on Monday's title game.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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