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Appetizer is very filling

Although there are no two days like the first two of the NCAA Tournament for college basketball viewing, this weekend comes awfully close, and this year more than ever.

With so much undecided heading into a weekend when dozens of NCAA bids will be handed out, the slate of games makes it worth blowing off mowing the lawn and cleaning the garage for a nice soft spot on the couch.

Today, 19 men's tournament games will be shown by ESPN, ESPN2, Sunshine and Fox Sports Net, ranging from Big Ten and SEC action to a Southland Conference title matchup and a Mountain West nightcap.

Saturday, Chs. 10, 32 and 38 get in on the fun as another 19 men's games will be shown, including 10 championship games. Sunday, it's all about the big boys as the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten title games lead into the always anticipated NCAA Selection Show at 6 p.m. on Ch. 10.

And that's just an NCAA Tournament appetizer.

With no dominant team emerging, and so many good mid-major teams making a play for a bid, the conference tournaments ultimately will decide whether the Butlers and Southern Illinoises of the world go dancing next week.

"I used to be one of the all-time guys down on postseason conference tournaments; I thought they were a waste of time," said Jim Nantz, lead play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports' college basketball coverage the past 12 years.

Nantz said that when he did past conference tournaments for the Big East and Big Ten, it was hard to get up for them. But no longer.

"I'd go into that weekend a lot of times trying to mask my lack of enthusiasm for these tournaments, but I genuinely feel enthusiasm for them now," he said. "I've never seen a year where the conference tournaments are more meaningful than this year."

KENTUCKY BLUES: Those wanting to watch the Kentucky-Vanderbilt SEC game today will have to wait until midnight, when the game is shown on tape delay.

Because Sunshine had its schedule with the Lightning done long before Jefferson Pilot came to it asking if it would air the SEC games, it was agreed that the 7:30 p.m. SEC tournament game would have to be shown after the live hockey game.

IT LIVES: Sunshine has added Saturday's Lightning game against Montreal and the March 31 game at Boston to its schedule, meaning every game from here on out will be available to viewers.

FINAL SPAT NOTE: Now that Sunshine and Time Warner have patched things up, here's some of what viewers missed:

+ 22 Lightning games, including thrilling wins over Detroit and the comeback last week against Colorado, and the eight games on Sunshine since Feb. 16, in which the Lightning has gone 6-1-1.

+ 20 Orlando Magic games, including Tracy McGrady's career-high 52 points in a win over Chicago, his 37 first-half points against Denver and a win over Dallas.

+ FSU's upset of then-No. 5 Duke on ACC Sunday Night, and the Seminoles' 70-69 win over Clemson on a shot with .4 seconds left.

+ The Gators' win over then-No. 20 Georgia on a last-second shot by freshman Anthony Roberson.

+ Unranked Virginia beating then-No. 13 Maryland 80-78 in overtime.

EARLY RISERS: Sunday's Arena Football League game between rivals Tampa Bay and Orlando starts at noon, so NBC can start coverage of the Honda Classic at 3 p.m.

During NBC's coverage of the PGA's "Southern Swing," AFL games to be televised will move to noon. The weekend of the Players Championship (March 29-30), NBC will not broadcast AFL games.

CONTINGENCY PLAN: CBS has had discussions with ESPN about switching the NCAA Tournament to the cable network if the United States goes to war with Iraq, according to the Associated Press.

"We're discussing it," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said Thursday. "We are definitely talking about it. The sole reason for us to get involved is to serve the fans in a very difficult time."

CBS will be dedicated entirely to news coverage at the beginning of a war.

AROUND THE DIAL: In the first TV interview with an Augusta National official since the debate over whether to admit a female member, HBO Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel will talk with media consultant Jim McCarthy, hired by the club to handle the controversy, as well as Augusta Mayor Bob Young and other civic leaders as the town readies for the firestorm. Former Florida women's basketball coach Carol Ross has been added to ESPN's NCAA women's tournament broadcast team. ESPN's Outside the Lines (10:30 a.m. Sunday) will look back at the boating accident that killed Cleveland Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews 10 years ago.

What Tampa Bay's watching

SATURDAY

Event, Network Nat'l Local

Kentucky-Florida men's basketball, CBS 1.9 3.7

Ford Championship golf, NBC 2.0 3.2

Oregon-Arizona men's basketball, CBS 1.7 2.0

N.C. St.-Wake Forest men's basketball, ABC 1.2 0.9

Texas-Oklahoma men's basketball, ABC 1.7 0.7

SUNDAY

Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, Fox 6.4 8.2

Ford Championship golf, NBC 3.3 5.9

76ers-Lakers NBA, NBC 3.4 2.2

Duke-UNC men's basketball, CBS 3.0 2.2

Minnesota-Illinois, men's basketball, CBS 2.2 1.6

Wizards-Knicks NBA, NBC 2.3 1.3

Georgia-S. Carolina men's basketball, CBS 1.6 1.3

NBA pregame show, NBC 1.2 1.2

_ Compiled by John C. Cotey. Each national rating point represents about 1.1-million homes, while a local point is about 16,200 homes.

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