In November 1999, CBS committed $6 billion to retain the rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament through 2013.

While I am not one to judge an investment these days, I do know that this year’s Big Dance is shaping up to be a good bet for fans and the network. Although ratings for this year’s tourney may be down slightly from last year to this point, CBS can hardly complain about the way the brackets have shaped up thus far.

Not only have we been treated to the usual dose of upsets and Cinderella stories, but, as far as the network is concerned, the right teams have advanced to this point in the Big Dance. Despite experts’ proclamations of 2001 being the year of the so-called “mid-major” conferences after several first-round surprises, the Sweet 16 includes many of the nation’s most recognizable programs and has representation from most major media markets. All four No. 1 seeds have survived as well.

Traditional powers such as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA are still alive. Los Angeles and the entire West Coast will be tuned in to see four Pac-10 squads and Gonzaga. The Midwest is represented well with Kansas, Cincinnati and three Big Ten teams, including Chicago-area draw Illinois. The D.C./Baltimore area has two representatives in Georgetown and Maryland. And the Philadelphia market will be following Temple.

The only gaping geographic hole among the remaining teams is in the Northeast, as no Big East program north of Washington, D.C. has survived. However, the national appeal of the remaining squads should make up for the absence of a local representative.

Tonight’s Duke-UCLA matchup should boost the tournament’s television ratings significantly since two of the nation’s most storied programs will hook up in prime time. And, barring any upsets, CBS will get a Duke-Kentucky classic Saturday, as the two teams will attempt to produce another nail-biter like they did in the Final Eight in 1992.

I was lucky enough to be among the 16,000 fans last Saturday at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., where USC nipped Boston College in a down-to-the-wire thriller, and Kentucky outclassed a gutty and undermanned Iowa squad. When fans weren’t oohing and aahing at the latest scoreboard updates on the St. Joseph’s-Stanford game, they were mesmerized by the precise three-point marksmanship of the Wildcats’ Tayshaun Prince and the Hawkeyes’ Dean Oliver. Both games in Uniondale held the fans’ interest on television and in person.

USC’s upset victory gave the Pac-10 four survivors in the Sweet 16, the most of any conference. The league’s success has given ammunition to its growing number of advocates, who constantly scream to anyone outside the West Coast that the Pac-10 is underrated. Stanford and Arizona have legitimate shots at the national championship, and UCLA can beat any team in the nation on certain nights.

With No. 1 seeds Illinois and Michigan State and surprising Penn State still alive, the Big Ten has three squads remaining. The ACC and SEC remained respectable with two representatives each, but the Big East and Big 12 performed poorly this year by advancing just one team apiece. Still, these six major conferences represent 13 of the 16 teams left in the tourney — hardly a display of the power of “mid-major” leagues represented by second-round losers such as Butler, Fresno State, Indiana State and Kent State.

The only representatives in the third round from leagues other than the six power conferences previously mentioned are: Cincinnati, an always dangerous program from the respected Conference USA; Temple, a pesky squad with a history of tournament success; and, of course, Gonzaga, a Sweet 16 participant for the third straight year and no longer such a Cinderella, since Michigan State and Duke are the only other two schools to match this feat.

In the end, this is good for CBS since most of the remaining teams are household names to the average viewer. Hence, despite trends to the contrary among all sports on television in recent years, the 2001 NCAA Tournament will likely end up being a ratings success for CBS.

As for the network’s $6 billion investment, there’s good news and bad news — it’s not as cheap as throwing together another “Survivor” show, but it might be a safer bet than the recent stock market.