The tournament of tournaments
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

We're all reeling with the Madness right now. We dream in buzzer-beaters and wake up speaking in Vitalese tongues. Right now, it seems impossible to us that anything -- not chocolate, not sweet love in the morning, not even a crazy-big, computer-error tax refund -- could be better than the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The SportsNation Speaks
Which sport has the most exciting postseason? Which tournament is the most fair? Should the NFL allow more teams? Could the NCAA tourney be even better? Weigh in on these questions and more in today's SportsNation survey.

Hopped-up on Butler juice and giddy with office-pool gas, we tell anyone, everyone -- we tell our priests, we tell the dog, we go on at length trying to get the UPS driver to see the simple, unassailable truth of it -- that the Big Dance is, without question, the single greatest postseason spectacular in all of sports.

But is it? I mean, in the cold light of day, minus the intoxicating prospect of winning $80 from a bunch of sallow-faced mugs at work who'd sooner starve than pick up the check at lunch, without the three-week mass hallucination that all the best players really aren't already wearing NBA threads and that the game is not at all tainted by boosters and TV and shoe deals, and beyond the lingering memories of our own days as an undergrad, does it hold up? Is it still the one, the undisputed, once-and-future king before which all other postseason tournaments must bow down and pay tribute?

Butler celebrates
The best case for the NCAA Tournament can be summed up in three words: Butler did it!
Ah, I smell a challenge coming on. I smell one of those frivolous, but somehow absolutely crucial, hypotheticals that sports fans' brains feed on in the down-days between weekend one and the Sweet 16. You know what I smell? That's right: the delightful odor of subjective thinking draped in a cloak of objectivity, and the sweet stink of the chance to build Byzantine towers of only slightly relevant reasoning.

Who can resist such an aroma? Certainly not me.

So here it is, the tournament of tournaments (the matchups below are set, by the way, according to a complex algorithm taking into account the Sagarin ratings, the modified Stableford System, the VH-1 countdown of the top 100 rock songs, the 11 food-poisoned strokes by which Tiger smoked the Bay Hill field Sunday, the consumer price index, and, most importantly, the whim and wisdom of my little girl who pulled slips of paper out of a hat yesterday afternoon, then chewed on them and spit them back out in perfect little wads. It's all very scientific, like the way they do the post-positions at the Kentucky Derby, only with a little bit more healthy infant spit and a little less pretense):


NBA Playoffs vs. NFL Playoffs
You can make a case for the do-or-die drama of the NFL postseason, for the way every weak-side dive and broken-up pass is tinged with drama and import. And you can make a case against the slowed-down, spiritless style of NBA postseason games, when everyone is so uptight about each possession they squeeze the flow right out of the game. You can make a case for the winter elements in football, too, and a case against basketball's 100-Years-War playoffs that run from, what, February to September? But in the end, it gets down to one thing: The Super Bowl is usually pretty bad, and even when it's good, it's so trumped-up and special-effected it cheapens all that's good and true about what's come before it. Winner: NBA Playoffs.

MLB Playoffs vs. World Cup
Tough matchup. World Cup should probably be the call, what with its high-octane cocktail of globalism, nationalism and general fanaticism. But there's something too diffuse about it. Like looking up at a starry night sky, you can appreciate and admire the Cup tournament, but you can't take it in. The baseball playoffs, on the other hand, build, not just series by series, but inning by inning and pitch by pitch. We attach ourselves to baseball the way we connect with a great novel, in incremental bits that become a story we eventually get completely lost in. Plus, no shootouts in baseball. Winner: MLB Playoffs.

Stanley Cup
NHL players want the Cup more than they want the title or the ring.
NCAA Ice Hockey Tournament vs. NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Frozen Four tournament has fresh-faced kids playing a game they love for the love of the game. It has rabid, knowledgeable fans who eat, sleep, live and die in skates. It has genuine amateur spirit, small-town flavor, and beneath-the-radar charm. It also has about three different champions in the past 54 years, and the people who care about it are the people who've always cared, and who form little clubs of caring, and who procreate precisely so their children will carry on the tradition of caring. It is these people, all of whom live within something like 125 miles of each other, who give a damn, who give their hearts and souls. It is these people ... and absolutely no one else. Winner: Stanley Cup Playoffs.

NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament vs. College World Series
In the CWS, eight teams play in some sort of crazy TEGWAR round-robin for days. Announcers and officials explain who's playing who and why, and who'll play who next and why, and not a word of it makes any sense. And then suddenly they say, tomorrow Texas and Stanford, or whomever, will face off for the championship ... unless, of course, Stanford only scores four runs, or is beaten by a left-hander, or wears its cardinal red jerseys with their white pants in this afternoon's otherwise meaningless game against LSU, in which case, USC will advance to the final game. Plus -- are you aware of this? -- they play with aluminum bats! Why not just settle the whole thing in some XBox showdown instead. More realistic that way. Winner: NCAA Basketball Tournament.


NHL Playoffs vs. NBA Playoffs
Dead heat. But in one, you're playing for a dinged-up relic from another era, and better yet, for the chance to take it home with you, fill it up with pudding, bathe the baby in it, serve your best girl a nice hot 'n' sour soup -- whatever suits you. There is a weird, frantic energy to the NHL playoffs. Maybe it's the fierce checking, maybe it's the tough defense and scarcity of goals, but maybe what it really is is that guys truly, madly, deeply want the Cup; not the victory, or the title, or the abstract notion of being a champion, but the hardware itself, the shiny metal evidence of their desire and its accomplishment. The Larry O'Brien trophy, by comparison, is nice, but it's too pretty, and not at all funky, and really only functional as one of those tranquility garden balls you see from time to time tucked in among the ferns. All of which would add up to an NHL upset in this battle if not for one thing: The NHL playoff field is limited to exactly 1,464 teams every year, including every team in the league, every team that once was in the league but has gone out of business, every team in college and high school, and every team that plays gas-money, no-holds-barred semi-pro hockey in every nook and cranny of the country. Winner: NBA Playoffs.

Editor's Note: We told Eric that as a matter of fact both the NBA and the NHL have 16-team playoff fields, and that actually, proportionally, the NBA lets more of its teams into the postseason. He said, "Yes, yes, I know, but doesn't it feel like there are more NHL teams? I mean, what with those line changes coming in waves and all, isn't it just a little overwhelming?" We decided to cut Eric some slack since he's from California.

MLB Playoffs vs. NCAA Basketball Tournament
The heart says underdogs, upsets and last-second shots. The heart says Valpo, Richmond and, for a moment once, nearly Princeton. U.S. Reed, Rolando Blackmon, Tate George, Christian Laettner and now Brandon Miller -- these are names the heart knows by heart. But the head says the field doesn't really represent the best 65 teams in the country. The head says weak teams can fluke their way in and strong ones can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The head says the tournament is a fun show, but it's not really a measure of which team is the best, the most deserving, in the land. Duke beats Vegas that night, and it's stirring stuff, but Duke plays Vegas best-four-out-of-seven, and the Coach K legend is a little less grand right now. The Wolfpack "Lorenzos" the Cougars in '83, and it's one of those crazy, where-were-you-when-it-happened moments, but the flip side of the story is Houston was clearly the better team. The tournament is a blast, the head says, but its results and what they tell us, the grasp it has on reality, is a bit shaky. Winner: MLB Playoffs.


NBA Playoffs vs. MLB Playoffs
Kirby Puckett
When a World Series goes down to the wire -- like it did for Kirby Puckett and the Twins in 1991 -- nothing else in sports compares.
In the end, timing is everything. The baseball playoffs unfold slowly, meticulously, and each pitch, swing, decision and stroke of luck gathers weight until, if we're lucky -- in something like Game 7 of '91, let's say -- every moment, every little face twitch, exhalation, and bat waggle, hangs heavy, exquisitely full of what each player might do, what might happen to him, and what difference it might make. Winner, and champeen of the tournament world: MLB Playoffs.

There it is. Baseball takes the ultimate cage match.

And in closing, a word about a handful of postseasons that didn't even get invited to the big throwdown.

First, all women's postseasons, college and pro, including the very good NCAA soccer tournament and the mostly forgetable WNBA playoffs, are missing here. My bad. I'm only one writer, this is only one piece -- I just couldn't imagine handling both men's and women's tourneys for this thing. There were complex arguments about relative strength and style, deep theorems of enthusiasm and influence, tide-turning vindications of the rights of women, and spirited attacks on the status quo, to be worked out in such a thing. Daunting stuff. And I'll be honest, I shrank from the task. I know this is precisely the sort of selective pragmatism that has been marginalizing women's history for eons. I know it's nothing but convenience covering for cowardice. Thing is, I had a deadline to meet. Apologies all around. (Wanna punish me for it? Tell my sister Kate what I did -- she'll let me have it, for about eight or 10 years.)

You'll also notice that the committee (which is pretty much just me) did not extend an invitation to college football's Bowl Championship Series. The committee had fond memories of the days when the bowls were named for flowers and textiles and such, and when they were funded by incredibly rich anonymous donors who sipped short, clinking glasses of scotch and were driven around town in leather-top Cadillacs. Like a lot of folks, the committee longs for the days when "winner" and "loser" were just words drowned out in pomp and circumstance, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you participated and played hard. Still, the committee lives in the FedEx Now; the committee is Tostitos realistic, it realizes kids today want something tangible and immediate. And, taking a cold, hard look at things, the committee couldn't help noticing that the BCS isn't really a tournament at all.

The World Series of Poker did not make the cut for one simple reason: a split vote on Gabe Kaplan, the event's primary television announcer these days. The majority of the committee thinks his he's-still-alive-who-knew appearance is creepy. But one guy, like Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men," is holding out, ranting all sweaty-browed and beady-eyed about Mr. Kotter's dynamic range in "Fastbreak": "Couldn't it be that he's better than you think," he's saying. "Couldn't it be that he's not the problem but the solution?!"

The Breeder's Cup didn't get in, either, because it happens every time: I go to the track, just to have an iced tea, sit with some friends and soak up the sun, maybe snack on a chicken salad sandwich. Next thing I know, I'm in the paddock, sizing up lines and gaits, claiming I have a feel for this horse or that. And then it's off to the windows, and the little bet to show I had planned becomes a no-pain-no-gain trifecta bid. And soon, sure enough, I'm staring blankly at the sun, hoping to do permanent damage, and my wife is shouting in my ear like Julie Hagerty in "Lost in America": "You lost the nest egg! You lost the nest egg!"

And finally, the America's Cup got axed because, well, it's a freakin' boat race, for crying out loud.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



Eric Neel Archive

Neel: Baseball is not for the faint of heart fan

Neel: The thrill of ... the season

Neel: Phenom five

Neel: KG don't need no stinkin' trophies

Neel: The glow of the numbers

Neel: Swimsuit user's guide

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index