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Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Back and Forth: Best Sports Day Of The Year?


Which excites ya more?

What is "The Back and Forth?"

Sunday from 2pm until the middle of the evening, you have the opportunity to consume professional football at the highest levels in form of Conference Championship Sunday. This year's should be a doozy: the Cardinals are a great story, Donovan McNabb is playing for his legacy, and Steelers vs. Ravens is going to literally be a street fight. But…is it the best sporting day of the year?

That's the debate we'll attempt to settle in this edition of "The Back and Forth," pitting Conference Championship Sunday (represented by ESPN associate editor/producer Ted Bauer) versus the first day of the NCAA Tournament (represented by Storming the Floor co-editor Eric Angevine). If you think we're completely missing the boat, and the argument should include "Opening Day" or "The Indy 500," feel free to eviscerate us in the comments. Otherwise, here we go.

Bauer (Conference Championship Sunday): This is a tough argument, to be sure. I'm gonna base my side on two things: (1) the quality and relevance of the contests and (2) the bonding aspect. Taking (1) first, as logic indicates you should do: the most compelling game on the first day or two of last year's Dance was probably WKU over Drake, San Diego over UConn, or Belmont taking Duke to the very limit. None of those contests had broader relevance: WKU and SD went down Round 2, and Duke didn't use their narrow escape to propel them to greatness. The compelling story of last year's Tournament was Davidson, and that story began crafting itself when they beat Georgetown on the first Sunday, i.e. the final games of the Round of 32. Meanwhile, last year's NFC Title game was simply amazing up in Green Bay. Even the Chargers/Pats tilt in New England wasn't bad.

Now, with 'dis stuff said, I'll say this: I love the first day of NCAA Tournament. I cut school three times for it during my elementary/HS days. I've been in Vegas for it twice in the past three years. It's an amazing time to be a sports fan; this notion that "anything can happen" is tremendous. If there's one drawback within the jones-ing, it's this: four games per time block, x 4 time blocks + CBS' sometimes questionable inability to switch games? Unless you're in Vegas or a really hooked-up sports bar, you're pulled in more directions than Philip Seymour Hoffman's acting chops. From a bonding standpoint, one game with a singular purpose followed by another game with a singular purpose—one at a time—is much better for fan focus and the sidebar dialogues that necessarily take place between friends during a big sporting event. For example, last year I was trying to challenge my friend that Tom Izzo is a top five coach of the past 20 years, and every time I got close on a point, something happened on one of the TVs and the conversation gained no steam. Frenetic? Yea. But sometimes I just wanna lock in on Ray Lewis vs. Willie Parker and discuss it with those around moi.

"Which one has the Big Sky winner in the 2/15 game on it?"

Angevine (Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament): On my own Maslow's Hierarchy of sports love, pro football falls just one noodge behind college basketball, so we're going to have to argue the minutiae here, for certain. The relevance of CC Sunday can't be argued. The winnowing has already taken place, and there's a lot of communal history between the surviving teams. It's a great weekend.

The first day (two days, really) of the NCAA tournament is a different bird, however. You mention that you cut school to go to games, and that's part of the appeal of the NCAA first round that nobody can deny. Even as adults, we get the illicit thrill of 1) cutting work with an attack of the 48-hour Ebola that's been going around, or 2) going to work, but getting nothing done, as we constantly refresh the gamecast online, or listen in on earbuds all day long. There's nothing quite like that stifled twitter of excitement that goes around after a bracket buster, as everyone in the building recalibrates his or her chances of success in the office pool. It may cost the U.S. economy billions we don't have this year, but a boss who can turn a blind eye will do wonders for employee morale.

Also, filling in NCAA brackets is one of those little things I live for. I like the speculative predictions involved in picking against my peers, though my best finish ever was third place. But the first round generates a bonding power stronger than Gorilla Glue for a couple of days of the work year. That said, I also like filling in the actual results, in ink, as games end. When I was young and naive, I used to fill in names when games seemed to be over, only to have to scratch them out later when a March Miracle occurred. Now, the wait to fill in the official result is part of the visceral thrill for me. It's one of the few instances in life where I relish the bookkeeping. I've never had that with the NFL's penultimate weekend.

Bauer (Conference Championship Sunday): Wow, we took this to a gambling level fairly quickly, eh? The Mouse signs my checks, so I'm not sure I can dabble in this topic for long. (Or can I?) I think people lay down huge sums of money on Days 1-2 of the Dance and CC Sunday (or at least I'd assume so).

Here's one point for me: a Sunday from 3pm to 9pm doesn't lose the American economy millions in lost productivity. Ha!

A few years ago, on the CC Sunday that was Bears/Saints and Colts/Pats, NASCAR stud Jimmie Johnson called up some of his friends and asked 'em if they wanted to have "a guy day." He then flew them on a plane from Chicago to Indy to see both games. Couple of thoughts here: (1) it would be cool to have money; (2) it would be cool to be married to Chandra; (3) Chad Knaus is probably as intense as football coaches in some respects and (4) even if you had, like, Dubai-style money, could you possibly get to every first-round game, or even four in one day? Naw. Centralization of concept helps with bonding. As they say on The Office, "K.I.S.S." CC Sunday is as simple as it gets: two games, two winners, that sets the Super Bowl. Super simple, and super relevant. Can't say that about the first Thursday.

While we're doing this, what the heck happened to January 1st? That woulda been a runaway winner about 10 years ago, right? Jeez.

Yet again, Armen ruins a perfectly good photo. Hey, we're kidding!

Angevine (Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament): Your point is well-taken. If I want to have friends over to hang out, that's really football territory. I still maintain that the workplace bonding of the NCAA tournament (and fantasy sports) comes in handy year-round, as employees have something in common outside of TPS reports. Basically, football helps you hang out with people you already like. Basketball helps you hang out with people who happen to have been hired by the same company.

I like the chance for the unsung hero to get…sung during the tournament's early going. Not just schools that never get on television during the season, but players who wouldn't get a mention otherwise. Ty Rogers played on a Western Kentucky team that was ostensibly led by Courtney Lee and Tyrone Brazleton, but it's his miracle jumper to beat Drake last year that will live on in the One Shining Moment montage forever.Without the first round, March actually doesn't have much Madness.

One more point: the first round is where we meet the next generation of big-time coaches. Bruce Pearl landed at Tennessee because he was able to take Wisconsin-Milwaukee to the Sweet 16 in 2005. Tournament success at Tulsa brought Tubby Smith and Bill Self to blue-blood programs where they won national titles. If you count players and coaches, Providence College may be one of the most influential programs ever, having incubated the talents of Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, John Thompson, Jim Larranaga, Lenny Wilkens, and current Texas coach Rick Barnes. Oh, and God Shammgod. Let's not forget him.

Bauer (Conference Championship Sunday): I'm gonna cede you a point, and it may be a point that gets me in trouble given where I work, but one of the best things about the first day or two of the NCAA Tournament that CBS will never allow you to have for the AFC Title Game is, quite simply, Gus Johnson. His best call ever was a Sweet 16 game, and one of his best overall games ever was a second-rounder between OSU and Xavier a few years back, but this dude "brings the pain" every time. Honestly, if I turn on the 2:30pm tip on that first Thursday, and it's Drake vs. West Virginia, two teams I ostensibly don't care about but I hear Gus introduce himself and Dan Bonner, I giggle. Like a schoolgirl. The guy's intensity makes everything that much better. I love Jim Nantz and I have a healthy amount of respect for Joe Buck, but neither of them is going to make me giggle Sunday, I'd presume.

"Without the first round, March doesn't really have Madness."

So where does this leave us? Agreeing to disagree, I 'spose? Maybe we'll meet in the middle and say "Opening Day is the true winner," because man, any day that gives you that much hope and makes you think of summer afternoons with your family, well, that's all warm and fuzzy. Then again, if the Cardinals make the SB, I might feel warm and fuzzy, storyline-wise. I digress. Point being: we each have points. So let's meet in Vegas for the Dance, shall we? We'll compare it directly, with Bob Knight and Billy Packer at the sports book!

Angevine (Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament): The great thing about the sports calendar is that we don't have to choose. Playoff football is always going to be the bridge between holiday break and getting back into the swing of the new year. March Madness is always going to be the one thing that can keep us indoors as spring starts to unfold outside the window. I came of age with the Jayhawks of Larry Brown and Roy Williams, and the Chiefs of Marty Schottenheimer. So that may explain the rather permanent (though tiny) appreciation gap between college basketball's big event and the spectacle the NFL is offering us right now. But really, how awesome that we can have both, eh? And as one who grew up near Kansas City, there is one event that signals summer to me even before opening day. Joe Posnanski's annual "hey, maybe the Royals won't be so bad this year!" column in the KC Star is the perfect beginning to any baseball season for this guy. Perfect blend of hope and trepidation. Which is pretty much what being a loyal fan of any team is all about.