Real March Madness: Traversing the Heartland
Three things I learned while driving more than 700 miles across the American heartland to seven universities Tuesday:
1. Conservative talk radio is not hard to find.
2. A tolerable convenience-store bathroom is hard to find.
3. Athens, Ohio, is a good place to leave your keys in your car for an hour without having it stolen.
I chose to spend the March Madness-free days between weekends of the NCAA tournament creating a little Madness of my own. Inspired by the unprecedented collection of Sweet 16 schools within close proximity to each other in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio – Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana, Cincinnati, Xavier, Ohio State and Ohio – I decided to visit them all and get a feel for the excitement level at each stop.
All in one day.
It’s not advisable – this was the equivalent of speed-dating for 18 hours across a three-state region – but it sure was fun. Especially since there was beer at the end.
My notes from a Sweet 16 sojourn:
First stop: University of Louisville
Time: 7:30 a.m.
Excitement level: 9 on a scale of 1-10
The Cardinals are out of town; the basketball team and everyone associated with it stayed out west between rounds. They played their first two games in Portland and it would have made no sense to fly home for about 48 hours, then fly to Phoenix, so they went directly to Arizona.
With no one in an official capacity to interview, I set up breakfast with three members of the Louisville Cardinal student newspaper staff: sports editor Sammie Hill and writers Chelsea Allen and Ryan Martin. We met at the McDonald’s tucked into the Cardinal Park area of campus, which is packed with gleaming sporting facilities: softball, soccer, track, tennis, field hockey, swimming and the basketball practice facility. On the side of one building is a giant banner featuring senior basketball players Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith. On the other side of Cardinal Park is a sign that reads, “Welcome to The Ville: The Best College Sports Town in America.”
While that assertion can be vigorously debated, this cannot: Louisville is the best college basketball town in America. It regularly has the highest TV ratings for the NCAA tournament, and in addition to putting 22,000 fans in Louisville’s Yum! Center for most home games, Louisvillians fill thousands of the seats at Kentucky’s 24,000-seat Rupp Arena.
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So the best college basketball town in America is pretty bonkers these days. While the rest of sports-talk radio in America wore out the Peyton Manning news Tuesday, they were talking Sweet 16 and NCAA tourney office-pool carnage all day in Louisville.
Kentucky fans expected to be in the Sweet 16, of course. For long stretches of this up-and-down season, Louisville fans did not.
“It’s a big deal,” says Allen, a junior. “We lost in the first round of the tournament since I’ve been here. We started off the season in the top 10, then we went to unranked, then worked our way back up.
“Expectations got pretty low for a while. Most people got a bit pessimistic, and even a little hateful toward the basketball team.”
When Allen wrote a preview of the Big East tournament quoting coach Rick Pitino saying he expected to win the tourney, the reaction basically was a roll of the eyes.
“I don’t think people took that seriously,” Hill says.
Six consecutive victories later, the Cardinals are Big East tourney champions and in the Sweet 16. Fans are buoyed for the matchup with No. 1 seed Michigan State by Pitino’s remarkable 9-0 record in Sweet 16 games. And the students can’t help but peek ahead at a possible rematch in the Final Four with hated Kentucky.
“Playing Kentucky in the Final Four would be the ultimate,” Martin says. “We’d all love to go to the Final Four and miss school.”
Louisville is a battleground city; there are nearly as many fans of the Wildcats here as fans of the Cardinals. That even extends within the University of Louisville itself.
“There are more UK fans than you would think,” Martin says. “And it kind of makes me mad.”
Adds Allen: “In a class of 20, there’s going to be three to five UK hoodies. They’re shameless. But I am happy we’re both in the tournament together. It intensifies everything.”
Time spent: 31 minutes
Miles driven from home to campus: 18
Food: Sausage McMuffin
Caffeine: One gigantic Diet Coke
Travel note: After picking up a rental car (Jetta) from the Louisville airport, two wrecks on Interstate 65 make the easiest commute of the trip a lot harder than it should be.
Second stop: Indiana University
Time: 10:15 a.m.
Excitement level: 10 on a scale of 1-10
The staff at Kilroy’s Pub on Kirkwood Avenue is rolling silverware in napkins in preparation for the lunch crowd. The windows are open on a perfect spring day. The TVs are tuned to ESPN. The staff is discussing and debating Friday’s Indiana-Kentucky rematch.
Casey Edgar, working behind the bar and wearing a Lower Merion High School Kobe Bryant jersey, is The Optimist: “If it can happen once, it can happen twice. And [Kentucky] has gone a long time without having to play anybody really good.”
Waiter Ben Hunt is The Pessimist: “It’s going to be a blowout the other way. The Kentucky players have been watching that ESPN commercial [showing Christian Watford’s dramatic shot to upset the Wildcats in December] and it’s been grinding on them. They’re going to give it their all.”
Waitress Brittany Weyforth is The Realist. She thinks Indiana can beat Kentucky – but picked North Carolina in her bracket.
And fellow waitress Michelle Landry bills herself as “The Extreme Optimist.” She picked the Hoosiers to win it all, and doesn’t want to hear otherwise.
They all agree on one thing: Kilroy’s will be nuts Friday night. If the Hoosiers win, they’re envisioning a scene like the one captured in a picture on the front of the pub’s menu: thousands of fans pouring out onto Kirkwood in mass celebration. That was the scene in 2002 when Indiana last went to the Final Four.
Across campus, the Indiana basketball staff is hard at work trying to reprise that scene. Coach Tom Crean took a study break and walked briefly outside the basketball offices, where he saw an elderly couple snapping pictures of the building.
“Come on up!” Crean yells to them. “Take a look!”
He is wearing out Kentucky video, but he’s also trying to soak in the special flavor of this week. It is Indiana’s first Sweet 16 in a decade, and Crean’s first since taking Marquette to the Final Four in 2003. Even for a powerhouse program and an accomplished coach, this doesn’t just happen every year.
“I didn’t pay enough attention to how other people were taking it in [in 2003],” Crean says. “Now you do. It’s a different perspective, and it’s a great perspective.”
When the team arrived back at the Bloomington airport after a long flight from Portland, about 300-400 fans were there to greet them. Crean had every player address the crowd, walk-ons included. He had them sign every autograph. Then there was another welcome party of students waiting for the team bus on campus.
Monday was a long work day for the Hoosiers. Crean “set the tone” for the week with a long video splice, then the coaches went to work on a specific game plan for the Wildcats. When Crean left Cook Hall at 9:45 Monday night, three players were there shooting on their own; that’s the work ethic he says got the Hoosiers from a 20-loss team in 2011 to the Sweet 16 in 2012.
“A year ago today, we started individual workouts,” Crean says. “A year later, the payoff is here. It’s terrible missing this [the excitement of the tournament]. It’s terrible not being in it. It’s good to be back in it.”
Time spent: 75 minutes
Miles driven from Louisville to Bloomington: 113
Parking: Highly illegal, two separate locations
Caffeine: 12-ounce Diet Coke from the IU basketball staff.
Travel note: There is no good way to get from Louisville to Bloomington; two-lane roads are part of the deal, regardless of route. But if you avoid I-65 almost entirely, you do get to pass the stomping grounds of a couple of Hoosier legends. You slice through a corner of Orange County, which is where Larry Bird did his early balling as a kid in French Lick. And you pass Bedford, hometown of Damon Bailey.
Third stop: Xavier University
Time: 2:05 p.m.
Excitement level: 9 on a scale of 1-10
Chris Mack rolls up the leg of his sweatpants to reveal a long, angry purple scar on his knee. It’s the result of an in-season surgery to repair the Xavier coach’s patellar tendon, which he hurt while trying to dunk before a game to fire up his team.
“It’ll go away,” Mack says.
The Musketeers may lead the Sweet 16 in scar tissue, most of it invisible. The team was deeply scarred by the backlash from its ugly brawl with crosstown rival Cincinnati, spiraling from a torrid 8-0 start on the season to an 18-11 mark at the end of February. This was a talented team that lost its identity and found itself in serious bubble trouble until a push through the Atlantic 10 tournament final gave them an NCAA berth.
“After going through what we did, making the NCAA tournament was a lot,” senior guard Tu Holloway says. “Now advancing this far …”
But this is the fourth time in five seasons Xavier has made it this far. A program that has risen to perennial contender level hasn’t been able to reach the final frontier – the Final Four – like relative peers Butler, VCU and George Mason.
“We want to finish all our food,” Holloway says, his analogy for the hunger he says the Musketeers have to keep their tumultuous season going at least another week. “This is my third time here. It’s no fun losing.”
To clean their plate, the Musketeers must beat third-seeded Baylor on Friday, then face either Kentucky or Indiana on Sunday. Mack lives in northern Kentucky and commutes 25 minutes to the Xavier campus, so he is aware of how much Big Blue Nation has riding on the games in Atlanta this week. He says his neighbors have giant inflatable Wildcats in their yards.
“It’s a little scary,” he says.
He also knows how his neighbors might react if his team winds up stopping the Wildcats’ seemingly inexorable march to the Final Four.
“I don’t know if we’d be allowed to win,” he says. “Because I don’t know if my house would be standing afterward.”
Time spent: 40 minutes
Miles driven from Bloomington to Cincinnati: 132
Parking: Illegal, but with plenty of media company
Food: Quarter Pounder Value Meal
Caffeine: 20-ounce Diet Coke
Travel note: Heading east out of Bloomington, you drive through the town of Gnaw Bone. How regal. Later on, rolling through southeastern Indiana on I-74 toward Cincinnati, you pass Exit 156. Milan. The town that produced the team that won the 1954 Indiana state basketball championship and inspired the movie “Hoosiers.” Just seeing the name on an exit sign can produce goose bumps.
Fourth stop: University of Cincinnati
Time: 2:55 p.m.
Excitement level: 9 on a scale of 1-10
The Croswell VIP buses are idling outside the Shoemaker Center, ready to take the Bearcats straight from practice to the airport for their flight to the East Regional in Boston. Cheerleaders, the pep band and athletic staffers will join the travel party as well. It’s a big, happy group. Everyone is thrilled to be going somewhere at this time of year.
Outside the buses, drivers in white shirts and black ties are doing what comes naturally: discussing the tournament.
The state of Ohio has a record four schools in the Sweet 16, and half of them are here in the Queen City. Not many people saw this coming.
“It’s crazy,” driver John Pikunas says. “Cincinnati probably thought they could make it, but I don’t know whether Xavier did. After what happened with the incident, it’s even more exciting.
“Everyone is pumped. Tough matchups for both of them [in addition to Xavier-Baylor, sixth-seeded Cincinnati faces No. 2 seed Ohio State], but they’re here.”
The bus company works with both schools, so the drivers are diplomatic about their allegiances.
“You don’t wear blue here,” Pikunas says, “and you don’t wear red at Xavier.”
Keith Holland is wearing his red while walking across campus. The junior finance major is fired up about his Bearcats’ Sweet-16 berth.
He has been trash-talking Ohio State friends on Twitter, predicting that Cincinnati big man Yancy Gates can hold his own against Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes’ more-celebrated big man. And Monday night, while playing pick-up ball at Xavier, Holland got in his shots at Musketeers fans.
“It’s a big competition,” Holland says. “Both sides want their team to go farther.”
Holland says he has changed his opinion of Bearcats coach Mick Cronin, thanks to this Sweet-16 run.
“He’s come a long way,” Holland says. “I was a big Bob Huggins fan. I even liked [Huggins’ interim replacement] Andy Kennedy. But Mick Cronin’s done a great job. After that bad start we had, it looks like a new team.”
Time spent: 30 minutes
Miles driven from one part of Cincinnati to the other: 4 miles
Parking: Legal. Pay lot, $3
Travel note: If only every drive on this trip were this easy.
Fifth stop: Ohio University
Time: 6:10 p.m.
Excitement level: Unknown. The school is on spring break.
This is the true backwater burg of the trip; it’s a long way to Athens from anywhere. From Cincinnati, it’s a haul east on the Appalachian Highway.
But the reward is a surprisingly beautiful campus tucked along the Hocking River. The football stadium is classy, and the basketball gym is huge for a Mid-American Conference school – the Convocation Center seats 13,000, and Ohio puts far more fans in the stands than any MAC team.
Inside the Convo, Bobcats coach John Groce is showing his players video of No. 1 seed North Carolina. They emerge from the video session with a quiet confidence. The Bobcats might be the lowest-seeded team remaining (13th) and they might be the lowest remaining team in the power ratings (62nd with Ken Pomeroy), but they aren’t acting like it.
Most of Ohio’s key players are big-city kids who aren’t afraid of much, especially on a basketball court.
“We can compete,” says point guard D.J. Cooper, a Chicago native. “We can compete with anybody on a national level.”
Like VCU and Butler before them, the Bobcats believe their presence this deep in the tournament proves that the quality of play in their league is badly underrated. Ohio has taken down teams from the Big Ten (Michigan) and Big East (USF) but only finished third in its division and had to beat regular-season champ Akron by a point in the MAC tourney final just to make the NCAAs.
“The MAC East has been a juggernaut,” says Groce, a bald bundle of intensity who worked for Thad Matta at Ohio State before taking over at Ohio in 2008. “Those games prepared us for this experience we’ve had.
“I think we were a close team, but not close enough. We had a two-game losing streak on the road [at Toledo and Eastern Michigan in early February], and after that is when we went from good to great.”
The Bobcats’ bandwagon has grown. Groce says Ohio sold more tickets for the games in Nashville last week than any other school, and a big group is expected in St. Louis this week as well.
“We’ll be ready to play,” Groce says. “We’ve played 36 games, and we prepare every time to win the game.”
Time spent: 52 minutes
Miles driven from Cincinnati to Athens: 153
Parking: Illegal, but it’s spring break. Plenty of parking spaces to go around.
Caffeine: 8-ounce Red Bull.
Travel note: This was the closest thing to a disaster during the entire trip. Media availability for the Bobcats was from 5-6 p.m., but I was late leaving Cincinnati and late arriving in Athens. Thirty miles out, the fuel light came on, but there was no time to stop. Hoping to gauge the gas like a NASCAR crew chief, I rode it out and arrived at campus on fumes. Then I couldn’t get the key out of the ignition in the rental Jetta. Kept trying. Couldn’t get it. No idea why. Had to take a gamble, so I went inside for interviews while praying the car would still be there when I was done. The good news is any aspiring car thief couldn’t have gotten far without running out of gas. Thankfully, they’re honest people in Athens.
Sixth stop: Ohio State University
Time: 8:51 p.m.
Excitement level: 5 on a scale of 1-10
By the time I reach town, the Buckeyes already have bugged out for Boston. In search of someone with a pulse on the town, I dropped in on my friend Adam Neft.
Neft is a talk-show host on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, the flagship station for Ohio State sports. He’s also an Indiana alum and former Louisville resident, so he knows the dynamics of this Sweet 16 road trip as well as anyone. And he knows they’re a lot more excited about the Sweet 16 at other locales than they are in Columbus.
“It’s not that people are completely apathetic,” Neft says. “But spring football starts a week from tomorrow.”
And spring football is the first chance to see new coach Urban Meyer at work. Spring football always is a disproportionately big deal at a place such as Ohio State, but this year, with a coach who could not be more hyped if he were Woody reincarnated, it’s bordering on mania.
“Truthfully, Urban Meyer is just Elvis Presley right now,” Neft says.
This is a football school; the Fan devotes 5½ hours to pregame coverage of every Buckeyes football game, and the rating are through the roof. There is an hour pregame for basketball. This is the reality of Thad Matta’s situation.
“What else can he do?” Neft says. “This team is easy to like; they’re good guys. They have a lot of local guys. You don’t feel bad for Matta because he’s got a big salary and job security, but on the other hand, you do. He should be selling out every game.
“The difference in Columbus from Louisville or Bloomington or Lexington, here they can tell you the starting quarterback at TCU. But I’m not sure they could tell you the starting five from Louisville or the star player at Baylor.”
Neft says the hardcore Ohio State basketball fans are as into it as any group in the country. There just aren’t as many of them as you might expect. He believes their numbers are growing, but the ultimate proof of basketball loyalty could come next week.
What if the Buckeyes are going to the Final Four at the precise time Meyer is starting his first spring practice? Which generates more excitement?
“It’s close,” Neft says. “I would think the Final Four, but not by much. Not by what it should be. People who are crazy about hoops will put spring football in the back seat for a couple weeks. But the casual fan will be more interested in how [quarterback] Braxton Miller is doing in the new offense than anything else.”
Time spent: 38 minutes
Miles driven from Athens to Columbus: 89
Food: Foot-long meatball with pepperoni at Subway, plus chips
Caffeine: 20-ounce Diet Coke.
Travel note: You can buy a Ruger 9 mm pistol next door to the Subway in Nelsonville, Ohio. I passed.
Seventh stop: University of Kentucky
Time: 12:19 a.m.
Excitement level: 11 on a scale of 1-10
Interview subjects are limited after midnight, but if it’s Tuesday in Lexington, there is one place to find people: Two Keys Tavern. The institution located just west of campus has packed them in on Tuesdays for decades, and this is no exception.
Other than ham-handed efforts by students to hook up with one another, there’s only one topic of conversation: Kentucky’s national championship chances.
“Win or nothing,” senior Hunter Lyons says. “It’s all anyone cares about.”
“We want a championship,” says his buddy, Billy Glass. “That’s it. The team knows that, but I don’t think it’s bad pressure. I think it’s good pressure.”
The quest for the school’s first title in 14 years – a long time here, even though it’s easily the shortest drought of any other school on my tour – has produced a ruthless bottom-line mindset. Anything that helps Kentucky’s chances of winning it all is a good thing. That includes injuries and suspensions to key players for rival teams.
“Everyone feels bad for [North Carolina guard] Kendall Marshall,” Lyons says. “But I’ll be honest: I don’t feel that bad. I mean, I feel for him as a human being, but …”
With everyone’s eyes fixed firmly on the big prize, many Kentucky students are willing to watch the games in Atlanta from Lexington instead of road-tripping down I-75.
“I’ll go to New Orleans,” Lyons says.
Overconfidence? Or well-grounded fiscal sanity? We’ll find out this week.
Time spent: 79 minutes. Purely coincidental that my longest stop in any of the seven locales was at a bar.
Miles driven from Columbus to Lexington: 201
Travel note: Never been so happy to get to a hotel room. And to get out of a car for an extended period of time. This was a dumb idea, but a fun one. Bring on the basketball.
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