by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is our latest "Best of TGS" installment, reprinting our account of our whirlwind 3-day conference tourney trip across the country in March 2008, with a few surprises along the way...

It’s been said that conference basketball tournaments are a lot like bowl games. There’s some excitement before the games are played, and the games themselves can often be quite good, but nobody remembers much about them afterwards.

By us, however, there are some other significant differences between the conference hoop tourneys and the bowl games. Mainly, the basketball get-togethers across the country each March really do mean something. After all, the winners of these events get invited to the NCAA Tournament. Never mind that in most of the major conferences, teams that win the event are going to be headed to the Big Dance anyway: winning the tournament is still worth something tangible. As for most of the bowl games? Nope, save perhaps for the overhyped BCS championship game, and maybe the fact that some of the bowl games generate dollars that can be put to some sort of community good. Otherwise, we maintain that almost all of them are forgotten about before the final whistle even blows.

The bottom line is that college hoops has college football beat to the moon and back in regards to how it determines its eventual champion. And part of the college hoop process involves the conference tournaments. Last week, we decided to sample some of the flavor around the country by checking out a couple of these events in different locations.

Mind you, we have attended a lot of college basketball games, in a lot of venues, over the years. Personally, I attended 35 games a couple of years ago. Most of my viewing has been concentrated on the west coast, but with family and friends spread out across the country, I’ve taken advantage of the chance to visit and watch college hoops for several years. This hoop season alone, my travels (outside of Southern California) have taken me to Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Jose, Washington D.C., Fairfax, Va., Santa Clara, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Atlanta, the latter two for conference tournament action last week.

In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time in March at college tourneys, but mostly those on the west coast. I’ve attended PCAA/Big West Tourneys almost since their inception, and still regard watching those games in 1977 at the Anaheim Convention Center (during the second year of the PCAA’s tourney, still a novel concept in those days and the only non-ACC conference hoop event at that time) as a special treat. Many subsequent March days were spent at other PCAA, Big West, Pac-10, WAC, WCC, and Mountain West Tourneys, but this year it was time for something different. And with computer technology being what it is, we could publish The Gold Sheet from the moon if we wished, so my locale didn’t matter much as long as a computer was neaby. Thus, the midwest and mid-south would be only slightly more inconvenient than working from home.

My journey last week began in Indianapolis, where my flight arrived late last Tuesday, though not too late to update the TGS website and load some stories that were written before I left home. Weather-wise, the timing of my trip (at least the first part of the trip...more on the second part a bit later) was pretty good, as the blizzard that ripped through the midwest the previous weekend was long gone, with only a few remnants of the storm still visible. Nonetheless, Wednesday was a day to take care of some personal business in the area, driving east on I-74 to Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky to check out a possible future homesite in Boone County, at the Triple Crown development. There was some college hoop tourney action going on Wednesday afternoon, though I followed those results via a score pager, at least until the evening when I was able to watch some of the games on TV.

One of the reasons I like Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky so much is the friendliness and easy-going nature of most of the inhabitants. Case in point: my quick “lunch” at a favorite eatery, one of the many Skyline Chili restaurants in the area. (Cincinnati chili is a delicacy worth a special trip!) Motoring into town on I-74 around noon, I decided that I would stop at the first Gold Star Chili or Skyline restaurant that I saw, which happened to be just over the Ohio border, in Harrison. A notable difference from southern California to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky is that in the latter, most of the jobs at the fast-food restaurants are staffed by middle-aged housewife types, as opposed to a younger, mostly-immigrant crowd in So Cal. And leave it to one of these middle-aged waitresses at the Skyline Chili in Harrison to come up with one of the best lines I heard on the entire trip. When I placed my order of two cheese coneys and a diet Pepsi, the waitress was quick to offer a suggestion. “You know,” she said, “we just got Diet Mountain Dew on the menu. You might want to try that instead.” For a moment, I was a bit bemused, only because I had never heard a waitress expound upon the virtues of Diet Mountain Dew, but after a few seconds of contemplation, I decided to take her up on the offer. “Well,” I said, “now that you mention it, I think I will have a Diet Mountain Dew!”

And when, may I ask, was the last time a waitress in a California restaurant ever reminded me that Diet Mountain Dew was now available on the menu? A point for Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, to be sure!

Northern Kentucky is a long way from home, but there is enough going on, and enough food choices, to certainly keep me satisfied. After spending the afternoon with a realtor at Triple Crown, I made a quick stop at the Crestview Hills Town Center in nearby Florence, metro Cincinnati’s version of the Southlake Town Square in Dallas-Fort Worth. Crestview Hills is a recently-rehabilitated “drive-up” mall that went more upscale in its recent transformation that included several new restaurants, including a unique Ohio-based barbeque joint called Hoggy’s. Most of the Hoggy’s are in the Columbus area, and the Crestview Hills location qualifies as a bold expansion move for the franchise. So far, apparently, so good, as it has become popular to Northern Kentucky folk as well. I’ve yet to have a bad meal at Hoggy’s, and dug into a pulled pork plate, which was a bargain at around ten bucks. And with big screen TVs all over the restaurant, it was easy to follow the college tourney action going on that night.

Thursday broke cool and crisp in Kentucky, and soon enough it was time to head back to Indy, but not before stopping at one of the many Waffle House restaurants for breakfast. Since my order at Waffle House never changes (a regular waffle, with a side of hash browns “covered” and “chunked”), it didn’t take long to chow down. Indeed, I envy those who live near a Waffle House, a treat Californians can only dream about (there are no Waffle Houses in the Golden State). If, that is, they know what a Waffle House is in the first place. My wife has even become a fan (the pecan waffle being her particular favorite). But many lifelong Californians, such as Melinda and Margie at TGS offices, and my realtor Sara McCartan, are some of the many I know back home who have no idea what I’m talking about when the subject turns to Waffle House. Some day, hopefully, they’ll find out what I’m talking about. Whether they get hooked is another matter entirely, but that’s a story for another day (or a future Waffle House advertisement, perhaps).

It doesn’t take long to get from the Cincinnati area back to Indianapolis. It’s only 102 miles between the two cities, and with I-74 rarely congested with traffic, it’s easy to make the trip in 90 minutes or less. There isn’t a lot of scenery along the way, although we’ve taken many less-appealing routes elsewhere in the country. Near the Ohio border is the turnoff for the small town of Milan, the hometown of the high school that was the basis of the movie “Hoosiers,” and where Bobby Plump was the real-life hero of the fictionalized Hickory Huskers and their hero, Jimmy Chitwood, played by Maris Valanis (who may never have acted again after that movie, eventually to become a golf pro). With Billy Preston and Wes Montgomery CDs (the latter honoring the late, great Wes’ hometown of Indy) thundering inside my car, the drive to Indy became my own personal music party. What a day!

For those who have never been to Indy, we’d recommend a visit. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the midwest, if not the entire country. The downtown area is clean and fairly modern. Moreover, it’s walkable, and the city has gone to great lengths to make its downtown a destination point, with several museums, shopping locations, and restaurants all over the downtown core. It’s also where Conseco Fieldhosue sits, as well as the soon-to-be-demolished RCA Dome and brand, spanking-new Lucas Oil Stadium, the new home of the NFL Colts. The new stadium is supposed to be ready for use this fall, but by the look of things, there’s still plenty of work to be done in the next 5 to 6 months. We trust they’re on schedule, however, because they’re already auctioning off pieces of the RCA Dome before it meets the wrecking ball (or implosion). If not, we suppose the Colts might be playing their games at Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium this fall, or maybe forced to lay down a gridiron on the vast infield of the nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Conseco Fieldhouse was the destination last Thursday for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. That meant the top five seeds (Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana, and Ohio State) wouldn’t be in action on Thursday, but that was fine by me, as it meant a slightly smaller crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse, and an easier chance to move around the arena comfortably. At no time on Thursday did the arena seem much more than half full, save perhaps for the middle game of the day featuring Penn State and nearby Illinois, the latter of which brought a lot of fans from Champaign-Urbana and elsewhere in the region.

There wasn’t a lot going on in the first game of the day, featuring Michigan and Iowa. The Wolverines broke quickly and took a 14-point lead into halftime before the second half bogged down into perhaps the worst 20 minutes of basketball I have ever seen. The scoreboard operators were able to take over 8 minutes off during one stretch in the second half when Michigan’s lead stayed at 44-30 for painful possession after possession. And with HC Todd Lickliter on short rations during his first season in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes were not equipped to play catch-up, making it harder on themselves by going a 17 minute stretch without converting one field goal. John Beilein’s young Wolverines weren’t much better in the last 20 minutes, providing a lot of opportunities for the Hawkeyes to rally, but all Iowa could convert were some stray free throws that allowed them to make a small dent in the lead. When the game mercifully concluded, Michigan was a 55-47 winner. No artistic masterpiece, but the tournament was at least underway.

Of course, any hoops fan that visits Conseco Fieldhouse for the first time would have to enjoy all of the hoop-related bells and whistles of this unique, modern venue that did its best to recapture some of the flavor and tradition of basketball in the state. Indeed, Conseco Fieldhouse is the one (and perhaps only) modern hoop arena that is equivalent to the new retro-style baseball stadiums that have popped up in a variety of locales since Baltimore built Camden Yards in 1992. Roughly designed to replicate a modern version of the nearby Hinkle Fieldhosue at Butler, Conseco Fieldhouse has a feel that no other modern basketball arean can match. Displays abound throughout the concourse, honoring basketball tradition in the state (native sons such as John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, and Larry Bird all prominently displayed), as well a pictorial history of the Indiana Pacers. I mean, how can any hoops fan not love a place with a big Pacers mural of Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, snd George McGinnis dominating the lobby, as well as plaques of all the Pacer greats, even personal favorite Darnell Hillman, whose ‘70s afro was so big that the small picture of him included on his plaque couldn’t even fit his entire hairdo? Contemporary structures such as Los Angeles’ miserable Staples Center are absolutely soulless by comparison.

Traditional elements aside, Conseco certainly has all of the modern niceties of a new arena, with wide concourses, and plenty of food options, including Johnsonville brats. They also weren’t selling beer at Conseco during the Big Ten Tourney, which was probably a good thing, considering the ruckus that was about to develop in the stands during the llinois-Penn State middle game.

The Illinois fans must have outnumbered the Penn State fans about 20 to 1 at the arena, but the neutrals in the crowd seemed to back the Nittany Lions. Apparently, there isn’t much love lost between the Illini faithful and those elsewhere in the conference. Of course, there were many polite and well-mannered Illinois fans in the crowd, but there was a rowdy element, too, and a handful of Penn State fans in attendance began to take exception at the behavior of some of the most-vile Illini supporters. As a confrontation loomed, it was interesting to note how the Indiana and Michigan fans in attendance quickly sided with the Penn State supporters. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but it was apparent that anyone not wearing orange in the crowd probably had a distaste for Illinois.

The Illini-Nittany Lions battle was almost as unremarkable as Iowa-Michigan until the final minutes, when Penn State gamely rallied from a 62-52 deficit to forge a 63-62 lead with under a minute to play. It was impressive to watch a young Penn State team (which started four freshmen) to hang in so gallantly, and to display such poise down the stretch, with frosh PG Talor Battle particularly impressive. In the finals seconds, however, Illinois finally regained the lead on a Chester Frazier lay-in, and when Battle’s shot at the buzzer missed the mark, Illinois escaped with a 64-63 win. Nonetheless, most who watched the game came away impressed with Penn State’s grit and the coaching job done by Ed DeChellis, who endured several key injuries along the way during the season and yet molded a competitive unit (which also upset Indiana the previous weekend) by tournament time.

One of the real pleasures of attending these games in mingling with fans of the different schools, and the Penn State contingent was one of the most-pleasant groups I can recall. The family of injured forward Jamelle Cornley was particularly charming, but all of the Nittany Lion fans were full of cheer, and hardly bitter at all despite the heartbreaking loss.

Still, there was something better going on at the arena throughout the afternoon that got the attention of every male in the stands. Although ESPN was covering the games, few noticed Brent Musberger and Steve Lavin calling the action from courtside.

But EVERYONE noticed Erin Andrews!

The first analogy that came to mind after watching the leggy Erin parade around all afternoon was the movie Erin Brockovich, wherein any Julia Roberts fan would have been mesmerized by the attire of Lyle Lovett’s-ex in that flick. Or, perhaps, the remake of the movie Bedazzled, which was not much more than an excuse to see Elizabeth Hurley in variety of seductive attire. But let’s be honest, Julia and even the spectacular Liz must take their place behind Erin, named by Playboy as America’s sexiest sportscaster last year. No arguments there.

Erin gave us all a show as she walked back and forth the entire afternoon, drawing whistles and cat-calls from the crowd. I would venture to guess that several hundred men clicked pictures of Erin on their cell phones. And since everyone in the crowd seemed to be doing it, so did I.

Erin certainly provided a contrast to the tedious proceedings, and we needed to keep looking at her to stay awake for the nightcap between Minnesota and Northwestern. The patient Wildcats are not the sort of team to run into in the first round of a conference tournament, simply because their “Princeton” style coached by Pete Carril disciple Bill Carmody can easily make an opponent look bad. It’s hard to get jazzed about Northwestern with a potential date vs. Indiana on deck, and the Gophers played the first 20 minutes like their minds were on the Hoosiers, down 34-21 at the break while NU was hitting 65% from the floor. Maybe they were distracted by Erin Andrews, too.

The Gophers, however, began to quickly crawl back into the game as the second half commenced. The Wildcats (and soph F Kevin Coble in particular) began to cool off, and it only seemed a matter of time before Minnesota’s superior athleticism would allow the Gophers to reclaim the lead. But to HC Tubby Smith’s despair, it took a while. Minnesota tied Northwestern midway in the second half at 42-42, yet soon was down by 5 again, and once more had to scale the wall, not the easiest thing to do vs. a team such as Northwestern that milks the clock so well. Finally, the Gophers passed NU in the last minute, and thanks to missed front end of a late one-and-one free throw opportunity by Coble, Minnesota was able to survive, 55-52.

Still, for most of us in attendance, the day belonged to Erin Andrews.

As mentioned earlier, the best thing about an event at Conseco Fieldhouse is the chance to sample downtown Indy. With a pick of restaurants within a couple of blocks of the arena, I chose the Rock Bottom Brewery, filled with hoop fans ready to chat about their teams. Conference tournaments really are like conventions for basketball fans, a heaven of sorts for serious hoop junkies. Thus, the revelry continued at the restaurant, with countless TVs covering all of the other conference tourney action going on elsewhere in the country. Rock Bottom Brewery and every other downtown Indy eatery knows how to cater to sports fans, that’s for sure.

The real excitement of the trip, however, was just beginning.

Friday broke damp in Indy, but staying close to the airport, it was a snap to get to the terminal in plenty of time to board my 7:10 AM Delta flight to Atlanta for the SEC Tourney on Friday. The Indy Airport is nothing fancy, though it remains one of my favorites because of its convenience and unpretentiousness. Although a new Indy Airport (visible from the existing terminal) is on schedule to open in October.

The flight to Atlanta was quick, and once at Hartsfield-Jackson, it was time to rendezvous with friends and get to the Georgia Dome for afternoon quarterfinal SEC Tourney action.

The Dome, like other indoor football arenas, is a peculiar basketball facility. Although the Georgia Dome has its own basketball configuration, similar to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis (wherein the court is roughly laid out on top of one of the football endzones, and temporary stands are moved to the other end of the court away from the gridiron endzone seats), fans are still pushed back a bit further than usual at a traditional basketball arena, and the enormity of any dome creates a surreal atmosphere for hoops. Nonetheless, Tennessee and South Carolina were putting on quite a show, with the Gamecocks quickly rallying from an early 19-8 deficit to make a game of it.

And did they ever! With super Cincy transfer G Devan Downey terrorizing the Vols (and outplaying counterpart Chris Lofton), SC was more than holding its own, and by the final minute had forged a 1-point lead. With dreams of a top regional seed fading, Tennessee’s last grab into its bag of tricks won the game for the Vols, when Lofton stepped back far beyond the 3-point line and, aided by a devastating pick by Wayne Chism, fired home a game-winning triple with 7.8 seconds to play. The Cocks had time to tie or perhaps pull it out, but Downey missed on a three-pointer of his own, and a subsequent inbounds play was foiled by the UT defense, allowing the Vols to escape, 89-87.

Throughout the proceedings, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the games between the SEC and Big Ten teams. Although I know I wasn’t watching the cream of the Big Ten the day before in Indy, I could count the number of transition baskets for the entire afternoon on one hand. By comparison, Tennessee-South Carolina was a veritable track meet. The grinding, half-court Big Ten style stood in stark contrast to the racehorse hoops of the SEC.

Of course, the SEC Tourney didn’t have Erin Andrews, either, so in retrospect, it was probably a wash between the two.

There was real basketball royalty at the Georgia Dome, however, as ex-Tennessee great Bernard King and ex-Arkansas hero Corliss Williamson were honored at the afternoon session, which featured Vanderbilt and Arkansas after the Vols-Gamecocks battle. King, nattily attired in a 3-piece suit, waved and smiled to the crowd as if he were running for political office, understandably enjoying the festivities. Williamson brought his entire family, and being legendary in Fayetteville, was given celebrity treatment by the Razorback faithful. Big Corliss couldn’t have been more polite and accommodating, gladly posing for photos and chatting with the fans while trying to keep an eye on his young sons, who were remarkably well-behaved.

Although rivalries are hot and heavy in the SEC, just like the Big Ten, there is a conviviality between the fans in the SEC that I sure didn’t notice much in Indy, and certainly haven’t noticed in the Pac-10 or elesewhere. Perhaps it’s just the friendly nature of southern folk, but one got the sense that even the Tennessee, Vandy, and Kentucky fans in the Dome retained a lot of respect for Williamson, and many offered greetings. Big Corliss sat just a few rows from us, and we gave him a “Welcome back” greeting as he walked by, to which he replied with a smile, “Thanks, man.” Very cool fellow, that Big Nasty.

And Arkansas didn’t need Williamson against Vandy, because the current Razorbacks appear to have the Commodores’ number. The Hogs had won all three meetings since a year ago, recording the only win by an opponent in the past two seasons at Nashville’s Memorial Gym in the process. With length and athleticism on the perimeter, Arkansas is built to fluster Vandy’s perimeter game, and Dore star Shan Foster was indeed flustered by an assembly line of athletes Hog coach John Pelphrey kept throwing at him. Vandy hung close, however, mostly because frosh C A.J. Ogilvy was having a good game, but there were too many Arkansas weapons for Vandy to deal with. Alternately, Stephan Welch, Sonny Weems, and Patrick Beverley kept sticking daggers into the Dores, and when the dust settled, Arkansas was an 81-75 winner.

A highlight during the second half was doing a live remote from the Georgia Dome for my weekly Friday afternoon gig on Jimmy Ott’s excellent “Press Box” show on 1300 AM, Baton Rouge. It’s not easy doing a live radio interview on a cellphone inside of a noisy arena, but we pulled it off, another fine and thoroughly enjoyable segment on Jimmy’s show.

The games were running a bit late at the Georgia Dome, however, and with the tipoff of the night games pushed back later in the evening, plus the fact we were getting very hungry, we decided to head north to Alpharetta for dinner, as I couldn’t pass up a chance to dine at my favorite restaurant, Dreamland Barbeque. After taking friends on a quick tour of Willow Springs in Roswell (another possible relocation spot), we settled in at Dreamland for the best BBQ in the south, with plenty of TVs keeping up updated on all of the night’s college hoop action. It was our plan to return to the Dome for nightcap SEC game between Georgia and Kentucky.

During dinner, we noted some of the rumbling thunder outside, but didn’t think too much of it, since such storms are commonplace in this part of the country. But a tornado watch is a different beast entirely, and when that flashed on the TV screens, we paid attention. We also noted a delay in the third SEC quarterfinal between Mississippi State and Alabama, and soon got word that there was indeed weather-related damage at the Georgia Dome that caused the stoppage. Soon, it was apparent that a twister had indeed hit (although it took until Saturday morning to confirm it was indeed a tornado), with damage mostly concentrated in the area just west of I-75/85 downtown, where the Dome, the large Georgia World Congress Center (a huge convention facility), CNN, Philips Arena, and the Omni International Hotel all sit. Local TV reports were quickly confirming the damage, and video footage of the SEC Tourney in the Dome was chilling, with the auxiliary scoreboard overhead swinging along with the catwalks near the ceiling of the dome, with debris falling on the court and stands below, not to mention some holes blown in portions of the roof and siding of the Dome.

So much for returning to watch Georgia-Kentucky!

We decided to get on the road and head back to our hotel at the airport, making sure to heed the weather warnings along the way. While driving, we tuned into the Georgia Bulldog broadcast on WSB 750 AM, where the Bulldog announcers described the scene at the Dome, and offered their own impromptu play-by-play of the resumption of the final minutes of the MSU-Bama game. We actually thought about heading back down to the Dome for Georgia-Kentucky, but reports soon confirmed that wouldn’t be a good idea, with debris in fact spread all about the downtown area, rendering I-75/85 a mess. We instead pulled up at a restaurant at the Perimeter Mall, adjacent to I-285 north of town, and waited out the storm while sipping a much-needed drink and watching other college hoops on TV, all the while keeping one eye peeled on the local weather reports. Indeed, there is something quite unnerving about hearing weather reports talking about “rotational activity” within the approaching storm front. With other storms approaching the area from the west, we decided our best bet would be to get south to the airport hotel before the next wave (maybe with more tornados) came though downtown, so we swung southeast on I-285 to loop back to the airport area from the east. The lightning storm was a sight to behold, although it was mostly off in the distance as we swung away from trouble, although it was a hairy night by the airport, too, with the storm eventually passing over south of downtown later in the night, keeping us awake with booming thunder and continuous lightning.

Things had calmed down only marginally by Saturday morning, with storms and tornado watches still dotting the region, but planes were taking off and landing at adjacent Hartsfield-Jackson, so there was a chance to get out of town as planned Saturday morning. After another quick Waffle House breakfast (Atlanta is Waffle House mecca, with almost as many in the area as 7-11s elsewhere in the country), we made it to the airport, although our US Airways flight out of town was delayed because it was going to be late arriving from Charlotte, where the weather front had moved.

I was anxious to get home to complete a conference tourney trifecta, and to catch the Big West Tourney final that night, and finally I did get out of Atlanta, almost 3 hours late, but still in time to catch another connection out of Phoenix and back to Orange County, in time to get to the Anaheim Convention Center for UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton in an all-O.C. clash for the conference tourney crown.

The Big West Tourney is a long way from the Big Ten or SEC, but as I sat in the Convention Center and watched Fullerton dominate, I couldn’t help but smile. Atlanta tornado or not, as wild as the previous few days were, it was mostly nonstop college hoops. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Especially with a close-up look at Erin Andrews as part of the itinerary!

Return To Home Page