Now that we have the Final Four all set — with the Florida Gators taking on the UConn Huskies followed by the Wisconsin Badgers versus the Kentucky Wildcats in Jerry Jones' shrine this coming Saturday — it's about time I take a look back at my trip to San Antonio, as I joined three friends in shocking the world at the NCAA Tournament in Texas.
My journey began on the exact date of my 30th birthday. On the first day of spring, I left Philadelphia behind the same day I left my 20s behind, catching a plane on Thursday morning to head down to San Antone.
I made it to the airport and got through security with relative ease and had a mostly uneventful flight. The one exception, however, was the couple sitting in front of me. There was an exceptionally strange woman with her male companion in front of me, and it seemed as though she was either legitimately insane or at least going stir crazy from the flight, but I spent most of my time sleeping in the air.
After a very brief stop in Dallas to catch my connector flight — which changed gates on me to one across the airport after I had already arrived at my original gate — I touched down in San Antonio in relatively short order.
To my pleasant surprise, my buddies Jared, who lives in San Antonio, and Pete, who flew down from Baltimore a tad earlier, scooped me up from the airport. From there, we made a pit stop at my buddy's house, whacked back some whiskey and then stopped in at the hotel as Jared departed for work.
As we awaited the final member of our crew to arrive on his bus from Austin by way of Boston, Pete and I roamed the landscape, taking a stroll up the River Walk on a search for a place to grab a drink and watch the NCAA Tournament games. As it turned out, we clearly headed in the wrong direction, walking in circles for a while with no open bar in sight. Before we knew it, we were in a bit of a desolate area before finally heading back downtown and settling in at The Ticket Sports Pub.
There we took in the early games and conversed a bit with a verbose and possibly slightly racist southerner as we waited for the fourth member of our party to arrive. We knocked back a few beverages by the time Zach arrived, had a couple more as we watched the games and then regrouped at the hotel before heading out to meet one of his friends who also moved down to San Antonio recently.
Strolling around the city on a beautiful 70- to 80-degree day, we stumbled upon the Alamo and some interesting sites. Then we walked in to the Marriott and were greeted by the Nebraska band, clearly noticing the Nebraska team was staying there. With a few more drinks in us, we met up with our friend's buddy and took a little drive to a bar and grill to watch the St. Joe's-UConn game.
Over some grub and more drinks, we watched the Hawks choke away their chance to take on Villanova in an NCAA Tournament version of the Holy War, dropping to now Final Four-bound UConn in overtime. The moment Halil Kanacevic fouled out, the game was essentially over.
After an already long day, we headed back to the downtown area, popped our heads into a couple bars and wound up at a place that labeled itself the music video bar of San Antonio. When we walked in, there was not a single television showing the NCAA Tournament and a relatively sparse crowd. Instead, on the tubes were music videos playing the entire time. It was weird, but we decided to stay because we were able to get an uncrowded spot at the bar and the bartender was kind enough to put the Tourney games on one of the TVs.
The scene was definitely a bit odd. There was a table of what seemed like college-aged folks, including a girl who seemed very impressed with our musical taste. Then, once my friend put on a block of Ween, it got even weirder. The bartender had no idea what kind of music we had put on, an odd bird who was sitting all by himself writing in a journal of some sort began rocking out and praising the music, and the college-aged crew did — well I don't even remember.
We kept drinking and watching the games and eventually made our way back to our hotel.
The next day was game day, with our first match-up set for an early tip. Hung over and fairly tired, we got picked up by Jared to head out toward the AT&T Center with the hopes of finding somewhere to grub nearby. As it turns out, the home of the Spurs is not exactly in what you'd call a nice part of town. On our drive through many a boarded-up and abandoned shack, we found little in the way of restaurants. Finally, we just decided to park and grab a bite at the food trucks on our way in. Oh, and the AT&T Center is right next to the old Freeman Coliseum, which is a pretty cool looking old building.
With something in our stomachs and full day of basketball ahead, we were all set. All set, that is, with the exception of our alcohol plan. Having gone through the experience that is the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament before, we knew that securing adult beverages inside the building was no easy task. But given that we were in super box seats, we held out hope of being served.
No such luck … however, we did find the one spot in the arena where booze was being served. Excited, and with Baylor absolutely smothering a poor-shooting Nebraska squad, we went to get some beers. As our orders were being poured before our very eyes, suddenly a uniformed woman came up and informed the bartenders that anyone without a wristband was to be served under no circumstances. We did not have a wristband and were summarily denied the beers that were poured for us.
Dismayed, we inquired as to where we may get said wristbands, since the youngest of us was 28 years old. We were told we could not purchase them — we had to do it when we ordered our tickets. Apparently, the NCAA sold VIP packages, where you had to pay extra just for the right to buy overpriced beers in the stadium. That is so like the NCAA.
And speaking of the NCAA and its fan experience, it's incredible just how clueless and out of touch the organization is. Never mind the fact that I cannot wrap my head around such a greedy, morally corrupt institution forgoing alcohol money by just letting the arenas sell booze and taking the money. The fact of the matter is that going to NCAA Tournament games is an inferior experience.
Beyond the white-washing that covers up any sort of sponsorship in the arenas, the NCAA leaves the fans in attendance completely in the dark. On day one, the televisions around the concourse showed only the games that were going on right in front of everyone at AT&T arena. There were no TVs with the other games on and very few updates throughout showing what was going on with all the other games.
It is fantastically out of touch, particularly in a time when fans are staying home in droves because the in-home experience is so much cheaper and better. There are few things people love more than flipping through the games that first weekend to catch the most excitement as possible. But in the arena, good luck. There isn't even a place where the scores from all the other games are displayed. It's absolutely pathetic and, quite frankly, disrespectful to the fans paying to be there and support the NCAA Tournament and the schools playing.
Say what you want about the NFL, but at least the league knows its fans want more access to games even when they're in attendance. That's why there are scoreboards with all the scores, not to mention fantasy updates and even free wi-fi in places such as Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Same goes for most baseball, hockey and basketball games, with fans at least given scores of other games.
But the NCAA has no such interest, and it's only going to hurt the organization that is already on incredibly thin ice. Fans love the experience of the entire NCAA Tournament and want to engage with as many games as possible. By limiting the action to just the games on the court in that building, the NCAA is alienating fans and pretty much asking for people to not attend.
I mean, if it wasn't for Pete saving the day in the first game by simply taking the initiative to change the channel of one of the TVs and put on the Mercer-Duke game, our whole suite would have been stuck watching Baylor trounce Nebraska while the Cinderella from Georgia was knocking off the Blue Devils.
Thankfully, Pete did put that game on, and he became the MVP of the first slate of games. With the referees blowing their whistles left and right and Nebraska shooting as if there was a lid on the basket, we turned our attention away from the Bears' dominant performance and watched the entire second half of the Duke-Mercer clash. When the other Bears topped the Blue Devils behind Jakob Gollon's 20 points and Daniel Coursey's 17, it was a glorious start to the day. The blowout in front of us be damned, the day could not be soured after that. And especially after this.
Following all that excitement, we were all set to witness Doug McDermott and the Creighton Blue Jays take on the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns. Having seen McDermott in the NCAA Tourney last year in Philadelphia, I knew what to expect from the favorite for the Naismith Player of the Year. I did not, however, know a damn thing about the Ragin' Cajuns, but I would soon fall in love with the team from Louisiana.
Early on, McDermott was forced to work extremely hard just to catch the ball. Why? Because the Cajuns' Eflrid Payton was playing the type of lockdown defense you'd expect from someone who shares the same last name as the guy they called "The Glove." Payton did a masterful job denying McDermott and making him work.
Still, with McDermott being as good as he is, he found a way to get his. And when Louisiana-Lafayette switched to a zone in part to protect Payton and give him a little rest since he'd have to go damn near the whole way, McDermott went off. He scored about eight or 10 points in a span of a few minutes, and after one basket that helped assert Creighton, my favorite moment of the entire weekend happened.
Clearly McDermott was tearing the zone apart and heating up, and Payton had had enough. Following yet another bucket by the coach's son, Eflrid turned to his coach and waved his arms in a "we gotta get out of his zone" type of way. The message came across loud and clear, as the Cajuns immediately went back to man on the next defensive possession, with Payton guarding McDermott. He wanted to take on the challenge of the best player in America himself, and McDermott was relatively quiet from then on.
Payton's intensity had me hooked, and with his confidence along with the impressive game of big man Shawn Long, the Cajuns remained within arm's length of the heavily favored Blue Jays. And they had won the non-Nebraska crowd over with the excitement of Payton and the remarkably nimble moves of big boy — and I mean big boy — J.J. Davenport. If nothing else, we were in for an entertaining second half.
Oh, and McDermott, who had been relatively held in check save for those few minutes where he tore apart the zone, still had 17 at half. That guy is pretty damn good.
The second half was more of the same. Foul trouble to Long put the Cajuns in a predicament, but they continued to battle and keep it close. However, down the stretch McDermott showed why he is the leading candidate for POY. As Payton began to fade, clearly fatigued from all his hard work on both ends of the floor, McDermott stepped up in crunch time.
After a relatively quite second half, the Creighton senior simply took over in the final four minutes and helped the Blue Jays pull away, ultimately winning by 10 points. In the end, he found a way to get his, putting up 30 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes of action. Simply put, when the Blue Jays really needed him, McDermott stepped up and made sure his team would advance.
Still, the 10-point final score was not indicative of how exciting this contest was. Elfrid Payton and J.J. Davenport won the crowd over, but at the end of the day, the best player on the court proved why he was exactly that.
That was it for the first session of the day. The arena cleared out to prep for the evening sessions, and in between we decided to make a trek to the nearest place to purchase booze and get a few drinks in our system. By this point, we were feeling a bit groggy and in need of a boost following the previous night of drinking. Thus, we walked to a gas station a couple blocks away — with one of us almost getting run over — grabbed the champion's meal of chips, Modelo, Tecate and some odd energy/alcohol drinks and planted ourselves among the birds in the reservoir surrounding the parking lot we had parked in.
We downed some more drinks and took in the nice San Antonio weather. One thing of note — there are some crazy birds down in Texas. And loud ones. One bird in particular was making all kinds of weird noises as we were wetting our whistles.
Finally, it was time to head back in. On our short walk back, I walked with my half-finished beer with the plan to finish it before we got to the gate. This is common practice in Philadelphia, with the police and traffic cops not giving a damn about open containers. Not so in San Antonio, or at least not so by a certain female cop.
She asked if our beers were opened. We all responded no, which was true for everyone but me. She asked me to show her the top. I tried to give her the Philly fake-out. She did not buy it and took my brew. Caught, red-handed.
No bother, as I was now filled with some shitty food and some beer, and we set off to take in the North Carolina-Providence game.
Now, it's no secret that I am a supporter of the Tar Heels. It's been that way ever since the days of George Lynch forcing Chris Webber into that infamous timeout. But for some reason, I just haven't been all that enamored with this team this year, so my rooting interest wasn't as strong as you'd suspect.
And as the game wore on, it didn't take long for me to enjoy the tremendous play of Providence guard Bryce Cotton. Simply put, Cotton was the best player on the floor, and truth be told, he was the most impressive player I saw the entire weekend. Cotton was doing it all, filling it up with a game-high 36 points and getting buckets with ease. Almost singlehandedly, he kept the Friars in it and put them in position for a win.
However, Marcus Paige continued to do what Marcus Paige does, propelling the Tar Heels to victory with 19 huge points. He even hit a half-court shot that didn't count after the buzzer to close the first half.
But it took all Paige and the Tar Heels had to close out Providence in what was by far the best game of the day.
UNC went up by seven a few minutes into the second half following a huge three by Paige, and it looked as though Tar Heels were going to close out Providence in relatively easy fashion. Brice Johnson was having a good game, and five Tar Heels notched double digits.
Yet the Friars wouldn't go away, as Cotton just kept making awesome play after awesome play. Slowly, that seven-point lead dwindled and the script flipped. Before you knew it, the Friars were up seven with just four to go. Then Brice Johnson got a dunk and a jumper, followed by a Paige three to tie it up, and we were on the see-saw.
Cotton was doing his thing and put the Friars up three with a freebie followed by a steal and layup. Then Paige hit another three, as the two diminutive guards went back and forth.
The end was a blur, and with two seconds left, James Michael McAdoo stepped to the line in a tie game. I had been killing McAdoo all game and really his entire career, as this supposed stud to be simply has never put it together. He's never assertive, never really living up to the reputation he came in with.
So as I was killing him — even during his double-double performance — he nailed the first free throw to give UNC the lead. And when he missed the second, he got a fortuitous bounce and nabbed the offensive board, then was fouled again. He hit the first again, and by the time he missed the second, the game was over. UNC escaped with the two-point victory.
That was pretty much the highlight of the day, as the Iowa State Cyclones capped off our games by mutilating the North Carolina Central Eagles. Thus, with the blowout clearly in the bag, we spent most of the time watching the other games on the TV. That meant we completely missed Georges Niang break his foot, a heart-wrenching blow for an Iowa State squad that clearly had Final Four talent.
The rest of the night was sort of blur. I remember tequila shots, lots of beer, lots of drinks. And I remember finding a spot called Leapin' Lizards and drinking entirely too many mind erasers. It was a crazy scene in there, the type of divey/townie place I can get down with. And there was lots of music, lots of drunkenness and lots of fun.
I also remember stopping at a hot dog cart on our way back to the hotel and eating the most delicious hot dog ever … followed by a drunken bet taken to swim across the infamous River Walk river. Let's just say I may or may not have taken that bet, then may or may not have been too drunk/weak to get out after my swim back, and then may or may not have smelled like complete shit after getting out.
Day three, everything finally started to hit me. Somehow, I managed to get my blood flowing with a hung-over, early morning run, but then I had to meet a co-worker to go help set up for a conference I was attending in town following the tournament games. But first, we had one of the greatest meals of my entire life.
At the suggestion of our friend in town, we headed over to Luke for brunch. Here's a little secret about me: I don't really like bloody maries. I know I am in the minority on that, but I just don't like them very much. However, upon seeing the incredible bloodies at Luke, and with my two friends each ordering one, I couldn't resist. And I gotta say, it was probably my favorite bloody mary I've ever had, mainly because it was more watery and fluid-like and less sludge-like.
I also had an absolutely incredible meal, the jumbo shrimp "en cocotte" — i.e., jumbo shrimp in roasted jalapeno cheese grits, andouille and green onion sausages. It was fucking incredible.
Following the meal, I was off to help my co-worker out. When we met up and headed to the convention center, I thought I was in an episode of "To Catch a Predator."
You see, we opened the first door to the convention center we saw … and were engulfed by a huge cheerleading competition. Like, grade school to high school cheerleading competition. I had to get out of there stat. It was incredibly uncomfortable.
Thankfully, we finally found our place and after a quick setup headed back to The Ticket to meet my buddies to view more Tourney games.
Two strange things happened at The Ticket. I met my buddies there, who were sitting in the back corner. In said corner, there was one TV and one TV only, facing a different direction than all the rest, with an MLS soccer game on. Every other television had basketball on. Yet sitting next to my friend Pete was one lonely guy, fixated on the MLS game to our right. He was the only person in the entire bar looking at this television. And he was by himself, wearing a D.C. United shirt in San Antonio at a sports bar during the NCAA Tournament.
Now listen, if you like MLS soccer, more power to you. I can't get into it and I played soccer my entire childhood — mainly because I view it as minor league soccer compared to other leagues — but if you like it, great. But come on, if you are going to go to a sports bar during the NCAA Tournament and be the weirdo watching MLS, at least bring a damn friend with you.
Nope, not this guy. He was there, in San Antonio, wearing his D.C. United shirt and sporting a ridiculously horrid faux hawk, all by himself watching the soccer game during the NCAA Tournament. I just don't understand people sometimes.
The other odd thing is that there was a whole crew sitting in front of us that was facing the opposite way, eyes fixated on the Division III National Championship game between Williams and Wisconsin-Whitewater. They were into every single play, particularly one woman, which we found strange — a whole group of people ignoring the big-time NCAA Tournament games in lieu of the Division III championship.
As it turns out, it was the family of Creighton's Grant Gibbs … whose brother Reid is an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater. The family was in San Antonio obviously to support Grant and the Blue Jays in their games, and made it a point to be in front of a TV for their other son's game (or brother, cousin, nephew, etc.). That's pretty cool, and they were remarkably nice people.
After a while, we decided to grab some bikes and cycle out to Feast, the restaurant our friend Jared works at. We met up with our friend who had taken us out Thursday night and his girl and had a fabulous meal. The food and wine kept flowing, as we ate a ton of awesome food, and we were feeling good. A little too good. Even with a weird "white party" going on, as there was an entire large table filled with people wearing white — including, how shall we say, a very accentuated chested woman. It was a little weird. But awesome, and some really great dining.
Soon, I was feeling the itis coming on. But we were far from done. We headed over to The Friendly Spot to nab some more beer and watch the Villanova-UConn game. But it was a struggle.
I was already running on fumes three days in, and when I plopped myself on the couch out back to watch the game, my energy was waning. We did meet some UNC fans who were more than gracious, including a young lady who said she was the fiancee of an NFL offensive lineman for the Texans. And they met at UNC. Using my deduction skills, I concluded she was engaged to Brennan Williams. I'm smart like that.
Anyway, as I was getting drunker and groggier, I watched the Wildcats play like they were drunk and groggy. Kevin Ollie thoroughly outcoached Jay Wright, and Huskies made easy work of Villanova. During the game, my buddy Tommy, a diehard Nova fan living out in Colorado, called me incredulous, wondering why Tony Chennault wasn't getting more PT to penetrate since all the Wildcats were doing was chucking terrible three-pointers.
It was to no avail. By the time it was all said and done, I was passed out on the couch, drunk out of my mind, with Nova long gone from the tournament. The Huskies proved to be the Philly killers … and the everyone else killers, one of just four teams still standing.
Soon after, with everyone drunk and tired, we pedaled back toward our hotel. One problem: The bike share station we went to was all filled up. We had to find another, and in our drunken stupor, we struggled to do so.
Thankfully, mercifully, we found one and called it a night, passing out almost immediately upon hitting the sack.
By the time I awoke Sunday, my body was a shell of its former self. We slept in a little later than we had the previous days and finally got around to getting our day started. Needing some sort of sustenance, we came across The Esquire Tavern, and it was an absolutely awesome bar.
Sadly, alcohol was a struggle at this point. We all ordered food and again bloodies, but this one was more the traditional kind. Thus, I couldn't put it down, and it was the last drop of booze I drank until later that night.
After our meal, I departed to check in to my work hotel and rest a little bit. Soon thereafter, it was time for the second round of games.
Given the lack of booze on day one, we entered with a couple flasks in tow, but I refrained from drinking. Beyond being near dead, I also had to work the following day at a conference, the last thing I wanted to do. And I certainly didn't want to feel any worse than I already knew I would.
It's amazing that I was able to show such restraint.
And I'm glad I did because we were treated to the best game of the weekend Sunday evening.
Just like on day one, the Tar Heels provided the most entertaining contest. And just like day one, five Tar Heels notched double digits in point, once again led by Marcus Paige's 19. Kennedy Meeks took McAdoo's place with a double-double, and the Heels played another barn-burner.
But unlike day one, it would not be the Heels who came out on top. Even without Niang, Iowa State came out assertive, led by Melvin Ejim and especially DeAndre Kane.
Iowa State held three at half, but on came the Tar Heels. With a little over five to go, UNC went up by eight and looked to be in control. But the Cyclones weren't done, storming back to tie the game at 76 with two to play. Leslie McDonald hit a three to put UNC up, but the Cyclones continued to battle, tied it back up and then took the lead on a DeAndre Kane layup with 27 second left, 83-81 ISU. That's when McAdoo, after hitting the game-winning free throws to shut me up on day one, hit two more free throws to tie it and again shove it in my face with just 15 seconds left.
Then this happened:
It was crazy. And then even crazier. Kane made a hell of a move to get what ended up being the game-winning layup, but that wasn't the end of things. With just a little over a second left, Nate Britt had to chuck up a shot. He didn't, instead trying to dribble over half court and call timeout. There wasn't enough time for that, even though when he looked up there was time on the clock. Turns out, the clock had never started to begin with, and the refs declared the game over after further review.
Now, don't get me wrong, Iowa State deserved to win and justly won. But in a situation like that, where the clock doesn't start, it doesn't seem fair to punish the player who looked up and saw time on the clock, thus calling timeout to try and have his coach draw up a play. To me, it only makes sense to replay the possession. After all, it wasn't Britt's fault the clock didn't start.
Yet, to my surprise, Roy Williams just got the explanation and shook Fred Hoiberg's hand, accepting defeat. It was odd, for sure. And kind of awesome. I can say I saw something I never have before.
As for the finale game, there isn't much to say other than Baylor made it a mission to destroy Nebraska. After tearing through the Huskers, the Bears absolutely annihilated Creighton as well, sending Doug McDermott home for good. And while the game was boring as hell, at least I can say I was there for McDermott's final collegiate game, a noteworthy footnote for one of the best college scorers ever.
After the games, we made a little trek to get a couple brews and food, and then that was basically it for my fun.
My other traveling friends flew out on Monday, with my buddy Jared doing some prep and me heading off to the work conference, which started out shitty but ended up not so bad. In fact, I saw a familiar face there, getting me in the spirit for Opening Day.
I spent one more day in Texas, working and conferencing, flying back Tuesday to frigid temperatures and a little snow. Exhausted and delirious, I took a cab right to my Tuesday night bowling league, sucked at bowling and finally crashed, back in one piece, albeit a worn out piece.
I can honestly say I once again had a blast shocking the world at the NCAA Tournament, and while I don't really have a desire to move San Antonio, my first trip to Texas was a wonderful experience.
Plus, this year I didn't get the death flu, and I did get to see that awesome ending.
Reverend Paul Revere, aka Joe Boland, is a sports blogger out of Philadelphia whose life revolves around sports 365 and a quarter days per year. Keep up with Rev at his own personal blog, The House That Glanville Built and on Twitter.