Sweet 16 Weekend: Where’s The Place To Be?

The regionals of the NCAA Tournament tip off again on Thursday and Friday, in four different cities. Prior to last weekend’s games, TheSportsNotebook took a look at all eight venues that hosted games and determined which would be the best one. The recommendation was Nashville on the grounds that all six games promised to be good, and serious upset possibilities existed. What happened? Ohio beat Michigan. South Florida knocked out Temple. St. Bonaventure led Florida State most of the way in a game that came down to final possession. Texas and Cincinnati played a great game down to the end. And that was just the first day. Then on Sunday, Ohio completed a dark horse run to the Sweet 16 in a good game over South Florida, and Cincy-Florida State was another nail-biter. You got everything TheSportsNotebook said you would, as long as you didn’t take my advice on who would actually win all these games (I went 1-3 on Friday, 0-2 on Saturday), you had a good time. The scenarios aren’t as varied this week, but TheSportsNotebook is back in its travel-agent capacity to look at the four travel options for this weekend….

Cincinnati-Ohio State
If I didn’t have my Fantasy Baseball draft this weekend, there’s no question where I’d be going. When you’re favorite team (Wisconsin) goes to your favorite city to play for the Final Four, it’s a no-brainer. I feel like I’m almost doing something wrong in passing on the trip. But even the neutral fan would find a lot to get excited about. Syracuse is a vulnerable #1 seed. The Cincy-Ohio State game promises a great rivalry setting and potentially some fistfights in the stands. Also note that the Wisconsin fans, which have the early game on Thursday night will have some type of vested interested in the nightcap, given Ohio State’s Big Ten tie. And as long as Ohio State wins, you have an epic  Saturday game—either the region’s top two seeds, or the third installment of a conference rivalry where the road team won both games. On Friday, your off-day between games, take a walk down Freedom Trail. And unless you have plans to leave the city for some reason, don’t rent a car. Beantown’s T system is great, its excellence matching the complete and utter mess the city is like to drive in.

Michigan State-Louisville
Talk about coaching star power—you get Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan, with their combined four national championships and 13 Final Four appearances, along with the fact that Pitino once coached Donovan, and they could meet in the Saturday final. There’s also an all-Big East possibility with Marquette and Louisville. MU’s Jae Crowder was the tournament’s best player on opening weekend. Michigan State-Louisville is a rematch of a 2009 Midwest Regional Final, when the ‘Ville lost as the overall #1 seed. Both Thursday games are great matchups and the storylines for Saturday are extremely rich. It could be Donovan-Pitino. Florida-Michigan State is a rematch of the 2000 NCAA championship game, with the same coaches still involved. There’s the Big East angle with MU and Louisville. The only one without a big storyline is Marquette-Michigan State, and if that happens you might have to just settle for great basketball with Crowder and MSU’s Draymond Green. One possible fan angle to watch—having just returned from Phoenix, there are a lot of snowbirds from Wisconsin there. Will they come out and cheer on Marquette? For your day off just enjoy the sunshine and grab some e pool time.

The one thing both the East and West have going against them is that they’re the Thursday/Saturday brackets, making it impossible for people to do a three-day weekend and just fly out on Friday morning. If that’s your problem, let’s look at options in the Friday/Sunday games. With the last Sunday game being a late afternoon start (as opposed to Saturday’s prime-time in the East tip), you can fly out at a reasonable hour, giving the ensuing two brackets a fan-friendly edge.

The matchups are flat-out juicy. The Kentucky-Indiana rivalry will have the house rocking in what will be the late game on Friday night. I’m not sure how big a fan base Baylor basketball has, but I have to think  the percentage of them that will travel will be extremely high. Xavier’s got the talent and might finally have its act together, though a good Sunday matchup probably depends on a Baylor win. The Bears are one of the few teams who can beat Kentucky on raw talent. A Baylor-Indiana matchup would be just a good sound basketball game. For Indiana fans, this is returning to the site of the 2002 Final Four, where they reached Monday night. For Kentucky fans, it’s a chance to avenge their only regular-season loss. For stuff to do on Saturday I haven’t been to Atlanta, but friends that have gone to bowl games there have said it’s a very pleasant city to be in.

North Carolina-Ohio
N.C. State-Kansas
The whole Ohio thing is the biggest damper on this.  North Carolina needs to advance or Sunday’s game could be dull as hell. This has actual impact on my life here, because my Fantasy draft will be in the southern part of Illinois on Saturday and a friend and I have the option of a Sunday ride into St. Louis on the table. One of my preconditions is that Carolina needs to win. Sorry Bobcat fans, the odds of you getting blown out are just too great, and even if you make the Final Four, for the neutral fan, we’ve already seen George Mason and VCU do it, so the drama of being there has a bit diminished. N.C. State-Kansas promises a good game, and a rematch of a 1986 Midwest Regional final in Kansas City when Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack were playing well, and eventually the home crowd wills the Jayhawks to a win. I have to presume the good people of Kansas will fill up the seats here as well. For those that come in for all three days, St. Louis is a fun city to visit with the Arch and if you want to drive outside the city you can visit Mark Twain’s boyhood home (or you could find a sports bar, watch the two other regional finals on Saturday and get loaded, whatever floats your boat).

This is a tough call, but I have to give the nod to Phoenix. The matchups there are just too good, and overcome the travel problems associated with Thursday/Saturday. If that’s something you can’t overcome head to Atlanta. I think the blowout possibilities in St. Loo are too high for the neutral fan to risk a serious travel investment, and as much as my personal passions are for Boston—and that regional will be awfully good—it can’t quite matchup to Phoenix for the neutral fan.