Blue skies and nearly 90-degree weather greeted us when we stepped out of the Houston airport Friday afternoon, ready to experience the Final Four in person for the first time. Daniel, the driver who took us from the airport to the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Houston, told us that the city already was a zoo with more than 24 hours to go before the VCU-Butler tipoff. Considering our plane from Cleveland was filled with hoops fans ready to get the weekend party started, we weren't at all surprised. Final Four logos were plastered all over the airport while people dressed head to toe in Final Four gear tossed mini foam basketballs our way as we came down the airport escalator. Give the NCAA credit for turning March Madness into a nationwide obsession. In much the same way that fantasy football has catapulted the NFL's popularity into the stratosphere in recent years, the NCAA has turned "bracket" into one of the biggest buzzwords in sports as more and more fans -- from the rabid to the random -- fill out, track and obsess about their brackets every March. And after weeks of upsets, buzzer beaters and Cinderella uprisings, it all culminates with the Final Four showdown. Houston was buzzing, Final Four fever had very clearly set in, and the dreary Ohio weather was a thousand miles away. Hell. Yeah.
Under normal circumstances, this would have been a memorable weekend but we (along with editors from Men's Health and Men's Fitness magazines) were in Houston as the guests of NCAA-sponsor Infiniti. Needless to say, that came with more than a few perks. Game day started for us at the Kick-Off Tailgate event in front of Reliant Stadium, and what's a tailgate without a cold beer? But as we stepped to the counter at 4:01 Saturday afternoon to place our order, we were told that beer sales had been shut down at 4:00. How's that for timing? Fortunately, our Infiniti rep, Ray Daniels, leaned in close to the server, whispered what no doubt were some kind of magic words, and four beers miraculously appeared on the counter moments later. Crisis averted. We spent the rest of our time at the Kick-Off Tailgate sipping our forbidden beers and taking in the sights and sounds before heading to our gate as game time inched closer.
The first thing we noticed as we took our seats in the club section was how desolate the UConn student section looked. Granted, the Huskies weren't playing for several more hours but the Kentucky student section was packed while UConn's section wasn't even half full. In fact, it was clear early on that Kentucky fans were the ruling class inside Reliant Stadium, with Wildcat blue dominating the lower bowl all around their corner of the stadium. In terms of pure energy, though, the ramped-up VCU fans stood out from the crowd. Literally. A sea of dancing, jumping, singing, screaming and swaying yellow spread throughout Virginia Commonwealth's corner of the stands, and their band kept their fans energized throughout the game. The Final Four sweethearts and 2010 runner-up Butler Bulldogs were the favorites in Saturday's opening matchup but, behind a standout performance from junior F Jamie Skeen (27 points, 6 rebounds), 11th seeded VCU had Butler within striking distance deep into the second half before a late collapse helped the Bulldogs eek out a misleading eight-point victory. At the time, we thought this was a great way to kick off the Final Four, with two more matchups still on the docket. Little did we know that we'd just seen the best game of the weekend.
That's not to say Butler/VCU was a thing of beauty. Each team shot below 40% from the field, but compared to Kentucky's 33% mark in the second semifinal game and UConn's 1-for-12 performance from three-point range, Butler and VCU set the rims on fire. Then again, while it was easy to bash Kentucky for such a horrid performance during and immediately after their 56-55 loss, Monday night's championship game made it clear that we should have been praising UConn's defensive heroics all along. Kentucky's freshman PG Brandon Knight missed 17 of his 23 shots while DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller combined for 2-14 shooting. Together with the game's 25 total turnovers (15 by UConn), it was a sloppy and uninspired performance by both teams, with the Huskies seemingly winning by default. We left Reliant Stadium hoping Monday night's championship contest make up for Saturday's disappointing second game.
Sunday's off day gave us a chance to experience Houston a bit more. We hit several nice restaurants and bars during our trip -- with highlights including the Sambuca Jazz Cafe, the Hearsay Gastro Lounge, Cabo and the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium -- and the nightlife was definitely hopping throughout the weekend. We also stopped in to check out Bracket Town, the Final Four Fan Fest set up in downtown Houston. It clearly was an event meant more for kids and families than a group of writers and editors whose families were back home for the weekend, but it still was a cool experience to take in. There were all sorts of games set up for fans of just about any sport, including a whiffle ball home run derby, football drills, hockey and lacrosse games, and a three-on-three basketball tournament at the back of the building.
The non-hoops highlight, though, was a surprise trip in Ray's Infiniti QX56 SUV to see Cirque du Soleil's Ovo show. Again, rolling with Infiniti (a Cirque sponsor) proved to be fortuitous indeed as we made our way to the Tapis Rouge VIP tent for complementary beer, wine, mimosas and all sorts of savory hors d'oeuvres before showtime. As I mentioned in one of my blog entries from the weekend, I had no idea what to expect as we made our way to the main tent. Described on the official site as, “an immersion into the teeming and energetic world of insects," Ovo (Portuguese for "Egg") was unbelievable. To borrow from my blog post, Ovo featured some of the most impressive feats of strength, balance, body control, grace and coordination we’ve ever seen, and the show itself is a memorable mix of intoxicating music, outlandish costumes and all around magnificent performances from the entire cast. We know, Cirque du Soleil doesn't seem like the manliest thing to do during a free afternoon or evening, but you'd probably be surprised by how much you enjoy the show, and you know your lady will love it too.
Still, the Cirque surprise was supposed to be a mere appetizer while we waited for Monday's main course of championship basketball. Everywhere you went on Sunday and Monday, people were talking about the game, offering up their predictions on whether or not Butler could take down the more talented UConn team. When we walked into Reliant Stadium that night, it was clear that, although many doubted Butler's ability to pull off the upset, most fans in attendance were pulling for the Bulldogs. UConn's student section once again was embarrassingly barren while the Butler students had seemingly filled every available seat, but that was pretty much the only advantage the eighth-seeded Bulldogs had on the Huskies. The pathetic halftime score of 22-19 hinted at what would be an even uglier second half as Butler clanked its way to NCAA history by shooting just 18% from the floor -- yes, for the entire game -- and missing almost as many shots (52) as the triumphant Huskies had points (53). UConn again wasn't much better than its vanquished opponent, shooting 34% overall, hitting just one of their 11 three-point attempts and committing 11 turnovers, but their fantastic defense harassed Butler into a historically awful performance en route to the program's third national title. And as the saying goes, winning ugly is still winning, so congrats to the Huskies.
Sure, our weekend in Houston didn't exactly end on a high note, but thanks in large part to Houston's incredible hospitality and Infiniti's generosity, there's no way it could have dampened our experience. Many fans prefer college sports to the pros, and after getting sucked in by the infectious energy that the VCU fans put forth during their semifinal defeat, it's easy to see why. This Final Four set an NCAA attendance record (even with Husky Nation refusing to show up in full force), and despite a couple of lackluster performances on the court, it still was an unforgettable weekend. Here's hoping we'll get a chance to top this Final Four sometime soon.