Saturday, October 23, 2010

Plan Your Road Trips - Part I

Over the past several years of watching college basketball, nothing gives me greater pleasure than taking a road trip to see a game.  The memories you get out of a six hour drive to Richmond, spending a weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, or to witness history in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tourney in Raleigh are simply priceless.

It always helps to have a partner in crime, and I have two of them, my friends Tieff and Mal, who share my Hofstra season tickets.  Tieff has been with me on just about every road trip I have done, sans one.  That's when I traveled up to Worcester, Mass in November 2007 to see Hofstra play Holy Cross in a required return matchup of the previous season's Bracketbuster game.  Otherwise, Tieff and I have never missed a Waffle House that was in our path.

Mal has gone on a few CAA Tournament road trips with us in 2006 and 2007.  But the Golfman, as we call Mal, was instrumental in perhaps one of our greatest road trips, the trip to Raleigh, North Carolina in March, 2008 to see Davidson and specifically Stephen Curry, put on perhaps the greatest show ever seen in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.  You couldn't ask for better college basketball, more perfect weather (got a round of golf in on the off day),  and great company.

But it's not just the long trip to Kansas to see Hofstra play in basketball mecca, or to Richmond, Charleston or Raleigh that are special. It's even the small trips to Fairfield for a televised ESPN Bracketbuster game and you stop along the way for a pizza at the famous Frank Pepe's.  Or getting very early to a  Bracketbusters game at Iona and going across the street and stopping at the Beechmont Tavern for a burger and a beer while viewing all the Gael memorabilia in the restaurant.

If you have ever got anything out of this blog, it's the idea of seeing a college basketball game LIVE!  It's not just the two hours of constant action, reveling in the great loud student sections when a college gym is sold out due to the home team hosting their first ever Division I postseason game.  But it's also the trip revolving around the game that's often equally as fun.

So as a public service, I am going to give you the first in a series of recommendations for road trips which includes actual game dates.

1) Puerto Rico Tipoff - San Juan, Puerto Rico - November 18-21 - I had seriously considered going but it would have meant leaving on my younger son's third birthday on November 17.  Now for the rest of you who don't have a child's birthday around that time, here's a great way to go see some quality college basketball.   Twelve games in three days with a break after the second day to go to the beach and enjoy the warm Puerto Rican sun.   And talk about quality basketball - North Carolina, West Virginia, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Nebraska, Western Kentucky, Davidson and Hofstra are the eight teams here.   Three NCAA tournament teams from last season.   What else could you want?

2) Charleston Classic - Charleston, South Carolina - November 18-21 - Now Tieff and I did this trip two years ago when the Charleston Classic first started.  We had such great fun "doin the Charleston".  The Carolina First Arena is right smack in the middle of the College of Charleston campus, perfectly placed in with all the brick buildings the school has.   The College of Charleston was the host team for the first Charleston Classic Tournament, but strangely, they haven't played in last season's or this season's tournament (last season they chose Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic Tournament instead, not bad mind you).

This season, Georgetown, NC State and defending SoCon champ Wofford are the big three teams.  But you also have George Mason, Charlotte, East Carolina, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina Upstate, so the tournament has a definitive southern flavor to it.  And of course, you have the City of Charleston, with it all it's terrific classic southern architecture, great food and a terrific night life.  It's one of my favorite cities.

Recommendations - stay in town for the tournament (don't do what we did) and as for food selections, well Hyman's Seafood is the place to go.  And if you can plan it out, there's still plenty of golf in Myrtle Beach in November and you can get a hotel real cheap off season on the water (trust me it's still warm there in November).

3) MSG Holiday Festival - Madison Square Garden, NYC - December 20, 21  - This is a two day tournament that Tieff and I have gone to many times over the years.  Thanks to last year's Holiday Festival, we got to know how good a team the Big Red of Cornell was before their NCAA Tournament run.

Two teams from last year's Holiday Festival return, host St John's and Davidson.  Those two teams square off in a first round game while Northwestern plays St. Francis in the other game.  The first game features Steve Lavin in his first Holiday Festival as St John's coach vs. Davidson's Bob McKillop, one of my favorite all time coaches.   St John's is on an upswing, predicted to finish sixth in the competitive Big East.  Northwestern is coming off a 20 win season with a NIT appearance and returns their leading scorer, John Shurna.

The Holiday Festival is a perfect time to be in NYC.  Of course, I would highly suggest going to see the tree in Rockefeller Center.  As for dinner, you really can't go wrong picking a good place to eat in one of the great restaurant capitals in the world.  But since you are near midtown, I highly recommend Tony DiNapoli's.  Just make sure to book a reservation ahead of time.  Then when you are there, order the sangria and Tony's Chicken (order a family style portion!).  The cheesecake is also really good.  Trust me on this one.

4) Hofstra vs. Iona - New Rochelle - December 29 - OK, this is a local NY metro area trip I highly recommend.  Why?  First, I am giving you the scoop on what I think is a team that is going to do really well this season and is flying under the radar, the Iona Gaels. They have a new coach in Tim Cluess, whose C.W. Post teams played a fantastic uptempo style.  Combine this with a team that is returning seven players who averaged more than 12 minutes a game, including leading scorer Scott Machado.   Throw in two talented freshman in Sean Armand and Javon James, both of whom Jared Grasso first recruited for Fordham when he was interim coach (Grasso is now Cluess' top assistant at Iona).

The Gaels' opponent, the Pride, have the returning CAA Player of the Year, Charles Jenkins, who is simply a force of nature and a true treat to watch live.  It will be interesting to see how seven new players (five freshmen, a transfer in Mike Moore and Brad Kelleher free from NCAA suspension land) mesh together with Jenkins with a brand new coaching staff.  New coach Mo Cassara promises various types of offensive tempo depending upon the opponent.  So it could be very well a track meet on that Wednesday night in late December.

As I suggested earlier in this article, get to the Iona campus early on the 29th.  Park in the parking garage, then take the walk off campus across North Street to the Beechmont Tavern.  Have a burger and a beer and look over all the photos of past Iona athletes.   Disregard the Dolphins logo, as cool as it may look.  Then head to the Hynes Center and take in what promises to be a fun game.

5) St Josephs vs. Drexel - Philadelphia  December 1 -  Having been to the cozy gym known as the DAC, the place should be rocking that night with this inter Philly rivalry.  The DAC seats about 2300 of your closest friends and when full, is a truly classic college basketball experience.   Expect it to be full since it's still in semester and bragging rights are at stake.

Now of course, you are in Philly, so there's plenty of good cheesesteak to be found. You have Geno's , Pat's and Campo's among others.  Now if you are not in the mood for cheesesteak and you prefer Italian, I have one recommendation for you. Maggiano' Little Italy on Filbert Street.   Had a great Italian dinner after a classic Drexel- Hofstra game in 2006 that had an ending you couldn't believe unless you were there in person.

So there are my first five recommendations for road trips.  Part II will be in the next week or two.  Now go check your calendar, find a buddy to go with, get your wife's permission (good luck on that), go online and get some tickets, and make a plane reservation if necessary.  Trust me, even the planning for these trips is enjoyable.

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