The Best of the Road to College Hoops

Dan Wetzel

The Road to College Hoops: Archive

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Ford Explorer we returned to the good folks at Hertz had 1,857.3 miles and dirt from seven states on it. The time has come for the college basketball season to begin, and for us to return to a normal life – or at least, to not eating barbeque twice a day.

The 2004 edition of our annual Road to College Hoops took us from smoke stacks in the industrial Midwest to the smoke towns of Tobacco Road. We saw mountains and farms and rivers and skylines and more road signs than we care to recall.

We also got to visit with basketball coaches of all ilk, in circumstances ranging from relaxing dinners to harried chats after practice. We visited seven of the nation's top 20 teams, caught up with a legend in Indiana and the guy still trying to replace a legend in Indiana.

Francisco Garcia's laughter, Mike Brey's class, Gene Keady's humor, Shavlik Randolph's determination and a chatty afternoon spent at a North Carolina barber shop are among the memories we'll keep from this trip.

The last stop of the Road to College Hoops a year ago was Storrs, Connecticut, where UConn's overwhelming talent made the Huskies odds-on favorites to clip the nets in San Antonio.

This year, eight different teams received at least one first-place vote in one of the two major national preseason polls. Another three or four teams belong in the conversation. No one knows what is going to happen this year.

Including us.

All we can say for sure at this point, based on what we saw with our own eyes, is it's going to be a great season. Here's a Cliff Notes version of The Best of the Road to College Hoops:

Best Restaurant: This is the most coveted award we hand out each year. This year's winner: Little Richard's Lexington BBQ in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Some say there are better eastern Carolina barbeque spots but they are going to have to prove it. The meat was tender, savory and plentiful, the sweet tea perfectly mixed. And the fact that the meal was served on a piece of wax paper made it all the better.

Special thanks to Wake Forest fans Todd Rhodes and Mark Leach for taking us there and Richard Berrier (aka Little Richard) for cooking it up.

Favorite Assistant Coach: Matt Painter, Purdue. He won't be an assistant for long, but the future head coach of Purdue has the work ethic, personality and know-how to follow in Keady's footsteps. Plus, he took us to the legendary Harry's Chocolate Factory in West Lafayette.

Best Coffee: Usually reserved for something from Dunkin' Donuts, instead we go with the Starbucks that an Indiana manager hand-delivered to us in the middle of practice. The definition of Hoosier hospitality.

Best Fan: Russell Hiatt, Mt. Airy, N.C. The barber on whom Andy Griffith based "Floyd" is also a big-time ACC basketball fan. He may be 80, but he still knows all the players, coaches and controversies. And he is plenty excited about what could be a legendary season on Tobacco Road.

Best Fan (runner-up): Beverly Crossland of Bloomington, Ill. How intense is this Illinois backer? She wore her lucky socks, shirt and earrings to an exhibition game against SIU-Edwardsville and admitted an hour before the tap that she was nervous. Wait until Wake Forest shows up on Dec. 1.

Best Drive: West Virginia has plenty of scenery but the best stretch of road on the entire trip was Interstate 77 entering Virginia, and the sweeping valleys it traverses.

Best Facilities: Michigan State's Berkowitz Basketball Complex is unbelievable. Modern, spacious, classy – it tells anyone who sees it that this is a school that cares about its basketball program.

Best Facilities (runner-up): Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum. No, it is not modern or even attached to Rupp Arena (where UK plays). But Tubby Smith has fine office space and, when you look up at a wall filled with NCAA and SEC championship banners and consider that this is where Adolph Rupp taught the game, it can give you chills. Sometimes old is better than new.

Best Alternate Tour Stop: It was impossible to drive all the way to Tucson, Ariz. for this trip, but we would have liked to take a peek at the Wildcats. NBA scouts who have been there say Lute Olson has a ton of talent and a group that is playing extremely hard.

Favorite Pet Peeve: You know those blue road signs that alert you to the gas stations, hotels and restaurants at an upcoming exit? Generally a nice touch. However, no listed facility should be more than 0.5 miles from the exit. In North Carolina, these gas stations turned out to be miles from the exit. That is a bit of motorist dishonesty that cannot be tolerated.

Worst Hotel: If you don't know, you haven't been paying attention.

Best Tour: While I conducted interviews at Notre Dame, wheelman Bret Bearup took a tour of the Irish football museum. "I saw five Heisman Trophies," he said.

Best Player: Chris Paul, G, Wake Forest. When he changes directions on the court he reminds you of Allen Iverson. When you talk to him after practice, he reminds you of Shane Battier.

Best Team: Wake Forest. We liked Illinois, Michigan State and Duke a lot but combine Paul with a deep, balanced and talented group and the Demon Deacons are pretty special.

Best Bar: Tumble Inn, Champaign, Ill. We were only there for pregame festivities, but the blue-collar Illini stronghold is our kind of place. No nonsense, no attitude. You can't go wrong.