ST. INDIANAPOLIS-OK, an explanation of the goofy dateline. I have just finished shuttling back and forth between St. Louis for the NCAA Men's Final Four and Indy for the NCAA Women's Final Four. Because of a speaking engagement in St. Louis and an obligation back here on the front end, I made three round trips in six days, covering 1,500 miles.
It was worth it. Six games over four days resulting in two national champions, the University of North Carolina for the men and Baylor University for the women. What follows is a diary of my observations:
March 31, 3 p.m.: Last week in IBJ, I wrote about the importance Final Fours have played in Indy's development, and how the NCAA's promise of future Final Fours needs to be strongly considered in the debate about the new stadium. That theme is reinforced upon arrival in St. Louis. A columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in fact, cites Indianapolis as an example, and says St. Louis likewise needs to use the Final Four and other sporting events as a catalyst for revitalization. In fact, in anticipation of the big event, dozens of shops and restaurants have moved into vacant downtown space.
With baseball's Cardinals, the NFL Rams and the NHL Blues, I always considered St. Louis a bona fide big-league city, but the tone in the local newspaper and later on the evening newscasts reinforces the notion that the locals consider having the Final Four a coup, and city leaders fervently want to become part of the Final Four rotation.
9 p.m.: At dinner, I am sitting with Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bryan Burwell. He and a retired P-D scribe, Dave Dorr, go on and on about how St. Louis needs to emulate Indianapolis.
"You guys did it right," Burwell says. "In terms of downtown development, Indianapolis is easily 10 years ahead of St. Louis." I consider asking Burwell to come address our state legislators.
April 1, 9:30 a.m.: I introduce and recognize Purdue University's Gene Keady for his service to college basketball at a breakfast to announce the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's player (the University of Utah's Andrew Bogut) and coach (the University of Illinois'Bruce Weber) of the year. More than 500 people are in attendance at the Missouri Athletic Club, yet another example of how St. Louis is so eager to embrace Final Four activities. Weber and Keady sit together at the head table and it's obvious Keady is enjoying his longtime assistant's place in the Final Four spotlight. Weber, a genuinely nice man without ego, is humble and gracious in his remarks.
April 2, 11 p.m.: The national semifinal games in the Edward Jones Dome (a facility far superior to the RCA Dome) have fallen a bit short of the hype, and are not at the level of drama provided by the previous week's regionals. But the dream matchup for the championship is set: No. 1, Illinois, against No. 2, the University of North Carolina
April 3, 6 p.m.: Indy's downtown is bustling with the arrival of 28,000 fans for the women's national semifinals. Twenty years ago, who would have imagined?
9:15 p.m.: Interesting. At the Men's Final Four, it was a Big Ten lovefest. Michigan State University fans cheered for Illinois, and vice versa. At the Women's Final Four, fans from SEC representatives the University of Tennessee and Louisiana State University cheer against their conference cousins. In any case, it wasn't a factor in the upset losses to Michigan State and Baylor, respectively, both of whom staged gutsy comebacks from double-digit deficits.
April 4, 11 p.m.: As an Indiana University grad, I can only watch North Carolina's Sean May and wonder, "What if?" And wonder what the real story is since there appear to be two versions of the truth about May's recruitment (or lack thereof) by Coach Mike Davis. In any case, it was a magnificent championship game. Illinois showed its grit by coming back. North Carolina showed its resolve by winning.
April 5, 9:30 p.m.: As a Big Ten guy, I'm pulling for Michigan State, but Baylor takes control from the start and turns the women's game into a rout. It's a grand moment for Baylor, whose men's program was embroiled in scandal just a few years ago.
April 6, 8 a.m.: A couple of months ago, I lamented the poor shape I believed college basketball was in. My concerns may have been overstated. While there still are issues, the men's game has adapted to its changing environment and offered a captivating climax to its season. The women's game continues to grow. Now, I can't wait for November and, especially, next April, when the Men's Final Four returns to our town.
Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.