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Recapping O'Neil's Marathon road trip

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As I walked into the lobby of the Marriott in downtown Louisville on Wednesday night, Butler guard Ronald Nored looked at me and smiled.

“Hey,’’ he said. “Weren’t you just in Carbondale?’’

Good question.

When you cross six state lines in 12 hours -- one more rainy than the next -- it’s kind of hard to remember where you’ve been.

Or where you are. Or what you’re doing.

My mini-marathon of hoops wrapped into ESPN’s gargantuan Tip-Off Marathon was equal parts draining and entertaining.

First the numbers: 446 miles, 23 hours, six states, three games, two tanks of gas, one overtime, a few herd of roadside cows, a collections of hunters enjoying grits at a truck stop and enough rain to refloat Noah’s Ark.

And for the record, it was all my idea (poor Nick Dawson, our director of programming, merely got dragged into it, Thelma to my Louise). And for the record, yes, I’d do it again.

After covering the late-night Miami-Memphis game, we started out at 5 a.m. CT, rolling through the dark from Memphis to Carbondale.

And we finished at 11 p.m. ET, stepping into the dark night of Louisville. (Somewhere along the way our phones magically changed time zones and we truly lost an hour of our lives.)

I learned a little geography along the way -- who knew Arkansas was so close to Memphis? (Yes, I’m that clueless about geography). And I learned that there are places to get a tank of gas and a full buffet breakfast with your hunting buddies at 6 a.m., not to mention a good-natured ribbing from the regulars when an out-of-town girl rolls in and grabs a Big Gulp cup for a coffee.

I also learned what I already knew: College basketball in November is every bit as glorious as college basketball in March.

OK, it’s not as pretty just yet. Fifty-two fouls is about 30 too many and anytime someone wants to host a national clinic on free throw shooting, I’ll sponsor.

There are kinks everywhere in these early days. One Memphis dancer even fell down -- a total splat! in the middle of a routine.

So, yes, it’s a little rough out there in the early days. But there can be beauty in ugly, particularly when it’s sandwiched with Bill Raftery in the beginning and Dick Vitale and the incomparable Dan Shulman in the end.

To me, the first day of the NCAA tournament is my sports Christmas, a day where I can watch four games in an arena and more games on television, a virtual morning-to-night slice of heaven.

This was that with some highway rolled in.

I saw packed arenas in Memphis and Carbondale and a packed Taj Mahal in Louisville.

I saw a breakout star (Joe Jackson at Memphis), a crazy loss (a phantom technical to end the Northeastern-SIU game) and a stunning blowout (Louisville’s de-pantsing of Butler).

I saw older fans who shunned their bedtimes, donned their blue and headed to their seats in FedEx Forum.

And I saw young fans who probably ignored their classes, painted their chests and took their seats in SIU Arena.

No, there wasn’t nearly as much riding on these games as the ones played in March. But try telling that to the people who cheered and the players who played.

There is months of basketball yet to be played, but the urgency and intensity was every bit as strong now as it will be then.

And for a Hoops Head like me, it was heaven.

A demented, twisted, exhausting heaven -- but heaven all the same.