Commentary

Madness March: A trip like no other

Updated: March 13, 2011, 2:30 PM ET
By Tony Guadagnoli | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

2011 Tournament Travel GuideIllustration by Eliot Krohn. Photo by Bob Donnan/US Presswire

Quick clicks: Click on the list of cities below to get to the NCAA tournament host of choice.

First, second and third rounds: Dayton | Charlotte | Chicago | Cleveland | Denver | Tampa Tucson | Tulsa | Washington

Regionals and finals: Anaheim | Newark | New Orleans | San Antonio | Houston


• Photo gallery: Memories of the Madness Photo Gallery | Passport: Check in for all tourney games


While it might be known more for football, Houston is no stranger to big hoops games and college basketball champions. And, now, all roads lead to southeastern Texas and Space City prepares to host the pot of gold that is the culmination of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

It's been exactly 40 years since the Final Four last visited Houston. In 1971, UCLA defeated Villanova 68-62 at the Astrodome for its seventh title in eight years under legendary coach John Wooden. The title game drew a then-record 31,765.

Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama are just some of the legendary names in the city's rich hardwood history.

One of the most famous games in collegiate hoops history occurred in Houston on Jan. 20, 1968. Hayes and his Houston Cougars handed Lew Alcindor and UCLA a 71-69 loss, snapping a 47-game winning streak, before a record 52,693 fans at the Astrodome. The Big E had 39 points and 15 rebounds and the Cougars limited Alcindor to 15 points in the first nationally televised regular-season game.

The Cougars again became household names in the early 1980s, appearing in two national championship games on the strengths of Drexler and Olajuwon, both of whom would go on to become NBA Hall of Famers and bring home to Houston titles with the Rockets in the mid-1990s.

This year's Final Four (April 2 and 4) is at Reliant Stadium, which seats almost 77,000, and Houston is ready to embrace the Final Four with plans for extensive signage and graphics throughout the city. An NCAA tournament bracket will be projected on the side of the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Final Four logo will appear on everything from pamphlets to hotel key cards.

The same weekend as the Final Four, Houston will host the PGA Shell Houston Open, so expect a convergence of duffers and hoops fans clogging Houston's roads, restaurants and clubs.

We'll get you primed and ready for this year's march to madness with our Tournament Travel Guide to all 14 host cities and arenas on the road to Houston.


FIRST FOUR (FIRST ROUND) -- MARCH 15-16

DAYTON
• Arena: University of Dayton Arena
• Host: Dayton
• Address: 1801 Edwin Moses Blvd., Dayton, OH 45408
• Phone: 937-229-4433
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: The Oregon Arts District offers several establishments worth checking out, including Blind Bob's (430 E. Fifth Street; 937-938-6405); Gilly's Night Club (132 S. Jefferson St.; 937-228-8414); Oregon Express (336 E. Fifth St.; 937-223-9205); The Trolley Stop (530 E. Fifth St.; 937-461-1101); Sidebar (130 W. Second St.; 937- 938-8694) and Tumbleweed Connection (454 E. Fifth St.; 937-228-5500). Also try the Canal Street Tavern (308 E. First St., Dayton; 937-461-9343), which offers a relaxed listening room showcasing local and national bands.
• Sports bars: Ned Pepper's Bar & Grill (419 E. Fifth St.; 937- 224-4888) features billiards, darts and a dance floor interspersed with an old pinball machine and a dozen or so TVs. Frickers (1383 Miamisburg Centerville Road; 937-434-1000) is known for its wings. It is one of four Frickers in the Dayton area. Cadillac Jack's of Centerville (9400 Springboro Pike, Centerville; 937-610-3200) offers plenty of games, several drink specials and a wide selection of bar food and build-your-own pizza.
• Restaurants: Enjoy fine seafood at Jay's (225 E. Sixth St.; 937-222-2892), with dishes such as soft-shell crab, shrimp and pasta; all fresh fish is flown in daily. Visit its elegant bar. The Pine Club (1926 Brown St.; 937-228-7463) has old-school charm and steaks are the staples at this 60-year-old establishment. Note: Cash only, but you can open a house account. The Oakwood Club (2414 Far Hills Ave.; 937-293 6973) is another popular steakhouse, with filet mignon among the favorites.
• Cheap Eats: Milano's Atlantic City Submarines (1834 Brown St.; 937-222-7072) has been serving delicious sandwiches since 1969; starts making its bread from scratch at 1 a.m.
• Attractions: United States Air Force Museum; Boonshoft Museum of Discovery; Wright B Flyer at Dayton Wright Brothers Airport; Carillon Historical Park; Dayton Art Institute; and Riverscape Metro Park.


SECOND AND THIRD ROUNDS -- MARCH 17 and 19

DENVER
• Arena: Pepsi Center
• Host: Mountain West Conference
• Address: 1000 Chopper Circle, Denver, CO 80204
• Phone: 303-405-1100
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: The South of Colfax Nightlife District (1155 Sherman St.; 303 832-8628) features four different nightclubs for one admission price. Suite 200 (1400 Larimer St.) is a 7,000-square-foot dance club boasting innovative musical and sensory experiences. The Cowboy Lounge (1941 Market St.; 303 226-1570) is the only country western bar in lower downtown and also features rock and even hip-hop.
• Sports bars: LoDo's (1946 Market St.; 303 293-2290) is a 4,000-square-foot patio overlooking Coors Field in the heart of lower downtown. Tavern Downtown (1949 Market St.; 303 299-0100) features a beautiful bar, plasma television screens, a game room and a dance floor. Big Game (1631 Wazee St.; 303-623-1630) has a huge 6,000-square-foot bar, multimedia entertainment lounge featuring a 30-foot HDTV screen, a 3-D TV and more than 20 other HDTVs, and serves casual cuisine and Colorado microbrews.
• Restaurants: Marco's Coal Fired Pizza (2129 Larimer St.; 303-296-7000) features handmade pizza with artisan cheeses and meats from Italy, as well as house special "coal fired" chicken wings. Euclid Hall (1317 14th St.; 303-595-4255) is an American tavern focused on high-end pub food from around the world, including housemade sausages, po'boys, poutine and schnitzels. Euclid's also has a great beer selection. House specialties at The Lobby (2191 Arapahoe St.; 303-997-9911) include stuffed burgers, pork tenderloin and blue cheese balls. Steuben's (523 E. 17th Ave.; 303-830-1001) has inspired interpretations of classic American cuisine in an establishment heavy on chrome and comfy booths.
• Cheap Eats: Wazee Supper Club (1600 15th St.; 303-623-9518) offers pizza, strombolis and burgers and serves a late-night menu until 1 a.m.
• Attractions: Coors Brewery; Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Rockmount Ranch Wear; Coors Field; and Colorado State Capitol.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Denver


TAMPA
• Arena: St. Pete Times Forum
• Host: University of South Florida
• Address: 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa, FL 33602
• Phone: 813-301-2500
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: Channelside Bay Plaza (615 Channelside Drive) in downtown Tampa, adjacent to the St. Pete Times Forum, is one of Tampa Bay's premier entertainment complexes. Channelside Bay Plaza features a unique mix of retail, dining and entertainment. Restaurants, bars and clubs include Splitsville, Howl at the Moon, Stumps Supper Club, Wet Willie's and LIT Premium Cigar Lounge. A short, historic streetcar ride away is Ybor City, the nightlife capital of Florida's west coast, with music ranging from reggae to rock and hip-hop to salsa.
• Restaurants: Mise en Place (442 W. Kennedy Blvd.; 813-254-5373) -- Established in 1986, Mise has been at the cutting edge of cuisine in Tampa. The menu changes often and the wine list is impressive. Jackson's Bistro, Bar & Sushi (601 S. Harbour Island Blvd.; 813-277-0112) -- Offers prime-age steaks, seafood and sushi with views of the Tampa skyline. Cafe Dufrain (707 Harbour Post Drive; 813-275-9701) -- Find a twist to several popular foods right on the waterfront. The Columbia (2117 E. 7th Ave.; 813-229-5511) -- Family-owned for more than 100 years, the Tampa landmark presents Spanish/Cuban cuisine accompanied by flamenco dancers every night except Sunday. Pelagia Trattoria (4200 Jim Walter Blvd.; 813-313-3235) -- This Italian eatery offers a diverse menu ranging from grilled calamari to marinated duck to tender beef filets.
• Sports bars: Champion's Sports Bar (700 S. Florida Ave.; 813-221-4900) is a short walk from the St. Pete Times Forum and should be hopping during tournament time. Hattricks (107 S. Franklin St.; 813-225-4288) -- This downtown Irish tavern is minutes from the St. Pete Times Forum. Splitsville (615 Channelside Drive; 813-514-2695) is a staple at Channelside Bay Plaza, with billiards, bowling, food and flat-screen TVs. Green Iguana Bar & Grill (1708 E. Seventh Ave.; 813-248-9555) offers Florida- and Caribbean-style cuisine with a late-night menu; expect live entertainment nightly and no cover charge.
• Cheap Eats: Skipper's Smokehouse & Oyster Bar (910 Skipper Road; 813-971-0666) -- A casual Key West atmosphere, serving its own "Floribbean" menu; a popular spot for locals. La Tropicana Cafe (1822 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City; 813-247-4040) -- Located in Ybor City, LaTropicana Cafe has been serving Cuban sandwiches, homemade soup and many other Cuban foods since 1963.
• Attractions: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay; Lowry Park Zoo; Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI); The Florida Aquarium; Big Cat Rescue; and Dinosaur World.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Tampa


TUCSON
• Arena: McKale Center
• Host: Arizona
• Address: 1756 E. University Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85721
• Phone: 520-621-2287
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: Tucson's younger crowd usually congregates in the University of Arizona Main Gate, Fourth Avenue and downtown. In these trendy, hip areas, you'll find everything from neighborhood bars to artsy cafes, mixed with several music venues dedicated to showcasing leading local, regional and national touring bands. Places to go at Main Gate Square include No Anchovies Pizza (870 E. University; 520-623-3333); Frog & Firkin (874 E. University Blvd.; 520-623-7507); Gentle Ben's Brewing Co. (865 E. University Blvd.; 520-624-4177). On Fourth Avenue, halfway between Main Gate and downtown, try Bison Witches (326 N. Fourth Ave., 520-740-1541) and Nimbus Brewing Co. (3850 E. 44th St.; 520-745-9175). Downtown, visit Club Congress (311 E. Congress St.; 520-622-8848) for several drink specials and dancing, and Sapphire Lounge (61 E. Congress St.; 520-623-5400).
• Sports bars: World Sports Grille (2290 W. Ina Road; 520-229-0011), at the Foothills Mall, was developed by Sega Entertainment and features 25 HDTVs and more than 50 interactive games. Trident Grill (2033 E. Speedway Blvd.; 520-795-5755) is near the University of Arizona and features Mid-Atlantic-style food, with Maryland crab cakes one of the favorite items on the menu.
• Restaurants: Cafe Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington St.; 520-622-6400) stands out in a city that enjoys many outstanding Mexican restaurants. It provides a varied menu that takes basic ingredients like ground beef and mixes it with almonds, jalapenos and many other unexpected combinations. Reservations are a must. The Wildcat House (1801 N Stone Ave.; 520-622-1302) is a longtime U of A establishment that has many drink specials, long happy hours and Tejano dance music on Saturday nights. Miss Saigon (1072 Campbell Ave.; 520- 320-9511) has some of Tucson's best pho in a casual atmosphere and is near the University of Arizona.
• Cheap eats: In addition to Bison Witches noted above, try Beyond Bread (3026 N. Campbell Ave.; 520-322-9965), which is a busy sandwich shop that serves huge portions and also pastries and breakfast.
• Attractions: Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; Sabino Canyon; Tucson Botanical Gardens; Old Tucson Studios; and Pima Air & Space Museum.


WASHINGTON
• Arena: Verizon Center
• Host: Georgetown
• Address: 601 F St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004
• Phone: 202-628-3200
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: There are hundreds of restaurants, bars and nightclubs in D.C. Adams Morgan is D.C.'s liveliest neighborhood and has a diverse mix of restaurants, nightclubs, bars and specialty shops. Try Club Heaven, District Nightclub, Habana Village and Madams Organ. Georgetown is much more than a college hangout, with several notable residents and upscale shops; among its hot spots are Blues Alley, Chadwicks, Garretts, J Paul's, Martin's Tavern, Old Glory and The Third Edition.
• Sports bars: Penn Quarter Sports Tavern (639 Indiana Ave. N.W.; 202-347-7939) is located three blocks from the Verizon Center. Irish Channel Restaurant and Pub (500 H St. N.W.; 202-216-0046) is just one block from the Verizon Center and also serves spicy Cajun dishes.
• Restaurants: Clyde's of Gallery Place (707 Seventh St. N.W.; 202-349-3700) helped revitalize the Chinatown area. On two levels you will find five dining rooms and three bars, with everything from gourmet salad entrees to your basic tuna salad sandwich. Matchbox (713 H St. N.W.; 202-289-4441) was once the site of a small Chinese grocery and now boasts handcrafted pizza, burgers, late-night menus and an outdoor deck.
• Cheap eats: Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St. N.W.; 202-667-0909) has served everyone from street vendors to U.S. presidents. At Julia's Empanadas (1410 U St. N.W.; 202-387-4100), you'll find a variety of handmade and freshly baked empanadas for less than $5. Seating is limited.
• Attractions: Smithsonian; Capitol; White House; Library of Congress; and Arlington National Cemetery.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Washington


SECOND AND THIRD ROUNDS -- MARCH 18 and 20

CHARLOTTE
• Arena: Time Warner Cable Arena
• Host: UNC-Charlotte
• Address: 333 E. Trade St., Charlotte, NC 28202
• Phone: 704-688-9000
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: At the EpiCentre try a bull ride at Dale Earnhardt, enjoy drinks at Jr.'s bar and Whisky River, and roll the rock at the chic bowling lounge StrikeCity. The NC Music Factory features first-class music venues, bars and clubs in one convenient location. Halo and Butter NC, little sister of New York's famed nightclub of the same moniker, draw crowds with a cool vibe. Fifth Street is filled with a stretch of hopping bars. Try out old favorites like Connelly's or a new twist on an Irish pub at Dandelion Market. Other nearby neighborhoods include Plaza-Midwood and South End.
• Sports bars: Thomas Street Tavern (1228 Thomas Ave.; 704- 376-1622) will be busy on weekends. You can try cornhole or the pingpong tables and a live jukebox. BlackFinn American Saloon (210 E. Trade St., Suite B-120; 704- 971-4440) is a noisy, hopping bar. Mortimer's Cafe & Pub (201 E. Trade St., Suite 148-C; 704- 688-0366) is a quaint spot to go for lunch in the EpiCentre.
• Restaurants: King's Kitchen (129 W. Trade St.; 704-375-1990) is a cross between the traditional Southern "meat and three" and upscale elegance. It is an outreach of Restoration Word Ministries managed by Jim Noble Restaurants that donates 100 percent of profits from sales to feed the poor in Charlotte and around the world. Aria Tuscan Grill (100 N. Tryon St.; 704-376-8880), located downtown, features Italian items such as osso bucco, roasted bronzini and crispy suckling pig, along with classics like chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs. At Mac's Speed Shop (2511 South Blvd.; 704-522-6227) in the South End it's all about hot bikes (think Harleys), hot barbecue and cold beer. One of chef Mario Batali's favorites for pulled-pork goodness, Mac's is a favorite with everyone from bankers to bikers.
• Cheap eats: Mert's Heart and Soul (214 N. College St.; 704-342-4222) serves what is thought by many to be the best Southern cooking in Charlotte, with blackened pork chops, grits and fried catfish among the favorites. Price's Chicken Coop (1614 Camden Road; 704-333-9866) features delicious fried chicken, and you can get a large coffee for 75 cents.
• Attractions: NASCAR Hall of Fame; Discovery Place; Mint Museum Uptown; Bechtler Museum of Modern Art; and Mint Museums.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Charlotte


CHICAGO
• Arena: United Center
• Host: Big Ten Conference
• Address: 1901 W. Madison St., Chicago, IL 60612
• Phone:312-455-4500
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: Wicker Park/Bucktown features the Small Bar, Plan B, Fifty/50 and The Boundary. Try Sub 51 in the River North neighborhood. And visit Joe's on Weed Street.
• Sports bars: Market (1113 W. Randolph St.; 312-929-4787) features a big menu, outdoor beer garden, rooftop deck and sidewalk cafe. The bar has a free shuttle to the United Center. Among the offerings at the new 10,000-square-foot Public House (400 N. State St.; 312-265-1240) are more than 100 beers (25 on tap), 27 plasma TVs and the table tap -- a dozen tables with two types of beer and a liquor that can be customized. Theory (9 W. Hubbard St.; 312-644-0004) has theme nights every day of the week and offers something for every sports fan. Bull & Bear (431 N. Wells St.; 312-527-5973) also offers the personal table taps. You might find some Chicago sports stars here, as well.
• Restaurants: Hub 51 (51 W. Hubbard St.; 312- 828-0051) offers sushi rolls, tacos and enchiladas, "two handed" sandwiches, fresh fish, chicken, ribs and steaks; downstairs is Sub51, a nightclub and lounge. Rockit Bar & Grill (22 W. Hubbard St.; 312-645-6000), home of the famous Kobe beef Rockit Burger, will feature Mac Madness during the tournament, a daily new twist on its signature macaroni and cheese. Harry Caray's (33 W. Kinzie St.; 312-828-0966) is an Italian steakhouse named after the legendary Cubs announcer. The restaurant has been named "Best Steakhouse" by a Chicago Tribune dining poll. While Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizza, Piece (1927 W. North Ave.; 773-772-4422) specializes in thin-crust 'za and microbrews.
• Cheap eats: XOCO (449 N. Clark St.; 312-334-3688) is a chef Rick Bayless restaurant serving Mexican food. Grahamwich (615 N. State St.; 312-624-9188) is popular for sandwiches and subs with a Mexican twist. Hot Doug's (3324 N. California Ave.; 773-279-9550) in Logan Square bills itself as the "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium."
• Attractions: Wrigley Field (tours of the park are available); Millennium Park; Art Institute's Modern Wing; Shedd Aquarium; John Hancock Observatory; and The Ledge at Willis Tower.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Chicago


CLEVELAND
• Arena: Quicken Loans Arena
• Host: Cleveland State
• Address: One Center Court, Cleveland, OH 44115
• Phone: 800-332-2287
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: East Fourth Street (216-589-1111); Ohio City (2525 Market Ave.; 216-781-3222); and Warehouse District (614 Superior Ave.; 216-344-3937).
• Sports bars: Harry Buffalo (2120 E. 4th St.; 216-621-8887) is one block from Quicken Loans Arena. Also nearby is Flannery's (323 E. Prospect Ave.; 216-781-7782), an Irish pub that is a pregame favorite and features live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. Winking Lizard (811 E. Huron Road; 216-589-0313) is known for its almost ridiculous number of beers (nearing 300) and ribs and is another busy spot on weekends and game days.
• Restaurants: Great Lakes Brewing Co. (2516 Market Ave.; 216-771-4404) -- the first Ohio craft brewer of award-winning lagers and ales, it also serves traditional American fare. Cleveland ChopHouse & Brewery (824 W. Saint Clair Ave.; 216-623-0909) -- a relaxed-environment steakhouse complete with handcrafted beer brewed on site. Lola (2058 E. 4th St.; 216-621-5652) -- owned by celebrity chef Michael Symon, this upscale, nationally recognized American bistro has some Midwestern twists and turns on the menu. Johnny's Downtown (1406 W. 6th St.; 216-623-0055) -- this luxurious eatery, a refurbished 1860s Warehouse District building, features northern Italian dishes and desserts. Melt Bar + Grilled (14718 Detroit Ave., Lakewood; 216-226-3699) -- this restaurant receives national attention for its more than 20 takes on the original grilled cheese.
• Cheap eats: Panini's (840 E. Huron Road, 216-522-1510; and 1290 West Sixth St., 216-523-7070) is famous for overstuffed sandwiches and a great place to catch the game. The Clevelander (834 E. Huron Road; 216-771-3723) is another smart spot for pub grub and close to Jacobs Field.
• Attractions: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum; PlayhouseSquare (featuring STOMP); Pickwick & Frolic (featuring Adam Carolla); Pro Football Hall of Fame (in Canton); Western Reserve Historical Society; and Crawford Auto Aviation Museum.
More in the ESPN SportsTravel City Guide: Cleveland


TULSA
• Arena: BOK Center
• Host: University of Tulsa
• Address: 200 S. Denver St., Tulsa, OK 74103
• Phone: 918-894-4200
• Website | Seating chart | Buy tickets
• Nightlife areas: The Blue Dome District includes McNellies (409 E. First St.; 918-382-7468), a local favorite Irish pub and bar. The Max Retropub (114-C S. Elgin Ave.; 918-895-6200) is a 1980s-inspired bar and arcade. And Woody's Corner Bar (325 E. Second St.; 918-437-1222) is popular with college students. In the Brady Arts District, try The Hunt Club (224 N. Main St.; 918-599-9200), a casual bar with a large outdoor patio and live music. Cain's Ballroom (423 N. Main St.; 918-584-2306) offers live music and entertainment. And Sound Pony Lounge (409 N. Main St.; 918-582-PONY) is a biker-inspired bar. Another nightlife area is the Greenwood District, where the Tulsa Drillers' new baseball field, ONEOK Field, is located.
• Sports bars: White Owl (1325 E. 15th St.; 918-933-5050) is a gastropub big on appetizers and has several large, flat-screen TVs. Leon's (3301 S. Peoria Ave.; 918-933-5366) offers brick-oven pizza and several specials.
• Restaurants: Fat Guy's Burger Bar (140 N. Greenwood Ave.; 918-794-7782) is located next to ONEOK Field and features huge burgers in several varieties, including the peanut butter bacon burger. El Guapo's Cantina (332 E. First St.; 918-382-7482) is a regional Mexican restaurant in the Blue Dome District that has a rooftop cantina. Hey Mambo (114 N. Boston Ave.; 918-508-7000) serves Italian gourmet pizza and a large selection of wines. Ti Amo (219 S. Cheyenne Ave.; 918-592-5151) is a downtown restaurant that serves pricier Italian food.
• Cheap eats: You may try Dilly Deli (402 E. Second St.; 918-938-6382) for breakfast and lunch. Elote (514 S. Boston St.; 918-582-1403) is a Mexican restaurant that uses organic, local food and features live Luchador wrestling on some nights. Closed Sundays.
• Attractions: Gilcrease Museum; Philbrook Museum of Art; Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium; River Spirit Casino; Hard Rock Tulsa Hotel and Casino; Osage Million Dollar Elm Casino; and Golden Driller.

Tony Guadagnoli is a freelance writer in western Washington.

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