College Basketball Road Trip: Q&A session for the crew, from the crew

Here on night nine of our College Basketball Road Trip, we find ourselves at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Quarterfinals in St. Louis, Mo. The two games on tap are Indiana State vs Loyola (IL) and Northern Iowa vs Southern Illinois. Neither are exactly pulse-racing, so we decided to answer some questions about the trip and college basketball through a dialogue among all three members of our trip.  Here we go:

FOUL BALL

While these games aren’t thrilling, what do you think has been the best game of the trip and of college basketball in general this year?

Matt Jones: To me, the most exciting game was in Charlottesville when we saw UVA take out Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. The John Paul Jones Arena is one of the best in the country that no one ever talks about and has an atmosphere that is absolutely rocking for big games. UVA considered that their chance to show the country they were for real and it was one of the better performances I have seen from any team this year. Plus we got to see another side of Jim Boeheim that I hadn’t really seen before. It has ensured for all time that "YOU SAY NOTHING!" will be a phrase I connect with the coach forever. Boeheim was also a part of what I think were the two best games in college basketball as well this year, with the two Duke/Syracuse battles. The one in Syracuse was a classic and the best scoring basketball we have seen this year. And of course the one in Durham saw him lose it, but I doubt he’ll regret it that much.

C.M. Tomlin: I just joined the trip last night, and quite frankly today’s games were a little underwhelming. I mean, did anyone really think Evansville would have been the giant-killer to knock the Shockers off their perch? That would be the most depressing way to end a season-long streak EVER. Last night’s Cincinnati/Memphis game was a great atmosphere, with Mick Cronin saying goodbye to some solid guys on Senior Night, and Pastner’s Tigers made it intermittently exciting even if — let’s be honest — it was kinda clear the whole time that the Bearcats were in control. Plus, it’s always exciting to see Sean Kilpatrick play. As for Boeheim, I’ve always been a little terrified of him. Sure, he looks like a kindly grandfather, but I think you’ll agree that he wasn’t exactly handing out Wurthers after that game, Matt. This entire season, with the Durham freakout and some misdirected anger at a security guard has made me think he’s headed down a dark path. Once, on my honeymoon, I was on a day sail with a man who looked just like Jim Boeheim. He was a lot nicer than what I think the real Boeheim is like. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t want to take a day sail with him, I guess?

Drew Franklin: You wouldn’t want to take a sail with Jim Boeheim? Are you crazy? He would be an awesome shipmate, especially aboard an all-inclusive booze cruise where his outbursts and temper tantrums would stay between us and the open water. We could talk zone defense and Eric Devendorf tattoos over mai tais and bottomless popcorn shrimp while playing BINGO on the lido deck. I’m ready to set sail with Jimbo right now!

As for the basketball, I’ve enjoyed every stop on the tour that wasn’t at Villanova. But if you’re making me pick one, I’m going with Iona at Manhattan because it was a unique atmosphere in a unique gymnasium, plus it went to overtime. Both teams are worthy of an NCAA tournament bid in my opinion — although only one will advance from that conference — and it’s a great New York basketball rivalry. The players know each other; the fans despise each other; and each side laid it all on the line the night we were there.

And my college basketball game of the year? The Duke-Syracuse rivalry was great in 2014, Matt, but I really enjoyed watching Creighton light it up against Villanova. It didn’t have the tension of a tight game, but the Bluejays were ON FIRE.

Since Drew brought up Doug McDermott, who are your favorite players in college basketball going into March Madness?

Matt Jones:  I love McDermott, in large part because he defies all the stereotypes we have of basketball players. Everyone sees the slow white guy wearing a T-shirt under his jersey and thinks he is just a shooter. But he is so much more than that as a player … he reads angles as well as anyone in the country, can score with even a little bit of space and is great on the post. He is everything you want in a player, and I think he is going to be very good in the NBA … much better than most people think.

Even though he plays for my most hated rival, probably the most fun player to watch in America for me is Russ Smith. When he is good, there is no one better at scoring and he plays with a tenacity that is exhilarating to watch. But when he is bad Russ, he can shoot Louisville out of almost any game. If he is way hot or way cold, there is no one I would rather watch play…I just wish he would graduate so he can stop helping the Cards win so often.

Drew Franklin: Matt, you mentioned McDermott being great on the post, which reminds me of myself because I am great on this FOXSports.com post. And I would probably wear a t-shirt under my jersey if I played basketball because I have the muscle definition of a middle school trombone player. Therefore I will agree with you on McDermott, but for the sake of variety in this debate, I’ll throw out Marshall Henderson as my favorite player going into March Madness. He’s the perfect college basketball villain with hand that’s always hot. There isn’t a spot on the floor he’s uncomfortable shooting from and you won’t find a fan in the building he won’t pop his jersey toward. Give me Henderson on the road and I’ll sit back with a big bowl of popcorn, ready for the fireworks.

C.M. Tomlin: Matt, I hate to say it but you’re right — I’ll as well be happy when Russ Smith is gone, if for no other reason than we can finally, exhaustedly take the term "Russ-diculous" out of the college basketball lexicon. That can’t come too soon. For me — and I know the Wildcats have been embattled this season, and that every sportswriter in the country right now is absolutely loving it, yes, yes, I know, I GET IT — I’m going to stick with the sheer athleticism of Julius Randle. Guy’s a beast, seriously; A pure athlete. It’s sort of disappointing that the Cats have had so much trouble clicking.

With what you guys have seen on this trip and your travels in the past, what are the best arenas to visit for the average fan?

Matt Jones:  I am glad you asked. To me the top five arenas are easy…#1 is Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. It is the perfect size, the students go nuts during games and are placed in great proximity to the court. Plus when the crowd does the "Rock, Chalk Jayhawk" chant, you feel like the place is haunted. Then I would go with #2 as Cameron Indoor — I do think it is slightly overrated but I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t blown away the first time they are in the building. The students used to be better and more outrageous back in the day, but I also can be an old fogey and believe that country music the day Kenny Chesney started hanging out on a beach. After that, for big games Rupp Arena is #3 — the sheer size of the place and passion of the UK fans makes it nuts, but the problem is it is too quiet for too many games. Others worth visiting include Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Indiana and I will throw in a plug for Butler just for the history of the place. The worst arena in the entire universe is Depaul and there isn’t even an argument. We went there for a game once and I felt like I was hanging in a Howard Johnson hotel bar in 1974.

C.M. Tomlin: Ugh. Depaul’s home arena is straight out of a History Channel program about engineering disasters. I have a bit of a fondness for the Breslin Center at Michigan State; it’s easy to see why no one can drag Tom Izzo out of East Lansing. He’s a god among men there, the students adore him, the entire bottom level is full of students amped up to eleven and wearing matching T-shirts, the pep band’s phenomenal (it’s one of those rare programs where the band is a part of the proceedings). I wouldn’t want to leave there, either. I’m going to toss out an obscure choice here for myself: University of Northern Iowa’s McLeod Center in Cedar Falls. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the venue, other than — like the rest of Cedar Falls — it’s out in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, but when we visited, there was practically a blizzard going on, inches of snow dumping onto the ground like crazy, and it was STILL packed to the rafters. This is UNI, mind you, not Syracuse. Not Michigan. Because the clear affection of the university’s community for the team, the atmosphere seemed to be on a wholly different level. It was as much a gathering of people who liked each other a lot as it was a regulation college basketball game. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small town which rallied around its own sports teams, but I really liked that and it’s always stuck with me. Don’t get me wrong, though; I’m not moving to Cedar Falls Iowa anytime soon. Drew?

Drew Franklin: I can’t believe you so-called college basketball gurus left out one of the wildest atmospheres in America. How can you talk about the BEST venues without mentioning Indiana’s Assembly Hall? It’s a shame, really. Indiana is the only program that will storm the court after beating a team it was favored over. Indiana is the only program that will cut down the nets after a loss. (That happened.) At Indiana, regular season wins live on forever and ever on popcorn boxes, video montages, and murals in the restrooms. Indiana prints T-shirts and hangs banners for Sweet 16s! They made Sweet 16 commemorative rings! The Hoosiers love their basketball!

And if that’s not enough to sell you on Indiana and Assembly Hall, name one other arena in the country that loves celebrating so much, the steel beams in the roof separate from the structure to rush the court. Exactly.

Fans wonder all the time about what is going on behind the scenes in these games. With the press access and sitting on the court, what have you learned during your travels?

Matt Jones:  That is actually a really good point and I am glad you made it. The game is completely different than what the average fan sees, so much so that it’s almost like a different sport. The adjustments made by the coaches, the game plans executed, etc. are so much more than the average fan (or media) realizes. But probably what fans would enjoy the most is seeing the coaches behind the camera. Most of these guys are friendly, funny and if you catch them in the right moment, great to be around. A few years ago, I went to Michigan State at Purdue and after the Spartans won, Tom Izzo found out I was from Kentucky and invited me into the guest locker room just to talk about horses and my love life (he considers himself a mini-Dr. Phil). Every time I see him now, he brings both topics up and it is amazing how much he is able to remember from that first random conversation. Just on this trip, I saw Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall in a completely different light, watching him joke with the media and his players and essentially being the exact opposite of the stereotype I had of him.

MORE ON JOHNNY MANZIEL

One more thing … up close, it is clear that the officiating is even worse than it looks on television.

Drew Franklin: Cool story bro. I’ve never been invited back to a locker room with a coach and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable doing it if asked, unless it was Bob Huggins and he was holding a case of Bud heavy. Can we make that happen? That is something I’d really be interested in.

But what have I learned behind the scenes? I’d say the most interesting thing I’ve learned is how much the media loves to eat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for free food, but I’ve encountered several media members across the country that treat the provided meal at games like a Friday night at Golden Corral. No, sir, we do not have a chocolate fondue fountain tonight.

I joke from time to time about taking to-go boxes home with me, but I’m certain there are people out there who have legitimately tried to do it. I’m telling you, folks: the working (and I use that term lightly) press loves a free dinner before their free basketball game. That being said, these cookies at the Scottrade Center are to die for.

C.M. Tomlin: You’re getting crumbs all over my keyboard, Drew. My spacebar is sticking. Thanks a lot. During my time on Press Row I’ve learned a few things:

1.) Media members come in two varieties: talking your ear off or skulking in a corner crouched over a laptop.

2.) Media members receive enough paper in the course of one game — press packets, halftime stats, end-of-game box scores, player bios, media guides, paper with wi-fi passwords — to wallpaper a child’s room. Not that you’d want to wallpaper a child’s room with the recap and every statistic of a Loyola-Bradley game played on January 14.

3.) If you sit too long without writing anything and just watch the game for a bit, people start thinking you’re an NBA scout and not a reporter.

4.) Everyone is constantly peeking to see who everyone else writes for.

But here’s the truth, folks: there’s nothing better than seeing the minute details of a basketball game from only feet away. Nothing. You think you respect the game and its athletes now? Wait until you see how hard these guys play up close. It becomes very clear how much these players leave out on the court each game, and it will make you think twice about criticizing a college player. These kids, their efforts, their communication — every 30 seconds a new story is born on the court.

All great insight guys. Well everyone now wants to know…seeing what you have seen, who are your Final Four teams and who is going to win it all?

Matt Jones: You just had to ask that didn’t you?  I reserve the right to change but for right now, I am going to go with Florida, Kansas, Wichita State and Michigan. At this point those four teams seem to me to be playing the best and on the biggest roll. I would give a couple of sleepers from outside the top teams of Iowa and Creighton, both of which can ride great scorers to a surprise run to the Final Four. As of right now, I don’t think any team really looks like a title winner, but someone has to cut down the nets so I will pick Kansas. They have more guys who can score and they are good enough defensively to make the key plays down the stretch. The only team I know has no chance…Syracuse. They lose in Round Two.

CM Tomlin: If I were to go on who I’ve seen on this road trip (which has only been the back half), I don’t think I’d choose Southern Illinois or Missouri State. I just don’t think it’s their year. I’m going to go with Wichita State — they seem to be the real deal, even though it means another few weeks of seeing that hideous wheat-beast mascot. I also think Michigan State, as per usual, can pull together a run, and possibly Duke, who often seems to be sprinkled with fairy dust in postseasons. Florida, I agree, is super-strong and I don’t think I’d want to play them right now. I think they’re the toughest team in America. Of course, this could all change tomorrow, should Indiana State knock out the Shockers and write themselves a ticket to the Dance. Hey, it could happen. (It could NOT happen).

Drew Franklin: Never mind the Final Four teams right now. There is a growing problem in America this time of year and it needs to stop. It needs to stop immediately and 99 percent of you are guilty. I’m talking about you, Mr. Brag-About-Your-Bracket Guy. You’re quick to tell me you picked that 12 seed over the 5, but you failed to mention that you filled out 12 brackets. Sure, you got it right in one of them, and you missed it in the other 11. Don’t tell me about how you picked five of the tournament’s biggest upsets on the first weekend unless you have all of them on the same sheet of paper. You want to tell me you "called that one"? Show your cards. Show me what you got. Let me look at the entire bracket and we’ll see just how well you’re doing outside of that Saint Joseph’s over Iowa upset.

That being said, if I were submitting my entries into the office pool today, my Final Four would be: Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, Duke, Wichita State, Villanova, Arizona, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan State and Michigan. And when I’m right, I’m going to tweet you saying, "I called that."