When complete strangers start chucking mini foam basketballs at you on your way down an airport escalator, you know Final Four fever has settled in. Houston was buzzing already, and we were still more than 24 hours away from the tipoff of the Butler/VCU game. Fans were moving through the George Bush Intercontinental Airport with their team affiliations proudly displayed on jerseys, t-shirts, hats, luggage and, of course, directly on their bodies with temporary tattoos and skin paint. Houston was ready to party. And so were we.
After getting settled at the Magnolia Hotel in downtown Houston, we met with our trusty Infiniti rep for the weekend, Ray Daniels, and headed to Cabo for a quick bite to eat and a couple of cervezas. Great way to start a great weekend. A few hours later, we found ourselves at the Sambuca Jazz Cafe for some dinner — the lobster enchiladas come very highly recommended — and stuck around after the meal for a few more drinks and some great live music. If you ever are in Houston looking for a place to spend an evening out, Sambuca should be on your short list.
Of course, Saturday was game day, and after grabbing a quick burger, we hopped onto the shuttle bus and headed over to Reliant Stadium (home of the NFL’s Houston Texans) to check out Infiniti’s Tip-Off Tailgate event, with all sorts of games, activities and, of course, food and drinks. We milled around the tailgate section for an hour or so, our celebrity radar already on high alert since we could safely assume that some big names would be in attendance to take in college basketball’s biggest weekend. Sure enough, just before we made our way to the gate, we saw former NFL defensive lineman Warren Sapp hanging with a group of people in a tucked away corner of the event, but we wisely resisted the temptation to snap a quick picture. We’ve made a point of not irritating 300-pound former NFL players, and it’s worked well for us so far so why deviate now?
Shortly thereafter, we had settled into our club seats, center court, ready to take in the action. The stadium, like the city, was electric, with fans from all four teams — Butler, VCU, Kentucky and UConn — ready to cheer their boys on to Monday’s title game. Up first was 8-seeded Butler vs. 11-seeded VCU, a meeting of Cinderellas that got the evening off to a great start. In fact, while Kentucky vs. UConn represented what many fans considered the primetime highlight of the evening, the Butler/VCU game was the more enjoyable matchup. Butler G Shelvin Mack and VCU F Jamie Skeen exchanged baskets for much of the evening, with Skeen topping Mack in points, 27-24, but VCU stumbled late and Mack’s Bulldogs ultimately wound up with the advantage on the scoreboard. And that, as we all know, is the only thing that matters.
Unfortunately, #3 seed UConn and #4 seed Kentucky couldn’t keep the momentum going, engaging in a sloppy game of ugly turnovers, poor shot selection and overall lackluster play. Despite being cheered on by the weakest student-body turnout of the night (seriously, where was Husky Nation last night??), the Huskies escaped with a 1-point win in the back-and-forth contest thanks, in large part, to some strong defense on freshman PG Brandon Knight, but we left the stadium wishing the Huskies and Wildcats had played first so we could have ended the evening on a high note with Butler vs. VCU. Of course, we won’t dare complain about what’s been a fantastic weekend so far. Fans here are anxious to see what should be a prime matchup Monday night between UConn and Butler with all the marbles on the line. Can UConn carry its defensive momentum into the title game or will Butler capitalize on their second-straight trip to the championship round? See you Monday night!