If you've ever wondered what the college basketball equivalent of backpacking through Europe might look like, you've come to the right place. Just like that friend we all have who spent one summer overseas and has somehow managed to mention it in every single conversation since arriving back in North America, you'll be talking about this trip for the next 20 years of your life.
So find yourself a fuel-efficient car and a few credit cards you don't mind maxing out, because if you follow this guide to the ultimate road trip, you'll be traveling more than 7,000 miles, watching a ton of high-profile college basketball games and visiting some of the greatest tourist attractions the United States has to offer—all before the calendar flips to 2014.
Bonus points if you can make it through the entire trip without any speeding or parking tickets.
Enjoy the ride!
UNC-Asheville @ No. 1 Kentucky (November 8 at 7 p.m. in Lexington, KY)
The number of marquee matchups on opening day of the college basketball season is precisely bupkis, so you're going to want to start your journey at Rupp Arena, where the preseason favorites to win the national championship will be hosting the Bulldogs of UNC-Asheville.
Nearly one-fourth of the games on this road trip involve the University of Kentucky, but it only makes sense since the Wildcats have roughly one-fourth of the projected first round picks in the 2014 NBA draft on their roster.
Will we have a repeat of Kentucky's national championship in 2012, or a repeat of a Kentucky-less NCAA tournament from last year? How long will it take these young players to mold into one cohesive unit with adequate scoring opportunities for each of the stars?
Those are serious questions, because I have no idea. But if you take this road trip, you'll get to witness the first leg of this team's journey firsthand.
While you're there:
Visit the Bourbon Trail (with a designated driver) and at least stop in to see the nearby Keeneland, even though there probably won't be any horse races in November. On your way to Chi-Town, schedule a pit stop in Indianapolis to visit the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse where Hoosiers was filmed and where Butler still plays its home games.
Champions Classic: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kentucky and No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke (November 12 at 7:30 p.m in Chicago, IL)
After you've finished your sightseeing, pioneer a trail for Kentucky to travel to Chicago for what might be the most anticipated night of college basketball history.
Don't believe me? Perhaps you'd rather hear it from ESPN's Dan Shulman?
Or from CBS's Gary Parrish?
I mean, there's even a twitter handle dedicated solely to the Champions Classic which has more than 2,000 followers and roughly 2,000 tweets, including this one about ticket prices for the main event.
(Good luck getting those prices on the open market.)
Face it, if you had a choice between attending the Champions Classic and attending all three games at the Final Four, you'd be crazy not to take the Champions Classic tickets.
In the first game, it's No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the preseason coaches poll as the freshmen-heavy Kentucky Wildcats take on a Michigan State team returning six of its seven leading scorers from last season.
In the other game, it's possible No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the 2014 NBA draft class as Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker go toe-to-toe less than one week into their collegiate careers.
While we're talking draft, here are the top 14 draft prospects according to ESPN's Chad Ford:
|Top 14 Prospects for 2014 NBA Draft|
|5||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State|
|10||Glenn Robinson III||Michigan|
|14||Gary Harris||Michigan State|
Perhaps it would have made more sense to highlight the players not in the Champions Classic, because eight of the 12 projected lottery picks from the NCAA are involved.
It's going to be an incredible night.
While you're there:
If and when you're finished having your mind blown by some of the greatest players in the nation, Cloud Gate—aka "The Bean"—is the Mecca for instagrammers obsessed with selfies. Taking an elevator ride to the top of the Willis Tower is also a bucket list type of occasion.
Make sure you get some deep dish pizza, too.
No. 11 Ohio State @ No. 17 Marquette (November 16 at 7 p.m. in Milwaukee, WI)
After seeing four of the six best teams in the country, you're inevitably going to experience a drop-off in game intrigue. But the downward slope to Ohio State vs. Marquette is hardly a precipitous one. Plus, the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee is less than 100 miles. You'll want to cherish those short distances while you still can.
I have no personal rooting interest for or against the Buckeyes, but they're at the top of my list of teams to watch. They finished second in the best conference in the nation last season and nearly made it to the Final Four. Six of their seven primary players from last season are returning, but the one missing piece is one of the biggest in the entire country.
|Most Field Goal Attempts During 2012-13 Season|
|Player||School||Field Goal Attempts|
|Kyle Vinales||Central Connecticut State||557|
|Anthony Ireland||Loyola Marymount||552|
|Erick Green||Virginia Tech||550|
|Greg Gantt||Florida Atlantic||550|
|Deshaun Thomas||Ohio State||524|
Deshaun Thomas was responsible for 29.1 percent of Ohio State's field goal attempts in 2012-13, and the sixth-most field goal attempts in the entire country.
Will his absence open the door for multiple scoring threats to emerge, or will Ohio State simply pass the ball around for 35 seconds and accept shot clock violations at a record-setting pace?
At the other end of the court, Marquette might finally be given the chance to be the team to beat in the new Big East. This early season home game against a ranked opponent will be quite the litmus test in determining whether or not the Golden Eagles are up to the task.
While you're there:
Try to go easy on the local cuisine, or your stomach might not survive the next six weeks of driving. Instead, walk the Pike Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail for one of the more scenic views of the area. If you insist on indoor activities, the Harley-Davidson Museum is a must.
Don't linger too long in Milwaukee, though, as the next game starts in less than 72 hours, and you need to allot enough time to visit the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on the way to the middle of Oklahoma.
No. 13 Memphis @ No. 8 Oklahoma State (November 19 at 8 p.m. in Stillwater, OK)
When Marcus Smart chose to forego the NBA for another year in college, he instantly became one of the favorites for the 2014 Naismith Player of the Year Award. His decision also put Oklahoma State in a position to be the first non-Kansas team to win the outright Big 12 regular season championship since...Oklahoma State accomplished the feat in 2003-04.
Most sports books are listing Kansas as five times as likely to win the national championship as Oklahoma State. Save for Doug Gottlieb—who really shouldn't be allowed to vote on such a matter since he went to Oklahoma State—all of CBS Sports' experts are picking Kansas to win the Big 12.
Long story short, the conference is hardly being handed to the Cowboys on a silver platter, but a big non-conference win over Memphis might help move the needle in their favor.
Alternatively, this could be the game that puts Memphis back on the national radar.
Led by Joe Jackson and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr., the Tigers have plenty of talented upperclassmen to set the stage for five-star recruit Austin Nichols and a quartet of four-star recruits to shine.
Popular opinion states that Louisville should win the newly formed American Athletic Conference, but don't sleep on Memphis.
I'm not saying that the winner of this game is somehow a shoo-in to win its conference four months later, but it should serve as a vote of confidence for whichever team wins and suddenly finds itself ranked among the top seven or eight teams in the nation.
While you're there:
It's probably not the kind of wrestling you watched as a kid, but the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum is worth a visit nonetheless. Stillwater is also allegedly a former home of country music star, Garth Brooks—if you're into that sort of thing.
Harvard @ Colorado (November 24 at 4:30 p.m. in Boulder, CO)
Marquee "preseason" tournaments being hosted nowhere near Oklahoma figured to put a slight damper on this portion of the trip, but Harvard vs. Colorado is hardly a game to overlook.
If you'll recall, Harvard used its slow, deliberate pace to frustrate and ultimately upset New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers are back for another season chock full of Crimson upsets.
Colorado finished just on the outskirts of the preseason polls, but I suspect they'll be ranked before long. Their leading scorer, Spencer Dinwiddie, is a legitimate candidate to make an All-American team—and a mortal lock to headline any article about the best mustaches in college basketball.
While you're there:
We've allotted ample travel days on each side of this game, because this is arguably the pinnacle of the sight-seeing side of the adventure.
This is why you've had those skis—both of them—strapped to the roof of your car for the past 2,000 miles. People come to Colorado from all over the country to hit the Rocky Mountain slopes.
Even if you aren't coordinated enough to glide down the side of a mountain, you'll want to at least get outside and enjoy the scenery, whether it be at the Flatirons or the Eldorado Canyon State Park.
Las Vegas Invitational (November 28-29 in Las Vegas, NV)
Aside from playing the ponies, how often do you get a chance to legally wager on a sporting event in the same building in which the game is being played? There are more intriguing "preseason tournaments" to watch—many of which are being played outside the Continental U.S.—but who doesn't want to spend a few days in Vegas?
On the 28th, it's UCLA vs. Nevada and Missouri vs. Northwestern. On the following night, it'll be UCLA vs. Northwestern and Missouri vs. Nevada.
You're encouraged to watch all four games, but if you can only peel yourself away from the blackjack tables for one of them, make it UCLA vs. Northwestern for a showdown between one of the most successful teams in NCAA tournament history and a team that has never been invited to compete in the March Madness.
While you're there:
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Assuming you don't gamble away your vehicle, take the scenic route to Tuscon by visiting the Grand Canyon.
Texas Tech @ No. 6 Arizona (December 3 at 9 p.m. in Tucson, AZ)
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, you've heard of Andrew Wiggins. Chances are high that you've also heard tale of Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.
But it's possible that Arizona's Aaron Gordon could be the best freshman in this year's class. If you watch his mixtape, there's no questioning whether he has the athletic ability to excel at the collegiate level.
What position is he going to play, though?
Sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski figure to start at the power forward and center position, respectively, leaving the 6'9" freshman phenom as the most physically gifted small forward in the country. While most teams have gone the way of the three-pointer, Arizona could win it all this year by simply dominating opponents in the paint on a nightly basis.
While you're there:
Take a break from from massive mountains and canyons with something a wee bit smaller at the Tucson Museum of Miniatures. And spend a few hours at the Pima Air & Space Museum daydreaming about how much less exhausting this trip would be if you had a private jet.
Cincinnati @ No. 23 New Mexico (December 7 at 4:05 p.m. in Albuquerque, NM)
There might not be a better college basketball venue in the country than The Pit in New Mexico.
When at full capacity of more than 15,000—which it usually is—it can be louder than a jet engine taking off. Longtime college basketball writer and commentator, John Feinstein, once said "When the players walk on to the court in The Pit, it's like watching Roman gladiators emerging into a wall of sound."
Purchase some ear protection and buckle in for a rematch of one of last year's most exciting early season pairings.
Perhaps more interesting than the game itself will be seeing how well New Mexico does under its new head coach.
Weeks after signing a 10-year extension with the team he nearly led to a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA tournament, Steve Alford jilted the Lobos to become the head coach at UCLA. Craig Neal was the associate head coach with Alford for the past six seasons, but this will be his first time flying solo as the leader of a team.
Can he lead New Mexico back to the tournament for a third straight year, or will Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and company slip into the lower half of the Mountain West standings?
While you're there:
Let someone else do the "driving" for once by taking the Sandia Peak Tramway for one of the most breathtaking views imaginable.
Make sure you get a good night's sleep, though, because this next leg of the trip is a real doozy.
No. 5 Kansas @ No. 10 Florida (December 10 at 7 p.m. in Gainesville, FL)
You have roughly 72 hours to travel the more than 1,600 miles from New Mexico to Florida, but it's worth the drive. Aside from a few possible pairings in neutral-site tournaments, there are only 10 non-conference games between teams ranked in the top 13.
What's the point in this trip if you aren't going to see as many of those games as possible?
As much as everyone has hyped the Champions Classic, there's at least reason to believe that Andrew Wiggins won't have reached his full collegiate potential in just the second game of his career. With a full month of games now under his belt, here's your chance to witness him in all his glory.
And, oh by the way, Florida should be one of the best teams in the nation.
The Gators may have lost their three top scorers from last season, but they'll be led by four returning seniors who averaged at least 17 minutes per game in 2012-13 and a trio of transfers who were impact players for their former teams—most notably Eli Carter, who averaged 14.9 points per game last year at Rutgers.
While you're there:
No. 1 Kentucky @ No. 12 North Carolina (December 14 at 5:15 p.m. in Chapel Hill, NC)
You didn't really think we could call this an ultimate road trip without at least one game in either Durham or Chapel Hill, did you?
In terms of winning percentage, these are the two most successful schools in college basketball history. This will be their 14th meeting since 2000. At least one of them was ranked in the top 12 for each of those meetings, and if the current rankings hold for more than a month they will both fit the bill this season.
The Tar Heels will be looking to bounce back from last year's disappointing campaign. By the end of this game, we'll certainly have a pretty good feel for whether or not they're up to the task.
If the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament plays out the way we all expect it will, North Carolina will be playing Louisville on November 24. Coupled with this home game against Kentucky and a road game against Michigan State as part of the ACC—Big Ten challenge, the Tar Heels will likely be competing against the three best teams in the country before they've finished taking their fall semester finals.
Throw in all the questions surrounding P.J. Hairston after his eventful summer, and this should be the final piece of a five-week long whirlwind ride for North Carolina.
Compared to all that, 18 games against a revamped ACC should seem like a walk in the park.
While you're there:
Take a 10-mile trip up Fordham Blvd to see the other iconic stadium in North Carolina. You won't have time to stick around for Duke's next home game against Gardner-Webb, but perhaps you can give a security guard a couple bucks and a story about your adventure to date in exchange for a brief tour of the building the Cameron Crazies call home.
No. 13 Memphis vs. No. 10 Florida (December 17 at 9 p.m. in New York City, NY)
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 22 UCLA (December 19 at 7:30 p.m. in New York City, NY)
You've already seen all four of these teams elsewhere in your journey, but these are arguably the two highest-profile games between December 14-21—and they just so happen to be playing in the same venue on different nights.
Love them or hate them, you've already been subjected to talk about Duke and Jabari Parker at some point in the past month. And we've already touched on Memphis and Florida as possible usurpers of the thrones held by Louisville and Kentucky.
But what about UCLA?
Whether it's questions about how UCLA-transfer Joshua Smith will conduct himself at Georgetown, wondering if New Mexico can succeed without Steve Alford or asking if Arizona is bringing the Pac-12 back to national relevance, UCLA sure did figure prominently in a lot of offseason story lines.
However, for some strange reason, it seems that very few people are talking about how good the Bruins could be this season.
They lost Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew II from last year's team—as well as head coach Ben Howland—but they're returning a lot of key pieces from a team that earned a No. 6 seed in last year's tournament.
The Wear brothers are back for another year in the paint while Isaac Hamilton—the fifth-highest rated shooting guard in this year's recruiting class—and Jordan Adams will cause opponents headaches along the perimeter.
If Kyle Anderson can tap into his full potential as a point-forward, UCLA could be a much improved version of the Iowa State team that Royce White led to the NCAA tournament two years ago.
While you're there:
Whether you like modern art, concerts, musicals or all of the above, you'll have your pick of the cultural litter during your (at least) five-night stay in NYC.
Mid-December might be a bit too cold for the Statue of Liberty tour, but go to Central Park, see the Empire State Building and visit Ground Zero. If you enjoy people watching, feel free to just hang out in Times Square, Grand Central Station or Coney Island and enjoy the unintentional comedy.
No. 7 Michigan vs. Stanford (December 21 at 8 p.m. in Brooklyn, NY)
As (poor) luck would have it, Michigan is playing at Duke while you're in Arizona and playing at home against Arizona when you're in Duke's neck of the woods. Aside from those slobberknockers, this neutral-court game against Stanford should be Michigan's biggest non-conference test.
Sans Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., it seems it'll be up to preseason All-American Mitch McGary to shoulder the load for the Wolverines. Here's hoping his ailing back can handle the weight of the world.
McGary was a nonentity until the NCAA tournament last season. In Michigan's final game of the regular season against Indiana, he played just eight minutes and picked up as many fouls (four) as had he points and rebounds combined. If he looked less exhausted than most in late-March and early-April, it's because he was.
This year, it will be very interesting to see how well he holds up over the course of the season while averaging upwards of 30 minutes per game.
Of course, it takes more than just a one-man show to be ranked seventh in the nation. He'll have help in the form of returning Wolverines Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht. Top recruits Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. will also figure prominently for one of the youngest teams in the country.
While you're there:
You've already been in the greater New York area for a few days and don't need to be in Lexington for another seven days. If you want a break from basketball but still insist on doing something related to sports, the Jets are hosting the Browns in a Week 16 matchup that could incredibly have playoff implications for both teams.
No. 3 Louisville @ No. 1 Kentucky (December 28 at 4 p.m. in Lexington, KY)
And thus it all comes full circle. The journey ends back where it began, but this time you're in Lexington for a slightly more anticipated game.
Over the last few years, Kentucky vs. Louisville has become the pinnacle of the non-conference portion of the season. While Michigan and Michigan State wind down their calendar years with Holy Cross and New Orleans, these in-state rivals give us one last hurrah before the conference showdowns begin.
This is your fourth time seeing Kentucky in the past two months, so you'll probably be most interested in your first in-person viewing of the defending national champions.
You might be surprised to hear that Kevin Ware has recovered from that gruesome broken leg in last year's NCAA tournament and could be ready to play in the season opener. As it turns out, a compound fracture of one of the longest bones in your body is apparently easier to recover from than a slight tear in a knee ligament.
Whether or not he suits up on November 9 against Charleston, the feel-nauseous-turned-feel-good story of last year's tournament should be in action for this big game.
One key piece from last year's roster who won't be back on the court is Peyton Siva. The heart and soul of the 2012-13 Louisville team has graduated, but with freshman Terry Rozier and junior college transfer Chris Jones sharing the load at point guard, it's possible that the Cardinals could be in even better hands this year.
Details around if and when they'll have Chane Behanan back in the mix remain cloudy at best, but Louisville—led by returning stars Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell—remains a very strong contender to win it all for a second straight year.
And as if this annual rivalry isn't interesting enough, perhaps you'll enjoy these tournament implications: the winner of this game has lasted longer in the NCAA tournament than the loser in each of the past eight seasons.
It's probably just a coincidence, but it's a fun arbitrary thing to keep in mind when filling out your bracket in a few months.