A few weeks ago, I received a call from college basketball's version of the Dear Leader at ESPN.com (my editor, Edge). I can't remember the exact conversation, but it went something like this:
Edge: "Hey, so, curious, but do you have any plans for New Year's yet?"
Me: "I do not, at least not yet. My friends are freaking out about it via email right now, actually. It's always a big hassle. Why?"
Edge: "How would you feel about spending New Year's Eve in Cincinnati?"
Me: "Uhhhh ..."
Edge: "You'd do Kentucky-Louisville early and Gonzaga-Xavier late."
Me: "I'm in!"
I like to think I know a win-win when I see it. This is the definition of a win-win. Not only do I get to avoid the annually overrated New Year's Eve nonsense -- let's go here, no let's go there, no my girlfriend and her friends are going here, it's $200 for a ticket what a deal! -- I don't even have to mope around at home watching Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve to do it.
No, instead I'll be pulling an all-day hoops and travel extravaganza, which will kick off with one of the best rivalries in all of sports and end with a game between the defining non-Big Six schools of the past decade. I'll leave for Lexington early in the morning, do my best to survive the Big Blue madness, finish writing as quickly as possible (not always my strong suit, I'll admit) and then jump back on I-75 with (hopefully) enough time to swing through Skyline Chili before the Musketeers and Zags tip it off at 8 ET.
Let's set the vagaries of the trip aside, because the basketball is what's really intriguing. Rupp Arena is going to be a mess Saturday afternoon -- and I mean that in a good way -- as a crowd that hates its Louisville neighbors so much it has set about denying the city's existence welcomes that city's representatives to one of the biggest, loudest and most intense venues in the sport.
Can Louisville, which looked a bit out of sorts before a late comeback in Wednesday's home loss to Georgetown, overcome the atmosphere? And if the Cards get over that hurdle, can they overcome the loaded Kentucky Wildcats? John Calipari's team will better at every position on the floor Saturday with the exception of one: point guard. That matchup -- Peyton Siva versus Marquis Teague -- has to be won by Siva if Louisville wants to hang in this thing for long.
Of course, UL-UK is also one of those rivalries -- the kind for which intelligent pregame analysis can so quickly cede to whatever insanity is taking place on the court. Kentucky deserves to be a heavy favorite, if you ask me. But hey, you never know.
Xavier-Gonzaga won't be quite as intense, I'm sure (though X's fans are excellent, too). What it will be is fascinating. Can this Musketeers team, which has suffered three ugly losses (Oral Roberts, Long Beach State, Hawaii) since the Cincinnati brawl and subsequent suspensions, get back on track with their full lineup on the floor? Or did losses reveal something deeper about this team, something that won't be fixed with the return of Dezmine Wells?
After all, Tu Holloway returned in time for LBSU, and Mark Lyons was in the lineup for the overtime loss to Warriors. What if those losses weren't as much about the suspensions as we'd all like to believe? Can Gonzaga take advantage of these recent struggles (or whatever they are) in a tough environment on the road? Can Kevin Pangos have another Pangos(!) shooting night? Can Robert Sacre and Elias Harris match up with Xavier's big, physical frontcourt?
When the ball drops Saturday night, you'll be raising your champagne glasses. You'll be kissing that special someone. You'll be hazily slurring Auld Lang Syne. You'll be watching Ryan Seacrest and eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's, because that jerk never called you like he said he would and oh what's the point, anyway? Or whatever. Your mileage may vary.
I'll be in the media room at the Cintas Center. I will have consumed too many ounces of Red Bull by that point. I will be tired and hungry and worried that Cincinnati, being Cincinnati, doesn't have any good restaurants open after 1 a.m. It will be a long day and I probably won't see the ball drop.
And guess what? I wouldn't want it any other way.
Happy New Year, indeed.