Chinstraps and mouthpieces: Hitting the road with KU
Kansas finally made it back to the Final Four.
What a journey so far. The Jayhawks barely escaped No. 16 Holy Cross and lost Kirk Hinrich for what looked to be an extended period with an injury. Instead, Hinrich returned, and Kansas eventually ran away from Oregon on Sunday for the Midwest Regional title in Madison, Wis.
The only thing that could have made this run better for a Kansas supporter would have been making the trip to Wisconsin.
Oh, what fun it was.
The trip was supposed to begin Thursday with a 10:30 a.m. departure from Overland Park. The caravan, though, had to stop for Jayhawk car magnets, Jayhawk car flags and Jayhawk car stickers.
Somehow, this translated into an updated departure time of 2:25 p.m. Madison is supposed to take roughly eight hours, but we missed an exit in Iowa and found ourselves lost in southern Wisconsin. About 5 a.m. Friday, we rolled into Madison.
The trip had its highlights, though. As long as we were late, we decided to be tourists. Souvenirs were purchased and pictures posed for in front of obscure Midwest cities. The best event came in Dubuque, Iowa, where four fellow passengers and I spit in the Mississippi River, duplicating the Jayhawks' superstitious saliva drop in the Mississippi during the 1993 Final Four run.
When we finally made it to Madison, it was time to, first sleep, and then enjoy what would be Kansas' first Final Four berth since 1993.
Although the weather in San Antonio for last year's regional was much more enjoyable, the Jayhawks' success in frigid Madison was worth the chapped lips and the extra layers of clothing.
And so, here are the top 10 things that made Madison a great getaway:
10. Buggy crossing. Signs along the way to Wisconsin's capital warned travelers of horse and buggy transportation in the area. I was unsure if an Amish community was in that region, and time didn't allow for looking into it.
9. McDonald's. Not usually a good sign if McDonald's is a trip highlight, but a jaunt to Chicago on Saturday included driving under McDonald's that were built on overpasses. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit one of these interesting structures.
8. Downtown Madison. The city has a population of more than 190,000, and the state capitol is the focal point of the downtown area. State Street was also the main attraction, especially for Kansas fans celebrating a win Friday.
7. Illinois fans. Kansas played Illinois on Friday, a rematch of last year's season-ending loss to the Illini, which are named after Native Americans. This explained why people were picketing outside Wisconsin's Kohl Center that night. The protesters were gone Sunday, as were a majority of fans in the Kohl Center, as Illinois brought a large group for the game. Many orange-and-blue-clad supporters were eager to get rid of their tickets after Friday's game.
6. Wisconsin fans. Many Badger fans cheered for whoever was playing against Kansas. Wisconsin supporters didn't appreciate Kansas coach Roy Williams' comments about an ugly Wisconsin game in the Final Four a couple years back, and many voiced opinions to us.
One Wisconsin fan told us Kansas couldn't run with Oregon, which is pronounced OR-e-gone in Wis-CAAN-sun.
5. Jayhawk beads. Kansas fans sported red and blue strands of basketball beads during the weekend. A few asked me what I had to do to get them, but I assured them it had nothing to do with a Mardi Gras trip to New Orleans.
4. Wisconsin fans. Not all Badgers disliked Kansas. Some gave us thumbs-up when we passed, while others wished us luck against Illinois, one of Wisconsin's rivals in the Big 10 Conference. Badger fans also were interested in what Rock Chalk Jayhawk stood for. After one group of Badgers actually took notes on the information, they proceeded to give us 17 reasons why they disliked Roy Williams.
3. Kohl Center. The University of Wisconsin's newest venue, which opened four years ago, was a great host for the tournament. The arena also has a hockey rink underneath, which may have explained why players were slipping around at times.
2. Neil Dougherty. Fans chanted "one more year" when Dougherty, a Leavenworth native and Jayhawk assistant for seven years, cut down his strand of the net after the game Sunday. Dougherty was rumored to be the new coach at Texas Christian.
On Monday, he announced his new job at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.
1. "We're Not Gonna Take It." The KU pep band played this Twisted Sister hit during the last minutes of the Illinois and Oregon games, symbolizing Kansas' inability to make the Final Four in nearly a decade. Goosebumps popped up on my skin as Jayhawk fans sang the song in unison. As the clock wound down Sunday, it was obvious Kansas would be taking its show to the Final Four in Atlanta. From Keith Langford to Drew Gooden, Kansas didn't disappoint at the perimeter or down low.
The team's solid performances made every part of the trip worth celebrating.
On Monday, we'll find out if the Jayhawks will be celebrating again.