Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of embarking on a journey to Lexington, Ky., with Rod Smith and T.J. Fenske.
We left around 4 p.m. Tuesday.
We got home around 7 p.m. Friday.
A 75-hour trip for a two-hour basketball game. And it was a lousy basketball game, at that.
Still, there were some interesting moments during this trip to the NCAA Tournament. Like me getting to know a dozen or so guys who were there for the tournament, and all of us getting to know Santa Claus.
First, let's talk about --- and dispense of --- those aforementioned two hours that weren't very interesting.
Colorado State 84, Missouri 72. Another game where these muscle-bound Tigers looked like Tarzan, played like Jane --- they were outrebounded 42-19.
You could get 19 rebounds by just standing there and letting the ball find you. This was a non-effort.
This Missouri team never had any definition. It was a season mostly marked by poor play and poor coaching, when Missouri had to face competent competition.
From the seventh-ranked team in the nation in late December, to a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, to sitting at home watching the rest of the tournament on TV, just like the rest of us.
Here's a back-and-forth I had with Missouri coach Frank Haith after Thursday's game. Just one back, one forth. Like MU's tournament run, one and done.
Q: "Coach, what did this team never really "get" or grasp that you wanted them to do this season? And if you had to tweak something along the way and do something different, what would that have been?"
A: "Tom, let me just say this to you --- I'm proud of what this team did this year. There are a lot of guys who play in the NCAA Tournament, we only had one guy returning from last year's team. This team made it to the NCAA Tournament. I'm very proud of what they accomplished this year."
Really? Does that answer pass the smell test?
To me, that answer was more full of horse-droppings than the average Kentucky pasture.
What accomplishments, exactly? Being satisfied with being regarded as one of the top 68 teams in the country, just like North Carolina A&T and Florida Gulf Coast? Is that where this program is at?
Florida Gulf Coast, by the way, beat Georgetown in its NCAA debut. Then beat San Diego State on Sunday night to advance to the Sweet 16.
Now THAT is an accomplishment, Frank.
But enough about the Tigers. Let's talk about something interesting.
The morning of MU's first game, it snowed. On the first day of spring in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, it snowed --- blowing-sideways snow.
Also that Thursday morning, I was witness to a dozen or so middle-aged guys moving into our hotel, toting about three dozen cases of beer.
"Are you here for the tournament?" I randomly asked a couple of them.
"We sure are," said one.
They didn't really look like your typical college basketball fans, but what do I know.
"Where you from?"
"Bath, New York. It's in Western New York, upstate."
That was a nice geography lesson, I thought. But then my mind raced quickly, thinking about the eight teams who were in this Lexington "pod." None of the teams were from New York. Not even close. I thought this was odd.
"Wow. What team are you following?"
My new friend looked confused.
"Uh, we're here for the national bowling tournament," he said. "The Elks National Bowling Tournament."
Later Thursday evening, when we were leaving the hotel and heading to Rupp Arena, a different Elk spotted us. We'll call him generic drunk bowling guy.
"You guys leaving already?" he said, swilling a Milwaukee's Best. "We're just getting started!"
We just smiled and slipped out the door.
Sadly, we weren't able to stick around long enough to hear how they did. I'm pretty sure, however, that I heard them late Thursday night/early Friday morning, tuning up for this big event by setting up 10 empty beers cans in the hallway --- like 10 bowling pins, crashing their customized bowling balls into them.
I think I heard one guy generic drunk bowling guy howling after he got the dreaded 7-10 beer-can split. I hate when that happens.
So we headed home Friday. We had seen Santa Claus --- a town of about 2,400 in extreme southern Indiana --- on the way to Lexington. But this time, we stopped.
We had to know more. Well, at least I did.
"So how did Santa Claus get its name?" I asked Patricia, 57, who works at a local gas station.
"I don't know," she said. "I really haven't thought about it."
I was disappointed, to say the least. Come on, Patricia, you live in Santa Claus!
Enter my new friend for the next 30 seconds, Kent. He had overheard our conversation and wanted to help.
"You're in Santa Claus, Indiana," he said proudly.
"I know, I know. I was just wondering how it got its name."
"I dunno," said Kent, 62. "I think we had a Christmas tree farm, or something, way back when."
Both Patricia and Kent are life-long Santa Clausians. Or Santa Clausites.
I was not satisfied with their answers, so it was time to do some research. Here it is, straight from Wikipedia:
The town was established in 1854 and known as Santa Fe (pronounced "fee"). In 1856, when the town was working to establish a post office, the United States Postal Service refused their first application as there was already a Santa Fe established with the USPS. Several town meetings were held, during which the name Santa Claus was selected. The town has the world's only post office to bear the name of Santa Claus. Because of this popular name, the post office receives thousands of letters to Santa from all over the world each year.
Also of note, Santa Claus features Lake Christmas, Lake Holly and Lake Noel. There's a 40-ton, 22-foot high statue of Santa Claus on the highest hill in town, and it also boasts Holiday World, widely recognized as the first theme park ever built.
In addition, it's where Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler grew up.
Ah, Santa Claus, Ind., my new favorite city in America. Getting to know Santa Claus almost made this 75-hour trip for a lousy two-hour basketball game worth it.
Santa Claus was sure a lot more interesting.