During the NCAA tournament, any place with a few flat screens becomes a sports bar. So how do you choose the best place to watch your bracket bust (or just root against those Dukies)? Fear not. Whether you're looking to analyze the game with serious fans or simply shout out expletives at will, these college basketball hotspots will keep a smile on your face.
Do the Big Dance at Stretch Run
If you're planning on calling in sick to catch all the opening-day action, Stretch Run may be the place to park it. Keep an eye on one of the 217 TVs, so you won't miss any of this year's first-round buzzer beaters. The newly opened, bi-level wagering spot will also host its own NCAA Tournament pool (brackets must be submitted between March 16 and March 19), with contestants competing for a trip to the 2009 championship game and a 42-inch flat-screen TV. And if you need to drink away the pain of a losing team, the bar will sling special concoctions, like the March Madness Martini (Godiva white chocolate liqueur, Stoli vodka and orange juice) and 3-point Shots, made with Jameson, peach schnapps and cranberry juice.
Have yourself a homecoming at Joe's Bar
We could've chosen any number of bars where you can relive your college days, but what sets Joe's apart from the McGee's and Casey Moran's of the world is this: space. The place is huge; whether you want to sit up front to check out the 10-foot-tall projection screens or enjoy the many flat screens in the cavernous back room, you're gonna have plenty of room to stretch your legs while you chug down cheap pitchers of Coors Light and nosh on thin-crust pizza and wings. Plus, you have a bigger chance of feeling at home here; while you might encounter mostly Illinois and Indiana fans, a widespread crowd of alums from throughout the country gather here as well.
Get in the game at ESPN Zone
All that game-watching is bound to fire up your competitive streak. A few hours beating up on your friends in College Hoops Tonight or one of the hundreds of other video and interactive games on offer at this 10,000-square-foot sports emporium should help you forget that you never had the chops to be a real college athlete. Oh yeah, there's also the gazillion HD TVs—from regular-size to huge projection screens—plus a full bar, hungry-man eats like a smoked bacon and cheddar cheeseburger, and the opportunity to pretend you're partying with Scott Van Pelt.
Keep your enthusiasm in hiding at Tavern at the Park
Okay, so your friends are the type of boisterous, name-calling fans who normally—for safety's sake—heckle from the comfort of their own homes. But, your pals also have a foodie streak. How about booking a private party room at this tap with killer views of Millennium Park and upscale pub grub? It offers a handful of private party spaces for groups of 4 to 40, including a TV booth with its own plasma TV and the Exposition Room, which can be completely closed off to contain the revelry. As for that fine fare—how about digging into sliders made from filet mignon, crab cake or a sirloin burger? Other appetizers include a Portuguese take on mussels and a rotisserie chicken fondue, and you can even design a custom menu for your group.
Cozy up to the competition at Will's Northwoods Inn
Want to recreate the experience of watching at home? Will's might do the trick, as long as you're from God's Country. Drink down some Badger State beers and shoot some pool with the neighborhood regulars under the watchful eyes of mounted moose and deer heads in this small and friendly gathering spot. Get there early enough for tourney games and you might even get a seat in front of the big screen TV. One note: If you're not rooting for Wisconsin or Marquette, you might want to keep quiet.
Party with the elite at Junior's Sports Lounge
Prefer to show your school pride with a tasteful button-down and color-coordinated cocktail? Junior's could be the place for you. Slide into a table or booth and rest your eyes on the personal TV, screening your game of choice; you won't have to miss a minute of the action as you nosh on comfort food like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But don't separate yourself from the crowd too much. This is a social bar at heart, so you just might meet the girl or guy of your dreams (as long as you both root for the same team).
Overtime? Try these other hardwood havens:
For Big Ten alums...
Gin Mill offers cheap drinks and MSU Spartan affection. Michigan State alums can also find friends at Higgins' Tavern, O'Malley's West and Plan B Bar and Kitchen, where the staff will sport green-and-white gear.
Joe's is a home away from home for UCLA and Indiana alums. Some other local Hoosier haunts are Finley Dunne's Tavern and Kirkwood Bar & Grill.
Durkin's pours more than a few Boilermakes for Purdue alums.
Wisconsin fans are also welcome to show their Badger pride at Waterhouse and Redmond's.
There's more to the region than the Big Ten...
Halligan Bar trumps Victory Liquors as an age-old Notre Dame sympathizer. But Wrightwood Tap is another Fighting Irish-friendly bar.
Kincade's and Lottie's Pub are the local gathering spots for Kansas Jayhawk fans.
Schoolyard Tavern is another spot for Marquette fans to congregate sans the Badger fanfare.
So far away but so close to victory...
Brownstone Tavern & Grill is the official hangout for Texas (and other Big 12) alums.
Gamekeepers is the alumni home to many, but its main contenders this year are North Carolina and Georgetown.