March Madness Smackdown: Which Top-Seeded School Is Best to Visit?


The selection committee has spoken and picked its top-seeded teams for each bracket of the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The sports blogs are filled with analysis of championship potential of each of the No. 1 seeds: Kentucky, Villanova, Duke, and Wisconsin. But here at Yahoo Travel, we’re more concerned about which of these top seeds’ campuses, and home cities would make for the best travel destination. So in the spirit of a full-court press with only seconds on the clock, we present our usual highly biased,utterly opinionated, and absolutely authoritative smackdown debating which of these basketball powers boasts the best home turf.

Related: Much More Than Basketball — Here’s What Each March Madness City Has to Offer

University of Kentucky/Lexington

Student population: 29,000
City population: 300,000


Rupp Arena – home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats. (Photo: Jon Ashley

The University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in Lexington stands at the confluence of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Lexington’s Distillery District, and the Brewgrass Trail. Why aren’t you here now? Fun fact: There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky (5.3 million) than there are people (4.4 million), which means there will be plenty of drinks left over for you. I suspect I never would have graduated had I gone to school here but can attest that it’s a fantastic place to come visit and “get your rebel yell on.” Or if you’d like to be aristocratic, order a mint julep while wearing a funny hat and attend the Kentucky Derby in a luxury suite. Unlike Philadelphia, which drops bombs on its own streets, and where fans really did boo Santa Claus and pelt him with snowballs, Lexington people are actually nice and will smile and greet you while walking the streets. Imagine that! The food is fantastic, more than just fried chicken and grits (though you can get fine samples of both of those as well).


William T. Young Library on the campus of the University of Kentucky. (Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The University of Kentucky’s campus is made up of a sprawling 800 acres of buildings and lawns just south of downtown Lexington. Its older buildings give it the feel of a traditional Southern estate, making it a peaceful retreat from the city — except on game days, when a sea of bouncing blue fanatics march from there to fill the 23,000 seats of Rupp Arena as well as those in every nearby bar and restaurant. The team has won nearly 90 percent of its games at home since the arena opened in 1976, so chances are you’re going to be among some happy locals. They’re hoping this perfect season will continue and fill the award case at the Joe Craft Center with a ninth national championship trophy (more than those won by all of this year’s No. 1 seeded schools combined).

Related: A Big, Boozy, Bourbon Weekend in Louisville, Kentucky


Four Roses is one of many distilleries in the area that you can visit for a lesson in making premium bourbon and, of course, pick up a bottle or two. (Photo:Four Roses Bourbon/Facebook)

Outside of Lexington is Kentucky’s beautiful Bluegrass country, with rolling hills, thoroughbred horse farms, bourbon distilleries, and quaint historic towns, a destination well worth a weekend or weeklong holiday. Outside of Madison: cows and cornfields transformed into wind-blasted snowfields in winter. Outside of Philly: blight. Surrounding Duke: cancer-producing fields of tobacco. Advantage, Lexington.

Villanova University/Philadelphia, Pa.

Student population: 11,000
City population: 31,000 (Radnor Township), 1.5 million (Philadelphia)


Villanova’s picturesque setting and close proximity to Philly make it a popular choice for undergrads. (Photo: Villanova/Facebook)

Really the best of both worlds, Villanova is located on a pleasant suburban campus in scenic woodlands just a dozen miles away from the fifth largest city in the U.S. You’re not stuck in a country club in Deliverance territory like Duke is, you don’t have to deal with the stale patchouli smell of aging hippies like you do in Madison, and you won’t get a heart attack from eating all that fried food like you would in Lexington. Sure, Philadelphia has its greasy and very tasty iconic cheese steak, but the city has also been ranked as one of the “most exciting restaurant cities” in the U.S. In fact, the New York Times just ranked Philly as the No. 3 place on Earth to visit in 2015, with its combination of historic sites, museums, and galleries, and vibrant new developments.

Related: Thursday Night: Philadelphia


Philadelphia is a town with a rich basketball history and no shortage of icons, like the legendary dunk-master Dr. J (aka Julius Erving). (Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

But most important at tourney time, Philly is a hoops town, a historic epicenter of roundball action, from the soaring dunks of Dr. J in his days with the 76ers, to the epic college rivalry of the Big 5 local schools of Temple, Penn, Saint Joe’s, and LaSalle, plus Villanova. Philadelphia was the high school training ground for hoops stars ranging from Wilt Chamberlain to Kobe Bryant, and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. If you’re just a spectator, Philly has plenty of colorful local spots to grab beers while watching the games, with an array of craft breweries, beer gardens, and neighborhood taverns. With over 230,000 students in the greater Philadelphia area’s nearly 90 colleges and universities, the whole region can feel like one big college campus — as opposed to say, Madison, Wis., which is surrounded by about 230,000 cows.


Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue in John F. Kennedy Plaza. (Photo: Liana Jackson/Flickr)

And don’t believe the hype about surly Philadelphia fans, Philly takes pride in being the City of Brotherly Love, represented by the famous LOVE Statue, where they say people have snapped over a million photos of people kissing.

And the final slam dunk: Without Philadelphia, where the country was founded on July 4, 1776, there wouldn’t even be a Wisconsin, North Carolina, or Kentucky.

Duke University/Durham, N.C.

Student population: 15,000
City population: 245,000


Duke’s beautiful campus combines lush foliage and gothic architecture. (Photo: Duke University)

Once you get beyond its insufferable teams and its sanctimonious, rat-faced coach, Duke’s home of Durham, N.C., is actually quite a nice place to visit. Unlike the lingering polar vortex-infused regions around Villanova and Wisconsin, you can enjoy the outdoors in Durham in March. Duke’s beautiful campus spans over 9,000 acres across three areas filled with formal gardens, open lawns, scenic forests, and campus buildings combining Gothic architecture with modern research facilities. The university also boasts what is undoubtedly the finest lemur center of any NCAA tourney team. Duke’s East Campus is a short walk to Durham’s Ninth Street neighborhood, which exudes the prototypical college-town feel with cafés, bookshops, and restaurants and, of course, bars in which to watch some hoops.


Basketball isn’t the only sport in town. Locals also feel a lot of love and pride for their minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls. (Photo: John Kivus/Flickr)

The city of Durham features the cosmopolitan elements of a well-educated college city, with a thriving arts and performance scene, and a technology and medicine focus that established it as a corner of North Carolina’s science-centric “Research Triangle” (as opposed to the decrepit “rust-belt triangle” between Villanova’s Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Newark; the “Midwest tripod of depression” between Cincinnati, Louisville, and UK’s Lexington; and the “Northern dot of despair” that is Madison). Durham combines its cutting edge research with the friendly small-town Southern feel that can be experienced by attending a game of the local favorite minor league baseball team, the Durham Bulls (made famous in the film Bull Durham).


Duke fans are an extremely passionate bunch. (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

But make no mistake, North Carolina is basketball country, home of some of the NCAA’s greatest rivalries, between Duke and nearby University of North Carolina, Wake Forest, and North Carolina State. You’ll have a hard time finding someone in a 200-mile radius who doesn’t have a strong opinion about the local college teams. Even if you hate the home team, attending a game at Duke’s Cameron Stadium can be considered one of the ultimate college basketball fan experiences.

University of Wisconsin/Madison

Student population: 43,000
City population: 243,000


Bascom Hall at Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison (Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Unlike the glorified country clubs for rich kids of Villanova and Duke, and the pompous Southern aristocracy that infuses southern Lexington, Madison is a true college town, where tens of thousands of its public school students can afford to live, shop, and get a bite to eat around the campus located smack dab in the middle of downtown. Madison is regularly ranked among the top college towns in America, and you really can’t help but have a good time when visiting — the people are friendly, the beer is cheap, and chances are there’s some sort of fun festival happening. The infamous State Street Halloween celebration usually borders right on (or over) the edge of chaos. For more peaceful pursuits, the 900-acre University of Wisconsin campus borders Lake Mendota and the city of Madison’s 6,000 acres of parks and 150 miles of biking and running trails.


State Street looking toward the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Photo: Ian G Dagnall/Alamy)

In town, Madison’s central State Street connects the spectacular Capitol building right to the heart of campus. It creates a buzz worthy of old Ben Franklin’s lightning experiment in Philadelphia, but unlike living-in-the-past Philly, the energy has been updated a couple centuries to the modern era, with the city’s thriving technology businesses. And unlike the sedentary Southerners of Lexington, Madison’s students, residents, and visitors get outside for active endeavors regardless of the season, on the bike trails and nearby fishing lakes in summer, and braving the cold to try winter activities like skiing, skating, and even ice-kiting.


Madison is home to the world’s largest Brat Fest, where there’s also sure to be plenty of beers on hand to wash it all down. (Photo: World’s Largest Brat Fest/Facebook)

To refuel, residents go to Madison’s famed Dane County Farmers’ Market for legendary Wisconsin cheeses and other agricultural products straight from the producers, while craft breweries create the next generation of tasty suds that made the state famous. And oh yes, the city hosts the world’s largest Brat Fest. But this isn’t just some cow town — Madison is a hotbed for new entrepreneurial jobs and also features a thriving restaurant scene for foodies looking for the latest in farm-to-table fare. This combination of affordability, opportunity, and fun pursuits is partly why Madison was recently named “The best place to live in the United States.” And its hoops team isn’t bad either.

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