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March 14, 2009Sign-up for InsideHilltopperSports.com Wireless Text Alerts sent right to your cell phone!
It was somewhat of an experiment for the Sun Belt Conference, who has adamantly said that it's been trying to find a central location for its conference tournament.
This experiment has a three-year period, however. The SBC tournament will be back in Hot Springs for the next two seasons as well. Aside from the locals in Arkansas and the Little Rock area, this trip was new to many of the other conference team's fans, including WKU.
Editor Jason Stamm checked out the sights and hidden treasures in Hot Springs to give you a recap and some ideas for next year.
Places to Eat
I've always said that the best places to eat are usually the ones off the beaten path, the 'Mom & Pop' local restaurants.
One night, I did head to Buffalo Wild Wings, who was one of the tournament sponsors and was one of the few places open late hours nightly.
The food of choice in Hot Springs, as any local will tell you, is Barbecue. There's a handful of good BBQ joints here, but the one I found to be the best during my stay was 'McClard's.'
This local establishment, on 505 Albert Pike, has some of the best home cooking you'll find anywhere. You can get a big rack of ribs or try the sliced pork or beef. And of course, it's all lathered with their authentic BBQ.
The cool story behind the sauce is that a traveler couldn't pay for a stay at the Westside Tourist Court and paid with the recipe for this BBQ. Shortly after, in 1928, the Inn was changed to Westside Bar-B-Que.
The restaurant is still in the family and the recipe is locked in a safe deposit box downtown. You can still buy a bottle of it for $4.
The other cool thing about the restaurant is you can see all the autographed photos of diners who have eaten here, from Jerry Jones, Bill Clinton, Jery Van Dyke and the Soprano's James Gandolfini.
Where to stay
The most convenient hotel by far is the Embassy Suites, which sits next to Summitt Arena and has a skywalk that connects the two.
There's also the Austin and the Arlington, two historic and old hotels in downtown Hot Springs.
For the modest priced, there's the Travelodge, just down the street from the arena and across the street corner from the Howard Johnson.
There's also resort hotels next to Lake Hamilton, such as Baymont Inn and Clarion Inn. In between, there's the Holiday Inn Express or the Best Western, the latter across the street from Oaklawn.
What To Do Here
Hot Springs may be most known for the national park which bears its name. The spring water, which comes out of the hills, is also, naturally warm water.
There's also Lake Hamilton, a short, 10-15 minute drive from downtown, with a myriad of resort hotels around.
While on my stay, I made it down to Oaklawn Park Race Course, one of the oldest and prettiest horse race tracks in the country. It's located on Central Avenue, right in the middle of Hot Springs.
The tourney fell during the middle of the spring meet, with live racing that builds up to the Arkansas Derby on April 11, one of the biggest prep races for the Kentucky Derby. You may remember Curlin winning here a few years back before his win in the 2007 Preakness Stakes.
There's also casino-style gambling here year-round as well as horse racing siumulcasting.
While there's also a handful of good golf courses, I was able to play 18 holes at Belvedere Country Club, located on the north side of the city, on Central Avenue.
The Bermuda grass wasn't in yet, but I was able to take advantage of the winter rate special of $32 for 18 holes.
But the place where I learned the most was on my last day in town, at The Gangster Museum of America. You wouldn't believe all the gangsters who used to frequent Hot Springs, until they were broken up in 1967, when gambling was shut down.
Big names like Al Capone, Owney Madden and Lucky Luciano were all big players here. They also apparently used the Belvedere Country Club as a big illegal gambling ring.
Dancin' in Hot Springs
Just a few notes from Hot Springs, some of which I mentioned but that are really telling of this team:
*In the quarterfinal win over Florida International, senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez gave his game MVP award to sophomore forward D.J. Magley.
"I really think that the minutes that he played were really key," Mendez-Valdez said.
"He was just playing really well for us and I strongly believe that he deserved it."
**The mood of the team never changed throughout the tournament. Yes, they were winning, but in reflection of their coach, they were loose and were having fun.
Even in a bad moment, sophomore forward Sergio Kerusch's late foul on a North Texas three-pointer in the semi-finals, the mood was still light-hearted in the press conference.
Coach Ken McDonald and Kerusch both had a laugh, before giving their accounts of the play.
***The first player to cut a piece of the net was senior forward Mike Walker who has been through a myriad of injuries during his career at WKU.
Then, after holding up the tournament championship award, McDonald was the last to cut the net, cutting it down and placing it around the neck of Mendez-Valdez.
Afterwards, McDonald was still loose, jokingly, but half-honestly saying that WKU should be a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and saying that he'd answer as many questions, now that he's the champ.
I didn't have my story and audio story done until the wee hours of late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, around 2 AM to be exact, but suffice to say, there's things to do in Hot Springs. Some are just harder to find.
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