NCAA hoops: At Final Four, all eyes on Butler
By MIKE LOPRESTI
INDIANAPOLIS - A day before the games, it was time to get in touch with the heart of this Final Four. You've probably heard how Butler is only six miles from Lucas Oil Stadium.
How close is that? One way to find out.
That was the mission Friday, from campus to the arena in time for the open practice, where the blue masses would be gathering.
Notes from strolling the road to the Final Four:
7:45 a.m. - The fist daylight is shining through the windows in graveyard-quiet and aged Hinkle Fieldhouse. Something coach Brad Stevens said the day before comes to mind:
"If you want the newest, fanciest, plush thing, Butler is not for you."
Among the messages of encouragement on the Fieldhouse door: "They all put their pants on just like you."
We'll assume that's not for the swimming team.
8 a.m. - The campus chimes sound the top of the hour to the tune of "Back Home Again in Indiana." You can hear it three blocks away at the corner of 49th Street and Capitol Avenue, a residential neighborhood with lots of "Go Dawgs" signs. Not to mention squirrels.
8:30 a.m. - 38th Street. On two corners are deserted businesses. On another, a liquor store warns about loitering and drinking on the property.
By the front door, a sign: "Go Butler Dogs. Bud 6 pk. $4.99."
8:40 a.m. - 34th Street. The bright lights of the Final Four seem light years away. There are neat homes interspersed among boarded-up hulks. Four empty gin bottles are on the sidewalk. Graffiti mars crumbling walls. The local newspaper reports a woman was mugged and beaten while waiting for a bus near here. Not far away, a sign: "Peace in the streets. STOP the Violence."
9 a.m. - Indianapolis is one of the largest cities in the nation not on a navigable waterway. It takes 67 steps to walk the bridge across the White River.
Meanwhile, back on campus, Gordon Hayward makes his 9 o'clock math course. He might star for a Final Four team Saturday, but he's in class Friday.
9:10 a.m. - 21st Street. The next five blocks are given to the Methodist Hospital complex. During the Great Depression, the hospital accepted chickens, pigs and farm produce in lieu of payment. And once, 16,000 strawberry plants.
9:40 a.m. - Market Street. State Capitol on the right, home to Mitch Daniels, a popular governor and red-hot Butler fan.
9:45 a.m. - The doors are open for Good Friday services at Saint John church, which has held its ground even while crowded by the old RCA Dome, the convention center, and now Lucas Oil Stadium.
Any referee needs a confessional, it's right across the street.
9:51 .m. - Walk under the old Union Station train overpass, and there it is. Huge sign on the end of Lucas Oil Stadium: "The Road Ends here."
One hour and 51 minutes, from quiet campus to Final Four buzz.
Cars clog the street, crowds line up at the gate, and the Bulldogs aren't due for hours.
"Turning every corner and seeing Butler shirts, Butler jerseys, Butler hats," guard Ronald Nored says later, "I don't think it gets much better than that."
Noon - Butler takes the floor, patting Blue the bulldog as they pass. The lower level is nearly full with people, the school band is here, all for a few practice jump shots. If the players didn't understand before this is a big deal, they do now.
12:30 p.m. - The crowd has grown to nearly 30,000, or about three Hinkle Fieldhouses. A girl holds up a sign asking Hawyard to take her to the prom.
12:50 p.m. - Practice is over and the Bulldogs wave as they leave to a standing ovation.
1:05 p.m. - "They were pretty wide-eyed when they walked in," Stevens says of his players, "as was I."
Butler, with 4,200 students, is the smallest school to play in the Final Four in 22 years. For days, outsiders have tried to classify the Bulldogs. A Cinderella? The ultimate underdog?
"We don't consider ourselves anything more," Stevens said earlier this week, "than a university with a basketball team."
The Final Four is here. Duke, Michigan State and West Virginia have bigger names, but make no mistake. Butler is the star of this show.