NCAA hoops: Butler to see if home is sweet in Final Four
AP National Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Almost dead center between West Lafayette and Bloomington, this city's loyalties are usually divided between Purdue and Indiana.
This week, however, the capital city is Butler territory. The Bulldogs are snarling traffic, turning replicas of their mascot's spiked collar into gameday couture and drawing a bigger crowd for Final Four practice than their fabled fieldhouse can hold.
It's the kind of lovefest Michigan State saw at last year's Final Four — and then some. Playing a mere 5.6 miles from their campus, the Bulldogs have brought what seems like the whole Hoosier state along for their first appearance on college basketball's biggest stage.
"My first thought was, 'How in the heck are we going to get to Lucas Oil Stadium?'" coach Brad Stevens said, when asked for his thoughts on the bus ride Friday through the busy downtown streets. "The cars were lined up, people were walking in the streets. It was fun to see Butler gear."
There's sure to be plenty of it Saturday, when the Bulldogs (32-4) play Michigan State (28-8) in the first national semifinal.
On paper, the home-field advantage would seem to be huge for Butler: the Bulldogs are the overwhelming fan favorite; a long red light on the trek from campus is the extent of your travel drama; and there's no need to scout out restaurants or practice sites.
But all that enthusiasm also make for a big headache, too. When the Spartans made it to last year's Final Four in recession-battered Detroit, 90 miles from campus, almost 10,000 fans showed up — for a pep rally at a suburban mall.
No school has won a Final Four in its hometown since 1975, when UCLA did it down the road from Westwood in San Diego.
"It comes with a lot of fun and excitement. But it also comes with distractions, as well," said Draymond Green, whose hometown of Saginaw, Mich., is two hours north of Detroit. "You know everyone. Everyone just wants to be around, from someone you knew in kindergarten to someone you just met last week.
"It's a big difference from just being in town for a regular-season game."
Now, the Spartans aren't blaming their shellacking by North Carolina in last year's title game on the distractions of being so close to home. Coach Tom Izzo jokes that he could have brought an All-Star team and still not made a run at the Tar Heels.
In fact, the Spartans fed off the crowd in their semifinal upset of Connecticut. Few states were hit worse by the economic crisis than Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, and Izzo made sure his players embraced their chance to lift a beleaguered state.
Butler doesn't have anywhere near that burden. Basketball is ingrained in Indiana's identity, and it has been a rough stretch lately for the state's three big-name schools. Indiana had its second straight losing season. Notre Dame got bounced out in the first round in the NCAA tournament. Purdue, a dark horse pick for the Final Four a few weeks ago, became an underdog after Robbie Hummel went down.
But Butler is a feel-good story from the opening tip.
"This is unique," Stevens acknowledged. "It certainly is a different level of energy and enthusiasm for Butler than ever before. ... Right next to my hotel room, I will say I can hear 'One Shining Moment' followed by the Butler fight song. It's like on repeat.
"You take more pride, get more excited about that than anything else."
While wanting his players to savor the experience, Stevens also has done his best to contain the hoopla surrounding his team. But that's tough to do when an entire state is treating his players like rock stars.
Several hundred people were waiting in the rain outside Hinkle Fieldhouse when the Bulldogs returned from Salt Lake City early Sunday. Butler president Bobby Fong body-surfed among students, Lollapalooza-like, at a campus rally. The entire lower bowl of the Lucas Oil Stadium was filled for Friday morning's practice, with most of the people in Butler blue.
One teenage girl held up a sign asking Gordon Hayward, the team's leading scorer and a promising NBA prospect, if he'd go to prom.
"It's sort of overwhelming, sort of awesome to see so many people come out just to support us," Matt Howard said. "The city's been awesome."
But as Michigan State discovered in last year's title game, fans can only help a team so far.
"Once the ball is tossed, I think you'll see that the players take over," Izzo said, "not the fans and the coaches."