INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—They’ve snarled traffic, made cheesy mustaches fashionable and drawn a bigger crowd for practice than their fabled fieldhouse can hold. One of the players even got asked to prom.
Butler is enjoying the kind of lovefest that 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.
Who knew there were that many Butler alums out there?
“Just turning every corner and seeing Butler shirts, Butler jerseys, Butler hats, any kind of Butler apparel on every corner, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” point guard Ronald Nored said Friday. “I think that could be the case if we were playing anywhere, but for it to be here in Indianapolis makes it even more special.”
Butler (32-4) plays Michigan State (28-8) in the first semifinal Saturday.
On paper, playing at home would seem to be a huge advantage: you’re 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.
All that enthusiasm also can cause a headache. 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 just for a pep rally at a suburban mall.
“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.”
Of the 10 previous schools who played in a Final Four in their home state, five won it all. But it hasn’t been done since 1975, when UCLA won in San Diego.
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 isn’t shouldering quite as heavy a burden. Basketball is ingrained in Indiana’s identity, but 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. And Purdue, a dark horse pick for the Final Four a few weeks ago, became an underdog after Robbie Hummel went down.
Leave it to little Butler—enrollment 4,200—to give Hoosier fans some hope.
“This is unique,” Butler coach Brad 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. He kept the Bulldogs on their regular schedule early in the week—including those 6:30 a.m. practices. While the Michigan State, Duke and West Virginia players only had to worry about practices and interviews Thursday and Friday, the Bulldogs shuttled back and forth to campus so they could get to a class or two.
“One of the things we try to do is do the exact same routine we did in San Jose and Salt Lake,” Stevens said, referring to Butler’s destinations the first two weekends of the tournament. “We didn’t want to change it. We didn’t want to become something now that we haven’t been.”
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,” said Matt Howard, he of the mousy mustache left over from the team’s lucky charms in its push to the NCAA tournament. “The city’s been awesome.”
But as Michigan State discovered in last year’s title game, fans can only help a team so far.
Butler is no plucky, mid-major underdog, but rather a team with solid defense and so many interchangeable parts offensively it’s hard to pick whom to shut down first. The Spartans lost Kalin Lucas, their leader in scoring and assists, to a blown-out Achilles, but like any good Izzo team, they’ve simply reloaded and rolled on, letting their defense set their tone.
“Once the ball is tossed, I think you’ll see that the players take over,” Izzo said, “not the fans and the coaches.”