At the Final Four, Butler is the hometown favorite

The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg talks about this years NCAA basketball tournament and the proposal to expand the contest to 96 teams.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- Déjà vu struck the Final Four just before 1 p.m. on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. An overwhelming number of fans -- most of the estimated 30,000 in attendance -- showed up to support the hometown team for its open shoot-around, and at the end of the session the team walked to the edges of the court and returned the favor, applauding to demonstrate their appreciation.

A nearly identical scene took place the day before last year's national semifinals in Detroit, where Michigan State received an outpouring of support at Ford Field from fans throughout its home state. But the Spartans are not the feel-good story of this Final Four.

In fact, on Saturday night they'll find out what it's like to square off against the NCAA tournament's lone remaining darling when they face Butler, whose campus sits about six miles from the site where the college basketball season will culminate.

"This is unique," Butler Coach Brad Stevens said. "Indianapolis, most of us, they've all been here for a little bit of time, and I've been here almost my whole life. It certainly is a different level of energy and enthusiasm for Butler than ever before. But I think our guys will do a pretty good job of managing that."

The primary challenge outside of competing in the game itself, said several Spartans who were at last year's Final Four, is finding the medium between getting caught up in all the attention that accompanies playing for a national title in your own back yard and absorbing an inimitable experience.

Those same Michigan State players also said such a task is easier stated than achieved, which the Bulldogs quickly realized. Stevens said he can hear "One Shining Moment" -- the Final Four's unofficial theme song -- followed by the Butler fight song playing on what seems like a continuous loop outside his hotel room window.

Stevens tried to keep to his normal routine earlier this week by stopping off at Broad Ripple Tavern, a local establishment, for lunch. He sits at a secluded table in the back once a week to plan out team practices and "kind of get away."

This week, he looked up at one of the televisions and saw one commentator breaking down Butler's offense followed by another breaking down Michigan State's offense followed by a third that was interviewing former Butler guard Bobby Plump, who starred on the Milan High team that inspired the movie "Hoosiers."

"Wow," Stevens said he thought. "There's a lot of people talking about this."

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard declared Wednesday "Butler Bulldog Day," hosting a pep rally downtown that drew about 2,000 people. At night, the lights in one of buildings at Monument Circle are arranged to read "BU."

These are the sort of quaint signs of support that many communities put forth when their teams advance to college basketball's grandest stage. The difference for the Bulldogs is that they will continue to see such mass admiration right up until tip-off.

"Just turning every corner and seeing Butler, you know, shirts, Butler jerseys, Butler hats, whatever, any kind of Butler apparel on every corner, I don't think it gets much better than that," Butler guard Ronald Nored said. "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."

Several Bulldogs said they don't anticipate the home-crowd advantage having any sort of tangible effect on how Saturday night's game plays out, and Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo concurred. "Geez, I hope not," he said.

What will make a difference, Butler forward Matt Howard said, is how well the Bulldogs rebound against a Spartans squad known for crashing the boards and how quickly Butler's array of skilled shooters can find their rhythm.

But then Howard's thoughts drifted back to a few moments earlier, when he and his teammates looked up from the court and saw tens of thousands of their fans watching their every move. He estimated that 50 to 70 people typically show up for the team's shoot-arounds. "Pretty incredible," Howard said.

"You've got to realize that the job's not done," Michigan State forward Delvon Roe said. "You didn't just try to play 2 1/2 weeks of basketball; you're trying to play three weeks of basketball. You didn't just come here to be satisfied with the Final Four and enjoy the festivities. You came here to win a championship."

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