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.
INDIANAPOLIS — They’ve snarled traffic, made cheesy mustaches fashionable and drawn a bigger crowd for practice than their fabled fieldhouse can hold.
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.”
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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 darkhorse 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. … 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. The entire lower bowl of the Lucas Oil Stadium was filled for Friday morning’s practice, with most of the people in Butler blue.
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.”