by Juston Whitaker
Four teams have made it through the madness of March to this year’s NCAA men’s Final Four, and one can win the title in its home city.
UCLA did it in 1972, in Los Angeles. Now, the Butler Bulldogs, whose first Final Four is in their home city, are two games away from a hometown title.
Butler will play Michigan State at 6:07 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The winner will advance to the championship game Monday.
For a team with nine NCAA tournament appearances in the past 14 years, a spot in the Final Four could not have come at a better time or place.
The pride and emotion of this team’s success reach beyond the campus of 4,400 students in northern Indianapolis to the alumni who paved the way.
Wally Cox, a 1958 Butler graduate and former basketball player, had only one response as Butler beat the Kansas State Wildcats to advance to the Final Four.
“It was probably 20 seconds to go in that last game,” Cox said, “and tears were coming right down my wife’s cheek and my cheek.”
The emotions were not just for the team’s success, he said, but also because of the types of individuals these Butler players are.
“We were just so happy for the kids because we are so proud of them,” Cox said. “They are quality kids. These guys aren’t just basketball players. They don’t run down the court pounding their chest and yelling in guys’ faces.
“They really are great messengers for Butler University.”
That message has produced excitement and anticipation like nothing before on the Butler campus, senior class president Lindsay Rump said.
“Everywhere you go,” Rump said, “there is a constant buzz about everything — tickets, games, where to go to watch the games if you can’t go, and more.
“People drive through campus honking their horns,” she said. “Greek students are decorating their lawns, and the dorms are decorating their doors and windows. The level of excitement is simply through the roof.”
Former Butler guard Mike Green, playing basketball halfway across the world in Belgium, watched the Kansas State game live. He said he could barely contain himself.
“I was overjoyed,” said Green, the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2007-08. “I stayed up all night watching the game and an hour after — bragging.”
Another former player, Brandon Crone, joined former teammates Green and Julian Betko via Skype during the Kansas State game. He said he was quite nervous.
“The last four minutes of the game actually had my stomach going. It was an amazing finish,” said Crone, a 6-foot-6 forward who played from 2003-07.
All the excitement and success come from a young team. The starting lineup features three sophomores — Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored — and only one senior, Willie Veasley. Matt Howard starts as a junior.
The third leading scorer in Butler basketball history, A.J. Graves, played from 2004 to 2008. He said this young team can achieve great things.
“This group has accomplished so much while being a very young team,” said Graves, Butler’s all-time leader in games played with 130. “They have a great chance at winning the national championship. Just look at what they’ve accomplished so far.”
Considering the Bulldogs’ incredible run, it’s been tough to study and focus on academics, the student body president said, but professors have been lenient of the situation.
“Professors are being very understanding,” Rump said. “They are just as excited as the students are.”
She said professors moved tests, changed due dates and canceled classes. The history major said professors adjusted schedules specifically for when tickets went on sale on Monday and for Wednesday’s pep rally in downtown Indianapolis.
When the tickets went on sale to alumni and selected students at noon Monday, lines ran completely around the inside of historic Hinkle Fieldhouse and overflowed outside. Some fans arrived before dawn, waiting to get their tickets for the Bulldogs’ game against Michigan State.
Graduate Eric Foerg rotated in line with three friends, waiting for coveted Final Four tickets. His friends arrived at 8 a.m., but Foerg had the final shift, arriving around 11 a.m. as the official season ticket holder of the group.
Foerg, a 2002 Butler graduate in finance, was not a vocal fan as he waited in line at Hinkle, only because he had little voice left. His coarse rasp remained from yelling in person at three of the first four tournament games, “especially on foul calls on Matt Howard that are ghost fouls,” Foerg said.
There was more yelling and cheering Wednesday at the Butler pep rally in sunny Monument Circle, in the middle of the downtown Indianapolis.
The seven miles separating the campus and Lucas Oil Stadium were erased. Thousands of fans arrived at the pep rally ready for game time decked in various Butler gear, many holding “Go, Dawgs!” signs.
The popular bulldog mascot, Blue II, made an appearance on the steps of the monument. Indianapolis sports radio talk show host Eddie White emceed the rally and announced that Blue II would be allowed at the games this weekend. The crowd erupted.
Addressing the rally were Indianapolis Downtown Inc. President Tamara Zahn, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, Butler Athletic Director and former coach Barry Collier, Butler University President Bobby Fong and legendary Butler basketball player Bobby Plump. Plump is known for making the game-winning shot in the 1954 Indiana state championship game for the Milan (Ind.) High School team that inspired the movie “Hoosiers.”
But the biggest cheer at the rally came when the mayor declared Wednesday to be Butler Bulldog Day.
“Butler represents the best,” Ballard said.