Downtown Indianapolis looks about the same way it does in the days leading up to the Indy 500 race. The streets are choked with cars and buses and there are crowds of pedestrians jamming the sidewalks heading to Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the 2010 NCAA Final Four.
The Butler t-shirt concession is doing a booming business. Everywhere you look are people wearing dark blue Bulldogs paraphernalia that clearly is brand new. They definitely have captured the imagination of the locals, who have put away their red IU and black and gold Purdue gear with very few exceptions.
Thousands of fans poured into the lower bowl of Lucas Oil Stadium today for the open workouts by Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia and Duke. Several players said it was a good experience to have so many people in the stands to get a feel for what it will be like playing on a raised court that is more like a stage in the middle of the football field. The media area on the sidelines is about three feet below court level, and temporary grandstands have extended the seating area on the football sidelines a little closer to the court. But fans still are at a distance, making for a very different feel than in a normal basketball arena.
"It was an experience, I'll tell you that," Butler's Willie Veasley said of Friday's practice. "We probably didn't even play in front of that many people in the first two rounds. Not having that before, you're kind of nervous at first. But after awhile, we didn't even really notice they were there."
Butler forward Gordon Hayward went to a math class before practice and signed autographs and took pictures with classmates. "It was pretty cool," he said.
After the workout at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Butler players all waved to the crowd before leaving. "Coach said to do whatever we want at the end of practice, and we all decided to get together and wave to the crowd," Hayward said. "You feel bad because, when you're walking out, everybody wants your autograph. You have to leave sometime, so, you can't get everyone."
Butler is 15-0 in Indianapolis this season, but this will be the Bulkddogs' first appearance on this stage. In contrast, Michigan State won two Midwest Regional games here a year ago, so, it really might be the team with a "Lucas Oil court" advantage.
But the Spartans know they will be walking into a hostile arena for the first semifinal game Saturday. "They're probably going to have the best fan base you're ever going to see," Michigan State's Isaiah Dahlman said of Butler. "The whole state is behind them. I'm flipping through the channels in my hotel room, and every news station has Butler, Butler all over the place. It's pretty cool. We know what it's going to be like."
Added Spartans coach Tom Izzo: "Last year, we played here with probably 30,000 Louisville fans dressed in red. That stuck out like a sore thumb. At least, the guys are battle-tested. At the end of the day, I don't think it will affect us much. Once the ball is tossed, you'll see that the players take over. Not the fans, not the coaches."