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Butler's Final Four run gives Indiana new favorite

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Hoosier State has gone to the dawgs.

Once relegated to second-class status behind Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue, Butler has ridden a 24-game winning streak into the NCAA semifinals for a game against Michigan State on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs have also elbowed their way to the forefront of conversations across basketball-mad Indiana, winning converts with their baby-faced coach and style points, too.

They take pride in passing. They play defense. They credit others. And two-thirds of the roster grew up in Indiana. The combination has given Butler the most treasured commodity in Indiana basketball — statewide support — even while Purdue and Notre Dame are surging and the Hoosiers are rebuilding.

"Today everyone in Indianapolis is a Butler Bulldog," Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard — an Indiana graduate — declared at a raucous pep rally this week that was more like an event for the NFL's Colts.

From small-town Connersville to Muncie, blue Butler shirts are popping up everywhere — even on Indiana's Bloomington campus, where red-favoring locals have gone from casual observers to Butler backers (at least for this week).

At Victory Field, home of Indy's minor-league baseball team, the words "Go Dawgs" have been scripted in the stands. At the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, with its interactive exhibits and life-size cutouts of players past, growing crowds are asking questions about Butler basketball.

"This is a tremendous basketball state and you remember all the years IU got to the Final Four, it captivated the state," said Indiana football coach Bill Lynch, a Butler Hall of Famer. "I'm sure it would be the same way if Purdue got there, too. I remember when Indiana State went, that kind of came out of nowhere."

The Sycamores' moment in the spotlight faded quickly after Larry Bird went on to the NBA and the Hoosiers used their success to maintain a firm grip on the state's No. 1 program for decades.

Until this week the Hoosiers were the only Indiana school to reach the Final Four since 1981.

Cindy Burzk and her husband, Jim, met at Indiana University and have been Hoosiers fans for more than four decades. On Saturday, they'll be Bulldogs fans.

"Since IU's not here, we're rooting for Butler," Burzk said.

The Bulldogs epitomize what Indiana fans like to see:

— Since 2000, they have won more conference titles than Purdue, Notre Dame and Indiana combined.

— They've won more overall games than the Big Three over the past 10 seasons.

— They've made more NCAA tournament tips (five), than the Boilermakers, Irish or Hoosiers since 2003.

— They graduate 90 percent of their players.

— And they've done it all without producing a single NBA player.

Purists love it.

"You look at how they do it, and you see a team that really wants to play as a team, and no individuals that want to play as individuals," said 54-year-old Randy Parr, an Indianapolis attorney. "That's extremely refreshing. It's a lot of fun."

And it IS fun. Players scratch the ears of Blue II, their 60-plund bulldog mascot, before introductions — and the dog is a popular draw of its own this week. Coach Brad Stevens is getting notes from friends urging "Ollie" — that's the pint-sized kid in "Hoosiers" — to keep winning.

All week strangers have been snapping pictures of Hinkle Fieldhouse, the venerable home of the Bulldogs. Sixty-year-old Billy Shepherd, the Bulldogs' career scoring leader, thrilled onlookers one day by making five straight 3-pointers.

"It's hard to not jump on and follow a team that's doing pretty well," Butler center Matt Howard said. "I think that's sort of human nature, and I can't say that I'm innocent of doing that before. But it's been awesome and a lot of these people are people that I've seen before, they're just showing it a little bit more."

Tickets for Saturday's game are in high demand, but the long-term implications may be a bigger boon for the 4,500-student school.

Butler's average attendance for men's basketball games this season was 6,852, more than 3,000 short of Hinkle's capacity. Mike Freeman, associate athletic director for external operations, said more fans are expressing interest in buying season tickets and he believes donations will increase.

"Fundraising has been on an incline over the last three years, and this will not hurt it," he said.

But winning a national title, in their hometown, will do more than bring money and fame. It would give Butler a special place in Hoosier history and, perhaps, a ready-to-make movie script.

"Those guys in the movie, they played together," guard Ronald Nored said, referring to "Hoosiers." ''They had some tough times at the beginning of the season and they overcame them. They were tougher because of them. I think we're tougher because of some of the losses we took earlier. We rallied around each other and stuck together, just like you saw in the movie."

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