- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Matt Howard looked around Hinkle Fieldhouse in disbelief Wednesday afternoon.

He saw hundreds of fans lining the front hallway of Butler’s home arena, and dozens more waiting outside in snow flurries. One fan even brought her own pet bulldog.

To the senior forward, it was a strange to see all these people in the daylight. Butler usually holds its impromptu pep rallies in the early morning hours.

“It means a lot,” Howard said minutes before boarding the team bus and heading to the Indianapolis airport. “I’ve never been part of a send-off quite like this. It’s a little bit different.”

Certainly different from last year’s NCAA tourney run. Back then, the Bulldogs hopped on a bus and drove six miles to the team hotel. Fans didn’t even bother showing up, figuring they’d see the players all weekend anyway.

By the time the Bulldogs (27-9) step off the plane in Houston late Wednesday, they’ll know how much has changed.

They’ve already turned over the title of NCAA tournament darling to Virginia Commonwealth, their foe in Saturday’s NCAA semifinal. And instead of being the underdog, Butler is favored to beat the Rams and reach another title game.

Wilson Ethington, a sophomore biology major at Butler already knows who he wants to be in the final game: Kentucky and Butler. Ethington showed up wearing a T-shirt from Kentucky’s 1998 championship team.

“I was walking by and saw the buses and decided to see what was going on. I wasn’t sure if there was an open practice or what,” he said. “I’ll root for Kentucky unless they play Butler. They’ve already got seven (championships).”

Most fans at Hinkle weren’t even thinking about Kentucky yet.

Instead, people ranging in age from toddlers to grandparents, snapped pictures, asked for autographs and traded high-fives with players. The loudest cheers were reserved for coach Brad Stevens.

“The biggest difference this year is that it’s 1,000 miles instead of six, so it’s a lot further away,” he joked. “It’s special, really special.”

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