Indianapolis is the ideal place to realize hoop dreams

Indianapolis is the ideal place to realize hoop dreams
Basketball fans fill the concourse of Lucas Oil Stadium during the open practices for the Final Four teams on Fridayin Indianapolis. (Robert Willett / Raleigh News & Observer)

A Kentucky fan stood on a downtown corner Thursday night and snapped a picture of the basketball team's bus.

Never mind the bus was empty, that Kentucky players had minutes before they left for their hotel rooms. These were the actual tires and axel rods that carried the hopes and dreams of a fan base hellbent on history.


This could be a weekend of nonstop F-stops.

If Kentucky wins two games to complete a 40-0 season, Wildcats fans might create a photo album display of gum wrappers collected from Kentucky players.

If history is going to be made in college basketball, it really should be made here. The shame of the political sideshow that dominated media coverage early in the week is that it undercut the advancement of an event that pays theme park-like homage to a sport it loves.

Most people, including journalists and NCAA executives, would opt to hold every Final Four in Indianapolis. The city, when the Final Four comes to town, glistens like Rockefeller Center at Christmas.

The gigantic 68-team tournament bracket, illuminated this week on the side of the J.W. Marriott hotel, beckons on the drive into town.

Indianapolis appears to have been laid out with the idea that anyone could, at least in theory, dribble a basketball from any hotel to the arena. The connective tissue of the town is hoops.

Four schools play Saturday in two games, Duke vs. Michigan State followed by Kentucky vs. Wisconsin.

Kentucky is looking to make history, but the three other schools already have deep-rooted memories that were made here.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been wearing, all during this year's tournament, the 2010 NCAA championship ring his team won in Indianapolis.

"Not for luck or anything," Krzyzewski explained Friday. "Just as a constant reminder of what it is. To come back here again, I think is the best place to have it. Nothing against any other place. Yeah, it starts with the state of Indiana."

The 2010 title game was a two-point thriller in which Duke prevailed over Butler, the hometown heroes, in an ending that almost replicated the movie "Hoosiers." Watching, it was hard to believe Butler star Gordon Hayward's half-court heave at the buzzer didn't actually go in.

"It's just special," Duke freshman Tyus Jones said after Friday's practice. "You can just feel it in the air, how important it is, what it means to us to be here."

Duke also won the national title here in 1991, stunning defending national champion Nevada Las Vegas in a semifinal and beating Kansas for the title.

Wisconsin made lasting memories in 2000 when, as an eight-seeded team, the Badgers, led by Dick Bennett, made an improbable run that ended at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

The ending only somewhat fizzled with a semifinal loss to Michigan State, which went on to win its second NCAA championship.

Kentucky's memories of Indianapolis aren't as fond. In 1997, bluegrass fans would tell you the wrong Wildcats won. That was the year Arizona, which had finished tied for fifth in the Pac-10 Conference, defeated Kentucky for the national title.

Kentucky hopes this trip serves as a crowning moment. Coach John Calipari's team has been living under the pressure of trying to become the first major division team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976.

The closer Kentucky gets to 40-0, Calipari figures, the harder it should get.

"Right now, whether you're Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin or us, everybody's record is the same," Calipari said Friday. "We're all feeling the same thing. We all want to win a national title. So you have two losses, six losses, zero losses, 11 losses, it doesn't matter."

That might just be the psychologist in Calipari talking. Yet, he also knows how motivated Wisconsin is to be the team that stops the streak. Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers' star center, said it would be "a great story."

The Badgers return four of their top five players from the team that lost to Kentucky last year at the Final Four.

Wisconsin led by two points when Kentucky's Aaron Harrison hit the game-winning three-pointer with five seconds left.

There was a lot of talk Friday about the difficulty of shooting the ball in giant football stadiums.

"Did it bother you, Aaron, on the game winner?" Calipari joked to Harrison. "No," Harrison responded, "it was good."

People keep waiting for Kentucky to shoot the airball that lets the air out of its balloon, but it hasn't happened yet.

Kentucky players may be feeling pressure, but they're not showing it.

"I think the pressure is more what other people have put on us," said Andrew Harrison, Aaron's twin brother. "We just have to stay doing what we've been doing. Stay together, stick together, stick to the script."