Blue 2 star of Final Four

BY foxsports • April 3, 2011

The Jimmer got Jimmered.

By a dog.

Fans mobbed Blue 2, Butler's adorable English bulldog mascot, snapping pictures with him and petting him while everybody's player of the year, Jimmer Fredette, was ignored behind the CBS stage at the Final Four on Saturday. Even TV analyst Kenny Smith whipped out his phone to get a picture when Blue joined the CBS crew two hours before Butler and VCU tipped off in the first national semifinal.

''Four or five years ago, we used to walk around Indianapolis and people would say, 'Oh, what a cute dog,' not knowing it was Blue,'' said Michael Kaltenmark, a member of Butler's development staff and Blue's master. ''Now you're walking around the Saturn V rocket and people are like, 'That's Blue 2!' He doesn't have his jersey on or anything.

''It's just crazy. Just crazy.''

Blue became something of a celebrity during last year's Final Four, and the (puppy) lovefest has only continued to grow, thanks to Kaltenmark's use of social media. Blue tweets, posts pictures, has a Facebook page and, when he's in Indianapolis, has a webcam so people can keep an eye on him in Kaltenmark's office.

He's up to almost 5,000 followers on Twitter - almost 1,000 of those were added just this week - and 57,000 people checked out Blue's Flickr page Friday to see photos of him at the Johnson Space Center, open practice and media appearances. Compare that with last year's Final Four, when the high was 19,000 views.

''It's incredible. Last year I thought we'd hit the ceiling,'' said Kaltenmark, clearly amazed so many people are interested in what is, for most of the year, a family dog. ''He's an everyday dog at home, he does dog stuff. You come to something like this, and it's a different story. We're kind of awestruck by it all.''

Not Blue, though.

Despite a full day Friday and more appearances Saturday, he happily posed for photos, sat quietly even when Kaltenmark took off his leash and never barked once.

''He gets it,'' Kaltenmark said. ''He understands, I might be tired, but this is the Final Four.''

Blue was certainly fired up for his second Final Four.

Set up at the end of Butler's introduction line before the game, he had to be held back by Kaltenmark and wouldn't stop barking, even when the players each came out and gave him a pat.

Blue finally calmed down after being give a bone nearly as long as he is, trotting happily off the court with the long ends of the rawhide sticking out both sides of his mouth.

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FAMOUS FAN: Singer and rapper Drake sat on the front row behind the Kentucky bench in his Wildcat shirt during its loss 56-55 loss to Connecticut on Saturday night. He's a huge fan but hadn't been able to see a game in person this season until the Final Four.

''I've had an incredibly busy year, and it's always been on my mind to get to a Wildcats game,'' he told The Associated Press. ''So today I just made the time. I finally had a moment to come out, and it's a big day for us today. I'm just excited to be here.''

He's proud of what Kentucky has done this season but seemed to sense that the Wildcats might lose while watching the second half.

''It's been an incredible year for us and an incredible season,'' he said. ''Tonight's a hard night. Kemba's (Walker) an incredible player.''

He wasn't planning on going to the title game even if Kentucky would have won.

''I actually can't,'' he said. ''I got a Lil' Wayne show on Monday.''

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JUST A FIB: Butler's Ronald Nored told Shelvin Mack before the game that VCU was trash talking about the Bulldogs. Thing is, Nored completely made that up.

There's no telling if it was the fib or another factor, but whatever it was, Mack was ready to play. He led the Bulldogs with 24 points in a 70-62 win over the Rams to get them back in the title game for the second straight year.

''I kind of knew he was lying 'cause otherwise I'm pretty sure some of my friends or somebody would have told me,'' Mack said. ''But he just said that (VCU's Ed) Nixon said I wasn't the best player he guarded this tournament. That kind of motivated me deep down inside, but I kind of knew he was lying.''

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WE'LL BE BACK: Shaka Smart looked surprised and edged forward in his seat.

He'd just been told that no one would have dared predict that Butler would return to the Final Four one year after making what many suspected could be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

''Do you think this is a once-in-a-lifetime run,'' he was asked.

''You don't know me very well if you ask that,'' he said, moving closer to the microphone. ''Of course it's not a once-in-a-lifetime run. We're going to try to do this every year.

''It's not easy. There's no question about it.''

Smart just completed his second season as VCU's head coach.

''You know, we've got a lot of things that we still want to accomplish. This was a terrific run. Are we capable of doing it again? Sure, no question.''

Freshman D.J. Haley believes, too.

''Never say never,'' the 7-foot freshman said. ''I think this will help us next year, because we've been here.''

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SMITH ''HAPPY'' FOR 'CATS: Tubby Smith had great seats Saturday night, first row in fact, but they weren't quite as good as the last time Kentucky was in the national semifinals.

Smith led the Wildcats to their seventh national title in 1998, the only time during his decade in Lexington the school made the Final Four. He abruptly left following the 2007 season to coach at Minnesota.

Four years later, any bad feelings about his sudden departure have subsided. Smith says he could barely get inside the stadium because so many Kentucky fans were stopping him to shake hands.

He looks back at his 10 seasons in Lexington with pride, saying ''I think we did right by Kentucky, and Kentucky did right by me.'' Smith called the job done by current Kentucky coach John Calipari ''remarkable.''

Smith was joined by wife, Donna, and son Saul - a former Kentucky player - in the front row. Asked if he ever thinks about still working the sidelines at Rupp Arena, he demurred.

''It was a matter of what was best for everyone, and I think UK found the right fit. They're back on track where they need to be,'' Smith said.

Smith was hardly the only coach with a national championship on his resume watching the Final Four as a spectator. Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and former Louisville coach Denny Crum also scored prime seats inside massive Reliant Stadium.

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THAT'S THAT: So it seems mid-majors don't stick together.

VCU's Jamie Skeen, who had 27 points in the loss to Butler, apparently has become a UConn fan.

''I never root for the team that just now beat me,'' Skeen said. ''I'm not going to be rooting for (Butler). That's just that.''

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BUTLER'S BIGGEST FAN: It's a special day for Bobby Plump, who is perhaps Butler's most famous alumnus. The 74-year-old Plump is the man who in high school hit a last second jump shot in the 1954 Indiana state championship game that led to the movie ''Hoosiers.''

He was an all-conference guard at Butler and is in the school's athletic hall of fame.

''I've been excited since they won last week,'' Plump told The Associated Press in a phone interview. ''This year is a bit more special because it's the second straight year. It's awfully nice to repeat.''

They're expecting a big crowd at Plump's Indianapolis restaurant, Plump's Last Shot, on Saturday. They've added televisions outside and dogs, especially Bulldogs, are welcome out there. Their special of the day is the Blue Dog, a beef hot dog wrapped in bacon and deep fried.

He is confident in his team against VCU on Saturday.

''Butler is going to win of course,'' he said.

He's very proud of what Butler has been able to accomplish in reaching the Final Four in consecutive years.

''It's unbelievable,'' Plump said. ''When you stop and think that Butler is the first Indiana school to go to back-to-back Final Fours that's saying a lot.''

It's no surprise to him that Butler is contending for a national championship. He's known for years that they were capable of such success.

''They've done such a magnificent job,'' he said. ''We've known for 10 or 15 years that they've been good.''

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SHAKAMANIA: VCU athletic director Norwood Teague is ready for the season to be over - but only so he can sit down with coach Shaka Smart and try to wow him with a new contract.

''We're going to get really aggressive with a package for him and hopefully carve out a deal that we can work it out after the season's over,'' Teague said courtside at Reliant Stadium.

Smart has gone from a surprise selection to replace Anthony Grant two years ago to the hottest young name in coaching as the Rams have made their surprise run to the Final Four.

Several power conference positions remain open, including Missouri and North Carolina State, and Teague is well aware that fans at those schools likely will want them to look at Smart.

But that doesn't mean Smart will leave.

''I think a lot of people agree with me that we could keep him,'' Teague said.

After Grant had great success at VCU, the school reworked his contract and was paying him nearly $900,000 until he left to take the job at Alabama before last season. Smart makes $325,000 base salary, but bonuses have boosted his pay for this season to $640,000, Teague said.

''I feel very comfortable talking about that at any moment,'' he said. ''The only time I don't feel comfortable about it is this weekend because I want to let him enjoy it and focus on what he's doing.''

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WHERE'S ENES?: Enes Kanter wasn't on the sidelines for Kentucky on Saturday night and never played a minute for the Wildcats this year, but that doesn't mean the talented center didn't make an impact.

The NCAA ruled Kanter permanently ineligible in January for accepting improper benefits from a Turkish club team two years ago, a decision that was supposed to doom the Wildcats.

Instead, they made it back to the Final Four for the first time in 13 years thanks in large part to the guy who filled in: senior Josh Harrellson, who evolved from little-used role player to glue-guy.

Harrellson heaps much of the praise for his rapid development on the 6-foot-11 Kanter, considered one of the best big men in the country when he signed with Kentucky a year ago. Kentucky coach John Calipari made Kanter a student assistant after the NCAA's judgment, a move that allowed him to practice with the team.

''Just competing against him, doing drills with him, trying to match what he does, it made me better,'' Harrellson said. ''You think if you can hang with a guy like that, you can hang with a lot of other guys too.''

Harrellson turned the confidence he gained battling Kanter in practice and transferred it to the games. He held his own against Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller in last week's regionals and he become arguably Kentucky's second-most important player behind point guard Brandon Knight.

Kanter spent most of the home games sitting at the end of the Kentucky bench in a white sweat suit, clipboard in hand. He opted to remain on campus during the postseason to focus on working out and getting ready for the NBA Draft. Several teams have already traveled to Lexington to get a look at Kanter, and he is expected to be a lottery pick despite not having played a game in over a year.

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ROYALTY IN THE PARK: The Kings of Leon headlined the Big Dance concert series downtown at Discovery Green on Saturday before the game. Hundreds of people crowded into the park on Saturday to listen to the music and enjoy food, drinks and basketball-themed games.

The park is across the street from the George R. Brown convention center, which has been transformed into Bracket Town throughout the tournament. Bracket Town features basketball competitions, interactive games and prizes and is open through Monday evening.

The concert series wraps up Sunday with performances by Roger Creager, Uncle Kracker, Pat Green and Kenny Chesney.

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VCU'S BAND: Virginia Commonwealth didn't just bring a good basketball team to Houston. Its band isn't bad, either.

Led by gyrating director Ryan Kopacsi, the Rams band was lighting it up before the Final Four game against Butler with a string of extra-spirited songs, including a version ''Tequila'' where the chorus was replaced by ''Yo Mamma!''

Kopacsi has made a name for himself at VCU with his animated conducting style and was at his whirligiging best at Reliant Stadium.

Wearing a pink, long-sleeved shirt, white khakis and flip-flops, Kopacsi didn't so much conduct VCU's band, but jived it into the right notes, primping and prancing along with the beat. He's also been known to do stripteases for the fans.

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PRESIDENTIAL VIEWING: President G. W. Bush had a good seat for the Final Four games, set up two rows behind Butler's bench with his wife, Barbara. Bush lives in Houston most of the year and wasn't going to pass up a chance to watch college sport's biggest spectacle.

''We come all the time,'' he said. ''It's great fun. I'll have to admit that I'm pulling for Kentucky because I know the coach.''

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SUCH A MOM: Shaka Smart's mother, his wife, aunt, uncle, three brothers and two cousins attended the game and sat a few rows behind the Rams' bench, shouting steady encouragement.

Monica King, Smart's mother, said she attended three regular season games, all three games in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and both games two weekends ago in Chicago.

So far, VCU is 6-2 with King in attendance.

If she could talk to her son at halftime, King said she'd tell him: ''You're doing great.''

Also sitting with the family was Bill Brown, Smart's mentor, first college coach at Kenyon College and the man who gave him his first job as an assistant at California of Pennsylvania.

''He doesn't want to show them everything too soon,'' Brown said.

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AP Sports Writers Nancy Armour, Will Graves, Hank Kurz, John Marshall and Kristie Rieken contributed to this report from Houston.


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