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Basketball Fans Flock to Houston for the College Final Four

Butler players stretch during a practice for a men's NCAA Final Four semifinal college basketball game Friday, March 1, 2011, in Houston. Butler plays VCU on Saturday.
Butler players stretch during a practice for a men's NCAA Final Four semifinal college basketball game Friday, March 1, 2011, in Houston. Butler plays VCU on Saturday.


Greg Flakus

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA, is holding its final four games for this year's men's basketball season in Houston, Texas. More than 70,000 fans are expected for the games, the first two of which are held on Saturday, with the winners from those games going on to the final match Monday. There is a lot of excitement in and around Reliant stadium, where the games take place.

Part of the thrill for basketball fans at this year's Final Four is that some lower-ranked teams managed to win some crucial games and get into the final competition.

One of them was 11th ranked Virginia Commonwealth University, or VCU.

Fans from VCU's home city of Richmond, Virginia stalk the players for autographs and even the coach, Shaka Smart, has become a celebrity.

Patti made the long trip from Richmond to support the team. “You know the town has just gone in total mayhem (excited and happy). They just love the boys and we are here to support them and show them that we are rooting for them," she said.

Of course, many of the people attending the events here are from Houston and nearby areas, but they have their favorites as well.

Sasha Richards coaches basketball in Tyler, Texas. “I like Kentucky. I like coach John Calipari. I think he is a great coach. I like what he has done with his young basketball team, so I am interested in seeing them practice," he said.

Another lower-ranked team, Butler University of Indianapolis, Indiana, called the Bulldogs, brought its mascot to cheer the players on.

Mascot caretaker Tiffany came from Indianapolis with her baby, Everett. “Everybody is pretty excited. I think the whole city has rallied around and they are excited and ready for the game," she said.

Why people support one team or another is sometimes hard to figure. Natalie is from Indiana, but she is not here for Butler. “I have been a UConn fan for a long time. I mean, I like Butler, but I like Uconn a little bit more," she said.

UConn is short for University of Connecticut, at three, it has the highest ranking of any of the teams in the Final Four, in large part because of star player Kemba Walker.

But the really big guy on the team is 213-centimeter tall Charles Okwandu, who was born and raised in Nigeria.

The 24-year-old senior says this is like a dream. “Every basketball player hopes and dreams to go to the Final Four and win the championship and I am from Nigeria and I am here right now. It is like a dream come true. I feel great and I am really happy to be here," he said.

Okwandu has been playing for Uconn since his sophomore year and has become a model for aspiring players back in Africa.

Assistant Coach Kevin Ollie says Charles Okwandu could help build sports programs for youth in his country. “Basketball has done wonders for my life and I know it has for Charles' life as well and, hopefully, he can be an ambassador when he goes back home and shows the fruit of the labor of playing basketball and teaching basketball to the students or young people back in Nigeria," he said.

The Final Four games also provide events for young people here to practice their skills throwing a ball through a hoop.

And when they tire of that, there are plenty of other events including free concerts, parties and dance performances.

There is a lot of excitement and a lot of entertainment available here in Houston for fans of the Final Four, but, in the end, it all comes down to the games and which team will emerge as this year's champion.

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