Belmont students Luke LePage, Chris Dean and Katie Gleerup wasted no time exploring Salt Lake City. Before coming to check out top seed Gonzaga's practice at EnergySolutions Arena, they had already ridden TRAX to the University of Utah, where they took quick tours of Rice-Eccles Stadium and the Huntsman Center.
"We've never been here before," said Gleerup. "We went to games in Arizona and Ohio the past few years and had an awesome experience. Our profs understand this is an awesome opportunity to see this part of the country. I am in nursing, and it's hard to get out of school for that many days."
Because the trio of Belmont fans attended most of their school's men's and women's games, they were invited to fly on the team charter. LePage said he looked up the distance from Nashville to Salt Lake City and calculated that it would have taken just under 24 hours to drive. He said a friend who didn't get to fly was considering doing just that.
"For a kid from the Great Plains of Ohio, there are some pretty big bumps in the road," said LePage about the Wasatch Mountains.
Dean said the fact Belmont was playing Arizona in the first round meant even more to him because three members of his family graduated from the Tucson school.
"You can't beat Salt Lake City," he said. "It's the best place to go. I've never been here before."
Still, the Belmont fans think that their team will have at most 150 fans in the stands. They are hoping New Mexico supporters will cheer for the Bruins, who have never won an NCAA game and will be underdogs against Arizona on Thursday.
Pitt band members Stephen Ippolito and Matt O'Polka, who were part of a section cheering as Pitt players made half-court shots while practicing at ESA on Wednesday, were also making their first trip to Utah. They didn't expect to see many of their classmates in the stands.
"It's a $500 plane ticket, which is hard for last-minute travel," said O'Polka, adding sarcastically that "all you have to do is hop on I-80 and drive for 1,800 miles."
The Pitt students had already discovered Squatters Pub. A few asked about local bars. Some visitors were going to Park City.
One of the big surprises Wednesday were the number of Montana fans, a few even wearing Griz hats. That's surprising because the University of Montana is playing in San Jose, not Salt Lake.
It turns out many folks from Montana love Gonzaga, too. And couples such as Leonard and Myrna Stone from Geraldine, Mont., are such big college basketball fans that they have planned a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the past 12 years.
"We bought our regional tickets a year ago as a family," said Leonard.
"We are huge college basketball fans and the Zags are number one this year," added Myrna. "Lots of Montana people are Zag fans. We have been following them for 15 years. They are a Cinderella story."
James and JoAnn Krum of Valentine, Mont., sat in a different section watching practice. They came to Salt Lake because it was the closest regional, Their son was flying up from New Mexico to cheer on the Lobos.
Ross Shannon of Vernon, B.C., and his daughter Erin decided to book tickets and hotels for the first round games in hopes of seeing Gonzaga but with no guarantee. They took a 15-hour father-daughter road trip.
"We've followed Gonzaga 25 years," said Ross. "They have a big fan base. They are a good group to follow. … We were lucky enough that Gonzaga got here. It was good karma."
The biggest contingent of fans coming to Salt Lake City is expected to be from Arizona. Wildcat Club member Irene Duarte flew the team charter to the game after watching the Wildcats play in Las Vegas last weekend.
Tyler Schlegel, an Arizona native who moved to Salt Lake City and is an aspiring basketball coach, wanted to watch what drills Wildcat coach Sean Miller used at practice. His father was flying up late Wednesday from Tucson for the first-round matchup against Belmont.
"The committee was nice enough to send Arizona here," he grinned.