ATLANTA – Louisville already had the bigger names, the better team and some unfinished business after coming up short in last year’s Final Four.
All Wichita State had was the cute-and-cuddly underdog angle. Now the Shockers don’t even have that.
Kevin Ware is everybody’s favorite player since he broke his leg in gruesome fashion last weekend yet summoned the strength to encourage his teammates, and having him at the Final Four has given the top-seeded Cardinals (33-5) added motivation to claim the title that eluded them last year.
“We really want it, especially since we’re back here for a second year,” Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear said Friday. “With Kevin going down, especially the way he did, it’s just making us play harder.”
Louisville will play Wichita State (30-8) in the first national semifinal tonight. The Cardinals are 10½-point favorites.
Wichita State has one player (Carl Hall) who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more (Ron Baker and Malcolm Armstead) who paid their way to come to school and started on the team as walk-ons. Its coach has invited fans into the locker room after big wins. Yes, this is a school with all the makings of a team the entire country could get behind.
Problem is, in this case, Louisville and Ware already are tugging on America’s heart strings.
“I’m just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he’s probably the most famous person I know,” Peyton Siva cracked. “You know, when you have Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama call you, it’s pretty good to say you know that person.”
Louisville’s trip to last year’s Final Four was something of a surprise, coming after the Cardinals skidded into the Big East tournament just two games over .500. So when they got to the NCAA tourney and finally got bounced by archrival and top-ranked Kentucky in the national semifinals, it wasn’t a shock. Or a huge disappointment.
This year, however, the Cardinals – and everyone else – expect Louisville to win it all.
“I think that’s the one difference from last year to this year,” Chane Behanan said. “Last year, I don’t want to say it was a fluke because we were a great basketball team. This year is just totally different. We have the No. 1 seed. It’s a lot of pressure with everyone expecting us to win.”
Until Ware got hurt, the Cardinals seemed immune to the pressure and the expectations, to say nothing of letdowns.
They won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of almost 22 points. They limited opponents to 59 points and 42 percent shooting while harrassing them into almost 18 turnovers. Oregon was the only team to get within single-digits of Louisville at the buzzer. The Cardinals blew out mighty Duke by 22 points.
Russ Smith was named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional after averaging 26 points in the first four games and tying an NCAA record with eight steals against North Carolina A&T. Gorgui Dieng has 10 blocks.
But losing Ware was big. He was the main substitute – the only substitute, really – for Smith and Peyton Siva, the high-octane guards who are the key not only to Louisville’s suffocating press but its offense, too.
“Our players totally understand the challenge that lies ahead with this Wichita State team,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We understand with Kevin out that we not only have to play very hard, we have to play very, very smart.”
Particularly against the Shockers.
This is the first Final Four appearance for Wichita State since 1965, but the ninth-seeded Shockers are no fluke. They’re big, they’re athletic, they rebound and they can shoot 3s better than just about anyone. Just ask Pittsburgh, a first-round victim of the hot-shooting Shockers. Or No. 1-seeded Gonzaga, which was out before the first weekend of the tournament was over thanks to Wichita State.
Or Ohio State, a fashionable pick for a third straight Final Four until the Shockers sent them packing.
(Pitino, by the way, swears he picked Wichita State to get to the Final Four.)
“Their whole team is tough. It’s not just one guy,” Siva said. “Macolm Armstead, of course, makes them go. But on any given night, anybody on the team can have a big night. It’s up to us to play collective defense, hit the glass and continue to play how we’ve been playing.”
Armstead is averaging almost 16 points during the tournament, one of four Shockers in double figures. Tekele Cotton is 5 of 10 from 3-point range, while Ron Baker is 6 of 15.
But the number that will catch Pitino’s attention is 34, the shooting percentage for Wichita State’s first four opponents.
“What you’ve got to do is not turn the ball over,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “If we’re turning the ball over and giving them transition opportunities, then we’re not doing what we’re trying to do.”
The key to avoiding that is containing Siva and Smith. Or getting them in foul trouble.
Siva, in particular, has a tendency to pick up fouls. He played only the first five minutes of the first half against Duke after getting whistled for two quick ones. He was in foul trouble in last year’s Final Four, too, sitting the last seven minutes of the first half.
“I try to avoid foul trouble every game. Sometimes it just finds me,” he said. “I don’t know how.”
Smith and Siva know they need to be more careful against Wichita State — but not to the point where it makes them cautious.
“We’re going to keep our aggressiveness,” Smith promised. “Nothing is going to change.”
After all, the Cardinals have unfinished business. For themselves and for Ware, who plans to be on the bench Saturday night.
“One of our teammates went down,” Behanan said. “We as a team have to step it up.”