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 plays Wichita State (30-8) today in the first national semifinal. 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 playing as walk-ons. Its coach has invited fans into the locker room after big victories. 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 are already 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, nothing less than a national title will satisfy the Cardinals.
“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, Louisville seemed immune to the pressure and the expectations, to say nothing of letdowns.
The Cardinals 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 harassing 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 had ended, another Wichita State victim.
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 reach 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.”