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. 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) in the first national semifinal at 3 p.m. today. The Cardinals are 101/2-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 previously played at Oregon) who paid their way to school and walked on the join the team.
Coach Gregg Marshall 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 are already tugging 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,” joked Cardinals point guard Peyton Siva, a graduate of Seattle’s Franklin High School. “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 tournament and finally got bounced by top-ranked and eventual champion Kentucky in the national semifinals, it wasn’t a shock. Or a huge disappointment.
This season, however, the Cardinals — and everyone else — expected Louisville to win the national championship.
“I think that’s the one difference from last year to this year,” forward 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.
But losing Ware was big. He was the main substitute — the only substitute, really — for Russ Smith and 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.”
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 Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country which was out before the first weekend of the tournament was over thanks to Wichita State.
“What you’ve got to do is not turn the ball over,” 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.”