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’s Wayne Blackshear said. “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 tonight. The Cardinals are 10 1/2-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 paid their way to go 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 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, the Cardinals — and just about 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 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.
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 also its offense.
“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.”