ATLANTA (AP) — 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) 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 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.”
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.
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.”
This is the first Final Four appearance for Wichita State since 1965, but the ninth-seeded Shockers are no fluke. 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.
“Their whole team is tough. It’s not just one guy,” Siva said