The only top seed to survive the NCAA Tournament to this point, Louisville, takes part in its second straight Final Four, as the Cardinals meet the surprising Wichita State Shockers in one of two national semifinal games being played on Saturday evening at the Georgia Dome.
The winner of this game will take on either Syracuse or Michigan for the national title on Monday night.
Rick Pitino is making his seventh trip to the Final Four, tying for fourth all-time with North Carolina's Roy Williams. The Cardinals overcame a very emotional evening in Indianapolis last weekend, and routed the Duke Blue Devils (85-63) to move onto the Final Four. The team navigated the Midwest Region prior to the win over Duke, by disposing of NC A&T (79-48), Colorado State (82-56) and Oregon (77-69). Overall, the Cardinals have won 14 straight games and are now tied for the most wins in school history at 33-5 (1980 and 2005). The team ranks seventh in Final Fours (10), sixth in tournament victories (68) and fifth in overall tournament appearances (39).
Gregg Marshall's Shockers have also set a school record with wins this season. The team's upset of Ohio State in last weekend's Elite Eight moved it to 30-8 overall. Despite losing out on the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles to Creighton, it is Wichita State that survived its bracket with West Regional wins over Pittsburgh (73-55), top-seeded and top- ranked Gonzaga (76-70) and La Salle (72-58), prior to disposing of the Buckeyes. The Shockers have embraced the Cinderella moniker in this event, where they are making just their 10th all-time appearance. Wichita State is 12-10 in NCAA Tournament play with one other Final Four appearance, that coming way back in 1965.
These two teams used to be regular foes in the Missouri Valley Conference (1963-74) and as a result, there has been more than a few previous meetings between them. Louisville holds a 19-5 series advantage, although the two haven't met since 1976.
It was West Regional MVP Malcolm Armstead's 14 points and seven rebounds that led the Shockers to yet another upset win, this time over Ohio State in last weekend's regional final at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet added 12 points apiece, while Tekele Cotton finished with 10 points for Wichita State, which overcame a poor shooting performance by shutting down the Buckeyes, who hit an ugly 31.1 percent from the floor, including only 5-of-25 from behind the arc. The Shockers dominated play in the first half, taking a 35-22 lead into the break after holding the Buckeyes to just eight field goals and outrebounding them 27-17 over the first 20 minutes of action. WSU built up a 20-point lead in the second half, but the Buckeyes came roaring back with a 25-9 run to make a game of it, falling in the end by just four points.
A grind-it-out team that lacks any real star power, Wichita State gets it done with hard work.
"First of all, they're very good people. They let us coach them," said Marshall following the Ohio State win. "They have great character. I mean, there are times when it's not easy in our practice sessions. They allow us to coach them. The team comes first, and they bought into defense and rebounding. Number two, they're athletic. They're strong. They're physically and mentally tough."
Hard-nosed defense has been the name of the game for the Shockers, who come into the Final Four allowing just 60.9 ppg, while holding the competition under 40 percent shooting (.393). In addition, the team enjoys a +8.0 rebounding margin, while forcing 13.1 turnovers and 7.5 steals per game. Early headlines a trio of double-digit scorers with 13.7 ppg. Carl Hall is next in line at 12.5 ppg and tops the team on the boards (6.9 rpg). Armstead runs the show at the point, with the ability to both find his own shot (10.9 ppg) as well as direct offensive opportunities to others (3.9 apg).
It was a back-and-forth game with the Blue Devils last weekend in the first half, when sophomore forward Kevin Ware tried to block a Duke 3-pointer and came down awkwardly on his leg, suffering a compound fracture that left everyone in Lucas Oil Stadium and millions of lookers-on at home shocked and dismayed by the fallen Cardinal. After several minutes on the side of the court to address the injury, Ware was carted off and taken to the hospital, leaving his emotionally-charged teammates to finish the task at hand.
"Basically, the bone popped out of the skin. It broke in two spots," Pitino said. "Remember the bone is six inches out of his leg, and all he's yelling is 'Win the game, win the game.' I've never seen anything like that."
The Cardinals delivered, turning a 3-point halftime lead into a 22-point rout, thanks to suffocating full-court pressure and plenty of offensive fireworks. Russ Smith, who was named the Midwest Regional MVP, put on another super performance, finishing with 23 points. Backcourt partner Peyton Siva poured in 16, while center Gorgui Dieng and forward Luke Hancock finished with 14 and 10 points, respectively. Dieng had a huge impact in the paint, adding 11 rebounds and four blocks to his solid stat line.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves -- I know I couldn't have -- if Kevin (Ware) didn't say over and over again, 'Just go win the game,'" said Pitino. "I don't think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldn't lose this game for him."
Smith (18.9 ppg) has been electrifying and pretty much unstoppable in the postseason, averaging 26.0 ppg in the first four games of this event. Dieng (10.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 78 blocks) has provided balance with his physical presence down low. Siva (9.9 ppg, 5.8 apg) is both a scoring threat and premier distributor. The Cardinals possess great depth in terms of role players, even with the loss of Ware, as Chane Behanan (9.6 ppg), Wayne Blackshear (7.8 ppg) and Hancock (5.7 ppg) can help at both ends.
Ware, who had successful surgery to repair his leg, will be on hand to watch this game and will certainly serve as inspiration for his team.
"He'll be with us in Atlanta," Pitino said in a press conference this week. "Kevin is from Atlanta. He gets to go home, be with his family and be with us on the bench."