Atlanta, GA (Sports Network) - 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
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
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."
The Sports Network