Mighty Louisville finds a way to tug on America’s heartstrings

Louisville coach Rick Pitino watches his players during practice for their NCAA Final Four game against Wichita State on Friday, April 5, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly) Show caption
Louisville coach Rick Pitino watches his players during practice for their NCAA Final Four game against Wichita State on Friday, April 5, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly)

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. And 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,” 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 Saturday. The Cardinals are 10½-point favorites.

Wichita State has a 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 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, Louisville and Ware already are tugging on America’s heartstrings.

“I’m just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he’s probably the most famous person I know,” guard 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, the Cardinals — and everyone else — expect Louisville to win it all.

“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 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, and the Cardinals blew out mighty Duke by 22 points.

Guard Russ Smith was named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional after averaging 26 points in the first four games and tying an NCAA record with eight steals against North Carolina A&T. But losing Ware was big. He was the main substitute — the only substitute, really — for Smith and Peyton Siva, high-octane guards who are the key not only to Louisville’s suffocating press but to 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.”

Particularly against the Shockers.

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 Pittsburgh, a second-round victim of the hot-shooting Shockers. Or No. 1 seed 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. “Macolm Armstead, of course, makes them go. But on any given night, anybody on the team can have a big night.”

Armstead is averaging almost 16 points during the tournament, one of four Shockers in double figures. Tekele Cotton is 5 of 10 from 3-point range, and Ron Baker is 6 of 15.

But the number that will catch Pitino’s attention is 34 — the shooting percentage for Wichita State’s first four opponents.

“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.”