Saturday’s Louisville vs. Wichita State clash pits the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed against its biggest Cinderella, but that doesn’t mean the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The Shockers have already beaten too many outstanding teams for them to roll over and give up just because their next opponent comes in with “Louisville” written on its jerseys.
One key to Wichita State’s upset hopes is a collection of three-point shooters that outgunned both Gonzaga and Ohio State. Can Louisville succeed at containing those snipers where other top opponents have failed?
Read on for more on Wichita State’s long-range game and four more turning points that will determine which team advances to the national championship game.
Sophomore Tekele Cotton is the designated defensive stopper in the Wichita State backcourt. He’ll be up against his toughest challenge of the year as he tries to contain the Cards’ scoring leader, lightning-fast Russ Smith.
Smith is averaging 26 points per game in the tournament and no defender is capable of shutting him down entirely. However, if Cotton can turn a few of Smith’s shot-clock-beating circus shots into misses, that could make all the difference in a close game.
Louisville has yet to face a serious test in four tournament games. They've scored a minimum of 77 points every time out. However, none of the four defenses the Cards have outplayed is on the same level as the streaking Shockers.
Wichita State has the depth and the toughness to slow down Louisville’s transition game and force the Cardinals to earn more of their points in the half-court.
After playing largely on cruise control for such a long stretch, Peyton Siva and company won’t have an easy time finding openings against a physical Shockers squad.
In Wichita State’s two biggest upsets (over Gonzaga and Ohio State), the Shockers combined to shoot 22-for-48 from three-point range.
Another big game from gunners such as sixth man Fred VanVleet would be a major boost, and nobody is more aware of that than trey-loving Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
However, Pitino can’t just have his defense sprint to the arc, because Wichita State also boasts some of the toughest offensive rebounders in the country.
If the Cards can strike a balance between cutting off the long ball and not getting smashed on the glass, they’ll be in a very good position to come away with the win.
Wichita State scoring leader Cleanthony Early has been up and down in the points column in this tournament, but he’s grabbed exactly seven rebounds every game.
That fact will put the pressure on versatile Louisville PF Chane Behanan to keep Wichita State from controlling the boards.
Early is a more skilled perimeter threat than the Cardinal sophomore, but the 6’6”, 250-lb Behanan will be the rare opponent who’s actually stronger than the 6’8”, 215-lb Shockers star.
If Behanan can avoid being taken off the dribble too often, his power game will make it a long day for Early.
Everything Louisville has accomplished this season has started with backcourt pressure that’s second only to Virginia Commonwealth in steals per game.
Russ Smith and Peyton Siva make life miserable for opposing guards and the turnovers they create lead to a huge chunk of the Cards’ offense.
PG Malcolm Armstead and the Shockers beat VCU on its home floor back in November, with Armstead himself nailing the game-winning jumper.
The Shockers kept their turnovers down to a manageable 13 in that game. A similar effort against Louisville will put them in a fine position to pull yet another upset.