After a 2012-13 season that was epitomized by physical defense, timely shots and upsets galore, a Final Four matchup between Louisville and Wichita State is only fitting.
The Cardinals are in Atlanta because of the former. While Russ Smith has been scorching on the offensive end, Rick Pitino's squad has absolutely suffocated opposing teams with pressure-filled, ball-hawking defense, steamrolling through the stacked Midwest region with an average win margin of 21.8 points.
Although the Shockers' physical defense can also be stifling, they represent the unpredictability of the season.
Coming out of the dreaded No. 9 spot, Gregg Marshall's team destroyed everyone's favorite sleeper, Pittsburgh, caught fire down the stretch against No. 1 Gonzaga, out-Cinderella-ed La Salle and calmly (kind of) held off Ohio State after running out to a 20-point lead.
This matchup is so 2013.
Note: All advanced statistics come from BBState.com, unless noted otherwise.
When: Saturday, April 6, at 6:09 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Spread Info: Louisville (-10), Over/Under: 130, via Vegas Insider
Louisville Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Kevin Ware, Leg, Out (Will make the trip)
C Mangok Mathiang, Eligibility, Out
G Mike Marra, Knee, Out
Wichita State Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Evan Wessel, Finger, Out
What They're Saying
Ware's injury was horrific, and his cheery spirits and instant bounce-back are inspiring, but let's not forget his impact on the court.
Not only did the sophomore guard add important depth to the Cardinals' backcourt, but Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn points out his worth in Louisville's turnover-creating defense:
Russ Smith's personal TO percentage of 8.3 is still excellent; combine that with his tournament-leading 104 points scored and you have a clear leader for Most Outstanding Player. What also stands out is that Kevin Ware was the Cardinals' second-best turnover creator, at 6.1 percent. His scoring numbers were limited before his horrific injury against Duke, but his 20 minutes off the bench will be sorely missed in the Final Four.
If Smith or Peyton Siva get into foul trouble—a possibility with the way they hound opponents on defense—little-used junior Tim Henderson, who played double his season average in minutes against Duke, will be called upon.
Meanwhile, as ESPN's Jeremy Lundblad shows us, history isn't exactly in Wichita State's favor:
Lowest Seeds in Final Four NCAA Tournament History
|11||2011 VCU||Lost, Final Four|
|11||2006 George Mason||Lost, Final Four|
|11||1986 LSU||Lost, Final Four|
|9||2013 Wichita State||?|
|9||1979 Pennsylvania||Lost, Final Four|
Louisville Player to Watch: Peyton Siva
Russ Smith has obviously been the most electric player on the court for Louisville, causing havoc on defense and slashing his way into lane at will on offense.
But it's Siva who must be the steady hand next to Smith's unpredictable style.
Against Duke, he scored 16 points and dished out four assists to go with a sparkling zero turnovers. It wasn't a coincidence that Siva's most dominant game of the tournament came at the same time of Louisville's most impressive win.
When the ultra-quick floor general is playing like that, getting to the hoop with aggression instead of being complacent and settling for outside shots, the Cardinals' lightning-fast backcourt is nearly impossible to stop.
Moreover, with Ware out, it's crucial that Siva be careful on defense. He has fouled out three times this season, and with such little depth in such a monumental game, the Cardinals can't afford to have their senior leader riding the bench for long stretches as he has done on occasion.
Wichita State Player to Watch: The Guards
Led by Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, Wichita State has lived up to its new motto of "Play Angry." The Shockers have out-worked teams down low and won most of their games with strong, physical defense.
If that doesn't paint a clear-enough picture, I'll let Pitino do it for me (via CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein):
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Pitino on Wichita State "They're the best defensive team we've played this season. They're Marquette on steroids."2013-4-4 17:49:04
But against Louisville, it's crucial to have talented guards. You need to handle the full-court pressure, be able to beat Smith and Siva off the dribble and limit turnovers.
Luckily for Gregg Marshall, he has a backcourt with lots of depth that has been playing magnificently in the tournament.
Seniors Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams will be called upon most to handle the pressure, but Ron Baker's return from injury has sparked this Cinderella run while Tekele Cotton and Fred Van Vleet have both hit monstrously big shots down the stretch.
When you have five physical but quick guards who can all make plays, that's a good antidote against Louisville's harassing defense.
Cinderellas tend to flame out in the Final Four, and Louisville is playing out of its mind right now, but I'm not hopping on the blowout train quite yet.
Not only do the Shockers match Louisville's pressure with talented guard depth, but they rebound the ball extremely well (fourth in the nation in rebounding percentage) and have the defensive aggression and physicality to turn this into an uncomfortable, low-scoring game.
And that's just their style.
In the end, though, the Cardinals are too good, too deep in the frontcourt and are getting too much elite offensive efficiency from Russ Smith.
Louisville 68, Wichita State 60
Link to Printable PDF
Link to Live Bracket
Follow all the exciting NCAA tournament action with March Madness Live.