The No. 9 Wichita State Shockers were overshadowed by lower-seeded Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle in the early rounds of the tournament, but they outlasted both squads in an incredible Cinderella run that rivals some of the best we’ve seen in recent years.
With wins over No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State, Wichita State took hold of the giant-killer role and ran with it, setting up a Final Four matchup with the biggest giant of them all.
The Louisville Cardinals earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament by playing incredible basketball down the stretch leading up to the tournament. The Cardinals haven’t lost a game in 56 days, and they are carrying tremendous momentum into this pivotal contest.
With an excellent defense, elite scorer and strong inside presence, Louisville has the kind of balance on which championship teams are built. For Wichita State to pull off a massive upset on Saturday, it will need to do everything perfectly.
Let’s take a look at the Shockers’ keys to victory on Saturday, breaking down the biggest obstacles that stand in their way.
Stop Russ Smith
Sometimes the most obvious solution is the most accurate solution.
Junior guard Russ Smith has been Louisville’s most impressive player in the tournament. In fact, he may be the most impressive player in the entire tournament this year. The only way to keep the Cardinals from lighting up the scoreboard is to keep Smith from doing all the damage.
Averaging 26 points per game through four contests, Smith has shown the ability to create his own scoring opportunities by both creating separation outside the arc and slashing his way to easy buckets in the paint. Stopping him will fall on the shoulders of Malcolm Armstead, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
Neutralizing an explosive scorer isn’t about one-on-one matchups. Limiting Smith’s effectiveness will come down to playing quality team defense around the perimeter and minimizing the space he creates coming off screens, especially in the pick-and-roll game.
Good Shot Selection
Shot selection will be a huge focus for Wichita State on Saturday. The Shockers are shooting 42.6 percent from the field in the tournament, but they managed just a 37.3-percent mark against Ohio State in the Elite Eight and a 38.8-percent figure in the second round against Pittsburgh.
In those two contests, Armstead combined for 12-of-35 shooting from the floor. The West Regional Most Outstanding Player has led Wichita State in scoring through the first four rounds, but he hasn’t done it in a very efficient manner.
Armstead will have to take his shots on Saturday, but he has to be patient. The Shockers can’t upset the 10.5-point favorite Cardinals by shooting a low percentage from the field.
Junior forward Cleanthony Early must get involved in this contest. Wichita State’s leading scorer in the regular season, Early can take the pressure off Armstead by making his presence felt at the offensive end early and often.
Pound the Boards
As well as Louisville has played in the paint in the tournament, Wichita State has played just a little better.
The Cardinals have averaged 33.3 rebounds per game in the last three rounds, led by junior center Gorgui Dieng and his 7.7 rebounds per contest. The 6’11” big man has been the source of most of Louisville’s rebounding, though, and limiting his effectiveness on the glass will give the Shockers a big advantage in the paint.
With 39 rebounds per game in the last three rounds, the Shockers have raised their season average to 38.5 boards per game (No. 25 in the nation). In those three contests, Early, Armstead and Baker have combined for 53 rebounds in an extremely balanced team effort.
Rebounding is all about effort, and Wichita State has shown the willingness to exude it at both ends of the floor. If the Shockers continue to shoot a low percentage from the field, they will have to out-rebound Louisville and create a lot of second chances at the offensive end.
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