Louisville faces Wichita State in the Final Four on Saturday in a matchup that pits the last Cinderella standing against the tournament favorite.
The Shockers are just the second No. 9 seed to make the Final Four in the history of the NCAA tournament. Pennsylvania was the only other team to do it, and that was back in 1979.
Even so, both Gregg Marshall and Rick Pitino don’t like to categorize Wichita State as a Cinderella. The Shockers beat Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State on the way to Atlanta, and they figure to give Louisville all it can handle.
On the other side, the Cardinals are in their second consecutive Final Four. They lost to in-state rival Kentucky last season, but this year, they look to cut down the nets for the first time since 1986.
Here is a preview and some predictions for Saturday’s Final Four matchup between Louisville and Wichita State.
All advanced statistics via kenpom.com (subscription required).
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Record: 33-5 (14-4 Big East)
Coach: Rick Pitino
Seed: No. 1 (Midwest Region)
How They Got Here: Def. North Carolina A&T (16), 79-48; Def. Colorado State (8), 82-56; Def. Oregon (12), 77-69; Def. Duke (2), 85-63.
Best Player: SG Russ Smith
Smith has been fantastic in the NCAA tournament, playing the best basketball of his career. He is averaging 26 points while shooting 54.1 percent from the floor.
On both ends of the floor, Smith helps set the tone for the Cardinals. He is aggressive when taking the ball to the basket and gets to the free-throw line at an excellent rate. On the defensive end, Smith has 13 steals in Louisville’s four tournament games.
Louisville Wins If…
It speeds up Wichita State.
The Shockers like to play at a more deliberate tempo, and if the Cardinals can get them out of their comfort zone, that will bode well for Louisville.
For one, it would result in turnovers that lead to easy baskets for Louisville. Defensively, the Cardinals rank second in the country in turnover percentage.
It also will make it difficult for Wichita State on the perimeter. The Shockers are streaky shooters from beyond the arc, making 34 percent from three. Louisville’s pressure at the guard spots could make it difficult for Wichita State to get many open looks.
Louisville Loses If…
Peyton Siva or Smith get into foul trouble.
With Kevin Ware’s injury, Louisville is thin when it comes to depth in the backcourt. Ware was the lone reserve guard, and with him out, that could put more pressure on Luke Hancock as a ball-handler if Smith or Siva has to sit for an extended period of time.
Previewing Wichita State
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Record: 30-8 (12-6 Missouri Valley)
Coach: Gregg Marshall
Seed: No. 9 (West Region)
How They Got Here: Def. Pittsburgh (8), 73-55: Def. Gonzaga (1), 76-70; Def. La Salle (13), 72-58; Def. Ohio State (2), 70-66.
Best Player: PG Malcolm Armstead
Armstead is not the team’s leading scorer and can be a little inefficient at times. However, he embodies the toughness that has carried Wichita State to its first Final Four since 1965.
Although Armstead is shooting just 35.6 percent from the floor in the NCAA tournament, he has come up with some big performances. Armstead scored 22 points against Pittsburgh and 18 points against La Salle. He also has eight steals in the last four games.
On Saturday, Armstead will be counted on to steady the ship against Louisville’s pressure defense.
Wichita State Wins If…
It shoots the ball well from deep.
Wichita State has won when it hasn’t been hitting shots from beyond the arc. Against Pittsburgh in the round of 64, the Shockers were just 2-of-20 from deep but still won the game by 18 points.
However, Wichita State needed to hit 14-of-28 from three to beat Gonzaga, and while a stellar shooting night like that isn’t necessary, the Shockers will need to hit some shots from the outside to beat Louisville.
Wichita State Loses If…
Cleanthony Early does not reach double figures.
Early has played well in the NCAA tournament, averaging 14.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He has been a threat offensively from the perimeter and down low. Against Louisville, that will have to continue.
Earlier in the year, Early scored just two points in a 69-60 loss to Tennessee. Facing Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference title game, he scored just two points again in a 68-65 defeat. Foul trouble was part of the issue in both of those games.
Saturday, he will need to stay on the floor and be a factor for the Shockers to pull the upset.
Prediction No. 1: Louisville Will Win the Rebounding Battle
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Wichita State is excellent on the boards. The Shockers rank in the top 20 in both offensive- and defensive-rebound percentage. In the Sweet 16 against La Salle, Wichita State beat up the smaller Explorers on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 44-23.
However, against Gonzaga, the Bulldogs had 20 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded Wichita State, 36-27. Ohio State was even with the Shockers on the boards in the Elite Eight.
Louisville has struggled a bit on the defensive glass, ranking No. 236 nationally in defensive-rebound percentage.
In the NCAA tournament, the Cardinals have done well, beating Duke, 35-26, on the glass in the Elite Eight. They even out-rebounded Colorado State, the best rebounding team in the country, 25-22.
Rick Pitino will have addressed this all week with his team. It will take a team effort since Wichita State rebounds well from all five positions, but the Cardinals will win the battle on the glass.
Prediction No. 2: Wichita State Will Not Be Intimidated
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With La Salle and Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 along with Wichita State, the Shockers did not get much attention last week.
Obviously, that has not been the case this week. Gregg Marshall and Wichita State have been in the media spotlight, answering questions about their Cinderella status and first Final Four in 48 years.
All of that can be overwhelming for a coach and program that is not used to that kind of attention on the sport’s biggest stage. However, Wichita State is a team full of upperclassmen and players who have paid their dues to make it to this point.
This team has wins over VCU, Iowa, Creighton, Gonzaga and Ohio State. It is no fluke Wichita State was able to make its way through the West Region to get to Atlanta.
Saturday, the Shockers will not back down from Louisville. Whether they are good enough to pull off the upset is another question, but Wichita State will not be the least bit intimidated against the top-seeded Cardinals.
Final Prediction: Louisville Will Win
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Not many people expect Wichita State to pull the upset against Louisville, and there is good reason for that.
The Cardinals are playing better than anyone in the country. They have won 14 games in a row and won their four tournament games by an average of 21.8 points per game.
Wichita State will put up a fight, but Louisville can run away from an opponent in a hurry with its pressure defense. A second-half Cardinals spurt will be the difference in this one, and Louisville will play for the national title on Monday night.
Final Score: Louisville 73, Wichita State 62