The Final Four begins on April 6 in Atlanta with a matchup between the tournament’s number one overall seed Louisville Cardinals and this year’s Cinderella squad, the No. 9 seed Wichita State Shockers.
With anticipation building for the conclusion of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, we reached out to Shane McCarthy of Play For The Garden to answer a few questions about the Cardinals road to the Final Four. What did it take for the team to get this far and how can they finish their run with a title? Shane gives us those answers.
How would you assess Louisville’s play going into the Final Four? What got them here?
The Louisville Cardinals have looked like the best team in the country for about two months now and were properly rewarded with the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their level of play in the tournament hasn’t slipped a bit, with only a brief moment of appearing vulnerable in the immediate moments following the horrific Kevin Ware injury. But once they were able to regain their composure and focus [over an emotional halftime I’m sure], they returned to dominate Duke in the second half and punch their ticket back to the Final Four.
As in what got them here? – two words: Russ Smith. The junior guard has been nothing short of spectacular (or ‘russtacular’) in the four tournament games, averaging 26 points per contest.
The way he is shooting the ball with confidence from beyond the arc in conjunction with his ability to navigate his way to the bucket and finish in all sorts of acrobatic ways or get to the free-throw line, keeps defenses off-balance all game and shaking their heads. But he is only one person, and the rest of this squad does a formidable job of scoring on their own. With that said, the primary path Louisville has taken to get to their second straight Final Four has mainly been predicated on their defense.
They have had the #1 defense on a per possession basis for the entire season and much of that has to do with their ability to force turnovers. They have forced their opponents to turn the ball over on 26% of possessions in the four NCAA Tournament games – just below their season average of 27.5%. Louisville will press you from start to finish and their instincts, aggressiveness and understanding of passing lanes make them a nightmare to play.
How does Rick Pitino’s experience in the Final Four play in Louisville’s performance?
This will be coach Pitino’s seventh trip to the Final Four, and second in as many years. He is also only one of four coaches (Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Boeheim) who have taken a team to the Final Four in four different decades. He also has one national championship with Kentucky. So experience is clearly not an issue for Pitino when it comes to the Final Four.
But what’s most noteworthy for this year for Pitino and Louisville is what took place last year. This same group, beside Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell, made this trip a year ago. Not only does the experience give them an edge, but the fact that they came up short left something to be desired heading into this year. This team set a goal way back in the first week of April a year ago – championship or bust.
What does Louisville have to do to get past Wichita St.?
Do what they’ve done all season – continue to play defense. It’s important to respect your opponent and not lose focus, because if you’re still playing this time of the year then you must be doing something right. Ohio St. didn’t decide to put forth maximum effort until 30 minutes into their Elite 8 game with the Shockers, and by that point it was too late.
I haven’t heard of a single person giving Wichita St. a chance, and the fact that the bookmakers in Vegas have them as a 10-point underdog supports that, but the game isn’t played on public expectations. There is no question that the Shockers will have to play at a much higher level than they have all season to beat Louisville on Saturday evening.
The Cardinals are too good defensively and have multiple weapons on offense to hurt you. But Wichita St. has shown they can run-and-gun and play good defense as well, just ask Gonzaga. However, Louisville is a mature team that is too well coached to not bring their best and miss the opportunity to avenge their loss in the Final Four a year ago.
What’s your prediction, does Louisville win it all?
Simple – Yes. There were a few hiccups in the middle of the season, but for the last two months they have been the best team in the country. However, it is imperative that Peyton Siva is on the floor as much as possible. He has gotten into foul trouble far too often throughout the season, relegating him to the bench.
If there is a knock on this team at all, it’s that their offense can be underwhelming at times. And it especially sputters when he isn’t on the court. This is even more significant now that Kevin Ware is out, because their only other ball handler is Russ Smith. Smith, who is as talented as they come, simply can’t run the offense. This was most recently on display against Oregon; their flow broke down and wasn’t anywhere near to efficient. Siva, a senior, is their floor-general and quarterback. He is like a coach on the floor and he is damn talented at distributing the rock. This is the best team in the country who are playing at a very high level right now. And you can’t discount the Kevin Ware factor heading into this weekend. Their depth is hurt with his loss, but the emotional boost he will likely bring is a powerful force. This team is a family and they have one goal – to win a national championship. Now they just have to finish the job.