Louisville’s Kevin Ware uses crutches as he and members of the team arrive at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Wednesday for the NCAA Final Four.
ATLANTA — His full-leg cast and crutches aside, Kevin Ware is no different than the rest of his Louisville teammates this week. He’s at team meetings. He’s going to practice. He’s riding the bus. He even put on his jersey to pose for the stock images that will be used during the Final Four telecast.
“He’s doing everything he would normally do,” Peyton Siva said.
Ware’s presence at the Final Four is an emotional boost for the Cardinals, coming just days after he broke his lower right leg in gruesome fashion.
But his absence on the floor leaves the top-seeded Cardinals vulnerable for the first time in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s going to take a great effort without Kevin to win this thing. We know that,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Thursday. “I would have said we probably were offensively and defensively one of the better teams in the country. Now I think we’ve got some problems that we’ve got to overcome. If we can do that, we can win. But we’ve got some problems.”
The Cardinals (33-5) play Wichita State (30-8) on Saturday night.
Ware started only one game this year for Louisville, and that was back on Jan. 2.
He is averaging fewer than 6 points in the NCAA tournament, and had a total of five assists and four steals in the first four games.
But he’s been invaluable for the Cardinals, giving Pitino a much-needed backup for Siva and Russ Smith, the high-octane guards at the heart of Louisville’s suffocating defense. The Cardinals don’t know the meaning of the words “personal space,” putting pressure on anyone who’s got the ball, using their hands and arms so opponents can’t get a good look at the basket, and sneaking in to bat away the ball or swipe a pass. It’s exhausting to watch, let alone play, and Pitino has made liberal use of his bench to keep everybody fresh during the NCAA tournament.
Ware averaged 20 minutes in the first three games, above his 16.2 during the regular season.
Take away Ware, however, and Pitino’s options are limited. Mike Marra missed the whole season after getting hurt in September. Luke Hancock can play guard, but the junior has been outstanding as a backup forward and Pitino might not want to mess with that. At least, not for long stretches. Wayne Blackshear could be moved over, too, at least on defense, but he’s one of Louisville’s starting forwards.
That leaves four walk-ons. Tim Henderson is the most seasoned, but even he’d only played 10 minutes in the NCAA tournament before Ware’s right tibia snapped in the first half of the Midwest Regional final.
“We don’t have a backcourt substitute,” Pitino said. “Obviously when you press and run as much as we do, it becomes a great concern when you don’t have a substitute. ... (Smith) needs a sub, he plays so hard. Peyton needs a sub. We have to use those TV timeouts, steal 30 seconds here and there, because they’re going to have to play a lot of minutes tomorrow.”
And that’s assuming they don’t get in foul trouble, which is no guarantee. Siva, in particular, has a tendency to get whistled early and often.
Ware played 25 minutes in the Midwest Regional semifinal, his most minutes all year except for 32 in that five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, after Siva picked up two fouls in the first five minutes. When Louisville lost to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, Siva sat the final seven minutes of the first half after picking up two.
“There’s never a game where they don’t have foul trouble,” Pitino said. “So I’m more concerned with the foul trouble and the way we play than I am their rest.”
It’s not as if the Cardinals can change their style, either, because it’s their hair-on-fire defense that’s gotten them this far. They’ve held opponents to 38.2 percent shooting and 56.3 points during their current 14-game win streak, with only Oregon and Syracuse getting within single-digits at the buzzer.
The defense drives the offense, too. A whopping 30 percent of the Cardinals’ points this season have come off turnovers.
So if Pitino tells Siva and Smith to dial it back, the Cardinals may as well just wave a white flag.
“I don’t think we can beat Wichita State backing off,” Pitino said.
“We can’t change our style of play because we won’t win. Or have a chance of winning,” Pitino said. “So now we have to play a walk-on. He’s got to do the best job he can do.”
Henderson held his own against Duke after Ware got hurt, and Siva said going against Smith in practice has prepared Henderson for anything Wichita State can throw at him.
“He’ll be able to guard anybody,” Siva said.
One thing Louisville insists it won’t have to worry about is an emotional letdown.
The Cardinals have been through the wringer this week. Ware’s injury was gut-wrenching, and several of the players collapsed to the floor, crying, when they saw what had happened. Even Pitino had to wipe away tears when Ware was wheeled off the court on a stretcher. Then there was the exhilaration of winning the game and the relief upon hearing that Ware’s surgery was successful.
Two days later, there was more elation when Ware returned to campus, needing only the help of crutches to walk.
“It’s amazing. A miracle,” Siva said.
While that roller-coaster of emotions might be a distraction for some teams, Pitino said that won’t be the case with the Cardinals.
“We are refocused,” Pitino said. “We know we have to play a great team. We know we have to have a great night to win.”
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