Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinal
s are the favorite entering this weekend's Final Four. (David E. Klutho/SI)
Rick Pitino is looking for his second national title as Louisville makes its second straight Final Four appearance. The Cardinals are the favorites to win it all, but there's reason to be concerned with both Saturday's and whichever of Monday's matchups they could draw. Here's a quick look at Louisville and its chances this weekend:
How They Got Here
Louisville was the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament and the 1-seed in the Midwest regional. The Cardinals have not really been threatened in the NCAA so far. They rolled past North Carolina A&T and Colorado State, kept Oregon at a comfortable distance in the Sweet 16, and then pummeled Duke after the half in the regional final, despite the shocking leg injury suffered by Kevin Ware.
The Cardinals' calling card is a defense that not only stifles opponents in two different ways, but very often leads to turnovers that create transition baskets that fuel their offense. Not many teams can handle the Cards' pressure in the full court, but even fewer have had success handling that and then settling down and outexecuting Louisville's matchup zone in the half court.
The Cardinals have turned teams over on 27.5 percent of their possessions this season, the second-highest rate in Division I after VCU, but unlike the Rams, they're not a one-trick defensive pony. The Cards also are in the top 30 in two-point field goal percentage defense (thanks in large part to shot-swatter Gorgui Dieng) and also are quite stingy around the arc. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva combine for what's probably the toughest, quickest, hardest working defensive backcourts in the country.
All of that adds up to the most devastating defense in America, one that allowed just 0.816 points per possession this season. Only Oregon had any level of success at all against the Cardinals, and even though both the Ducks and Duke held onto the ball fairly well, neither was able to make enough shots to threaten.
On offense, Louisville is also very efficient because they score effectively from inside the arc (lots of runouts help) and they rebound the ball well on the offensive glass (for more putbacks). Smith is one of the nation's most dynamic scorers and gives Louisville and end-of-shot-clock option that many teams lack.
Even in a Final Four filled with accomplished coaches, it's hard to find someone in the game better than Rick Pitino, so that's a nice additional plus.
The Cardinals have two general Achilles' Heels: They're not a good perimeter shooting team and they can be hurt by teams on the offensive glass. Luke Hancock has emerged down the stretch run and is, easily, the Cardinals' best three-point shooter, but after him, it's really a roll of the dice. Smith, Siva and Wayne Blackshear have all taken at least 125 threes this season and none of them are above 33 percent.
If you can keep hold of the ball and get decent shots off ball movement (or if you can get in the lane and force Dieng to react), you can catch the Cardinals on second-chance opportunities. But as you can tell from their overall defensive stats, teams usually aren't able to hold onto the ball and create good shots.
The one other possible issue this weekend is a lack of cover for Siva and Smith now that Ware is out with a broken leg. Ware was essentially the only cover in the three-man guard rotation, and now that responsibility will fall to walk-on Tim Henderson, who played in 25 games this season, but only for a few minutes in each. He's played a total of 17 minutes in the NCAA tournament, including seven against Duke thanks to Ware's injury.
Siva is sometimes foul-prone, and both guards work extremely hard and sometimes need breaks during a game, so this is a situation to watch. Pitino may have little choice but to play Siva and Smith for very big minutes if the game is close and use timeouts to get them rests.
How They Match Up
Wichita State is built, on paper, to somewhat be able to withstand Louisville's pressure, but we'll have to see how the Shockers handle a punch. The Shockers have capable ballhandlers, hit the glass hard and are an extremely physical, hard-working team, so they won't be outclassed in this game. It's just a question of whether they can get (and make, like they did against Gonzaga) enough shots once they break the Louisville press. Just not turning the ball over will be a plus, because that will then force the Cardinals to score more often against their set defense, which Rick Pitino lauded in Thursday's media session.
All that said, Wichita State is one of the biggest national semifinal underdogs ever, and with good reason. It will take a great game, and/or some extreme foul trouble for the Cardinals' backcourt, for them to have a chance to win it late.
It's easy to tab Russ Smith in this spot, as his semi-unpredictable explosiveness is a key factor in Louisville's success, and you wonder whether he (and Siva) can go the distance effectively against such a disciplined and physical foe. The correct answer, though, may be Hancock, especially if Wichita State can control the ball and the tempo well enough to force the Cardinals to beat them in halfcourt sets.
Louisville is the clear favorite to make it to the title game and, despite how well Syracuse and Michigan are playing, is the favorite to win the title Monday night. They should be able to handle Wichita State, and possibly in an easier fashion than the winner of the second game will experience, which would be a big plus for them and their guards heading into Monday night. The best guess is the Cardinals will finally cut down a net on Monday, and then it's truly Game On in the Commonwealth.