ATLANTA >> Tip-off time is nearing. Time to see if Louisville can live up to the hype or one of those other guys can turn the Final Four into their party.
The Cardinals are not only the favorites to win the national championship, they’ve become sentimental favorites, as well, after rallying around Kevin Ware, the guard whose compound leg fracture in last week’s regional final turned stomachs, while also warming hearts and setting the story line for this week in Atlanta.
“With Kevin going down, especially the way he did, it’s just making us play harder,” Louisville forward Wayne Blackshear said Friday.
In Saturday’s opening national semifinal at the Georgia Dome, the Cardinals — No. 1 seeds in the entire tournament — play ninth-seeded Wichita State, which has sprung upsets of Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to that program’s first Final Four appearance since 1965.
The second semifinal pits a pair of No. 4 seeds, Michigan and Syracuse, two programs with plenty of tradition but largely considered subplots in a week dominated by Louisville and Ware. (To say nothing of the news going down at Rutgers, where video of coach Mike Rice hitting players led to his ouster, the departure of the athletic director and other problems.)
“I’m just glad to know Kevin Ware now even more because he’s probably the most famous person I know,” Louisville guard Peyton Siva said. “You know, when you have Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama call you, it’s pretty good to say you know that person.”
Wichita State has one player (Carl Hall) who salvaged his career after working in a light bulb factory and two more (Ron Baker and Malcolm Armstead) who paid their way to come to school and started on the team as walk-ons. Its coach has invited fans into the locker room after big wins. In most years, this would be the school with all the makings of a team the whole country can get behind.
Problem is, in this case, Louisville and Ware are already tugging on America’s heart strings.
“We’re brothers for life,” swingman Luke Hancock said. “I have that guy’s back in any situation. I know he has mine.”
Louisville (33-5) is a 10½-point favorite against the Shockers (30-8).
The second semifinal is expected to be more competitive. Michigan (30-7) is a 2-point favorite against Syracuse (30-9). The Wolverines are back at the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five led them there in 1993. Syracuse returns on the 10-year anniversary of its only title, led by Carmelo Anthony.
The featured players in this game: For Michigan, Trey Burke, The Associated Press Player of the Year. And for Syracuse, well, it’s coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense.
How will Boeheim try to stop Burke, whose long-range 3-pointer against Kansas sent the game into overtime and set the stage for the Wolverines run to Atlanta?
“I don’t pay attention to matchups,” Boeheim said. “It’s teams. Teams play.”
Indeed, during interviews Friday, the Syracuse players sounded plenty confident that their team could stop Burke and the rest of the Wolverines, who followed their victory over top-seeded Kansas with a 20-point blowout of Florida in the regional final.
“It’s tough to go against our zone when you’ve never seen it before,” forward C.J. Fair said. “We want to force him to do some things he’s not done before.”
While Burke may be the most-watched player in the second game, all eyes figure to be on Ware in the opener, even though he’ll never touch a basketball.
He lives near Atlanta and traveled with the team for the Final Four. When the Cardinals arrived Wednesday night, he was in a wheelchair and the plan is for him to be on the bench for the game.
Louisville faces some practical concerns not having Ware in the lineup.
He was the main substitute for Russ Smith and Siva, the guards who guide the Louisville press and its offense, as well.
“Our players totally understand the challenge that lies ahead with this Wichita State team,” coach Rick Pitino said. “We understand with Kevin out that we not only have to play very hard, we have to play very, very smart.”