ATLANTA >> After a season of uncertainty, there’s a clear favorite heading to the Final Four.
The Louisville Cardinals.
While the other No. 1s have fallen by the wayside, the top overall seed romped to the Georgia Dome with four dominant wins in the NCAA tournament. And, if the Cardinals need any extra motivation, they’ve got it.
Sophomore guard Kevin Ware, who played his high school ball in the Atlanta suburbs, sustained a gruesome injury in Sunday’s regional final against Duke. Before he headed off to surgery, he courageously urged his teammates to finish the job.
Now, they would like nothing more than to win it all for Ware.
“We talked about it every timeout, ‘Get Kevin home,'” coach Rick Pitino said.
Next stop, the A-T-L, where three rather unlikely teams will be looking to knock off the mighty Cardinals.
First up, the surprising Shockers from Wichita State in the semifinals Saturday. The No. 9 seed has already pulled off two major upsets, but this would be the biggest stunner yet.
If Louisville makes it through to next Monday night’s title game, the opponent would be either Michigan, sporting a new group of Fab Wolverines, or Syracuse, which comes at you with the stingiest zone defense in college basketball. The two No. 4 seeds will meet in the other semifinal game.
All are underdogs to the Cardinals, who are winning by an average of nearly 22 points a game in the tournament.
“I thought we had a chance there, and then boom,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who watched Louisville pull away for an 85-63 victory in the Midwest Regional final. “That’s what they do to teams. They can boom you.”
In the other game Sunday, Michigan captured the South Regional with a 79-59 rout of Florida, leading from the opening tip. A day earlier, Syracuse shut down Marquette 55-39 to win the East Regional, while Wichita State punched its Final Four ticket with a 70-66 upset of Ohio State out West.
In the final year of the Big East before it splits into two new conferences, Louisville and Syracuse provided a fitting send-off to a league that quickly became a basketball powerhouse after it was founded in 1979.
Before it goes, this version of the Big East has a shot at one more national title.
With two teams, no less.
The Cardinals — who, like Syracuse, are moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference — shook off the incredible shock of Ware’s injury with about 6½ minutes to go before halftime and blew out the second-seeded Blue Devils. The sophomore snapped his lower right leg after coming down awkwardly while defending a 3-point shot. The injury occurred right in front of the Louisville bench, where the players gasped and turned away quickly at the sight of Ware’s dangling leg, which was broken in two places.
Russ Smith collapsed onto the floor, along with several players, and was crying as doctors attended to Ware. While Ware was loaded onto a stretcher, the Cardinals gathered at midcourt until Pitino called them over, saying the injured player wanted to talk to them before he left.
“All he kept saying — and remember, the bone is 6 inches out of his leg — all he’s yelling is, ‘Win the game! Win the game!'” Pitino said. “I’ve never seen that in my life. We’re all distraught and all he’s saying is, ‘Win the game.’ Kevin is a special young man.”
This is a special team. Smith scored 23 points. Gorgui Dieng had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
The Cardinals (33-5) simply refused to lose, breaking open a game that was tied at 42. They dove on the floor for loose balls. They pounded the boards ferociously. They contested every shot and swarmed around the Blue Devils like they had an extra player on the court.
In a sense, they did, as Pitino reminded them during every timeout.
“This is a gritty bunch,” the coach said. “From the beginning of the year to now, they’ve not had a bad game. I’m really proud of these guys.”
Wichita State was the most improbable team to advance. The Shockers lived up to their nickname in the West, knocking off top-seeded Gonzaga in the second round and No. 2 seed Ohio State in the regional final Saturday night.
Wichita State (30-8) built a 20-point lead on the Buckeyes, then managed to hang on through a nerve-racking final five minutes to pull off the latest upset in a tournament filled with them.
That other team from Kansas isn’t content yet.
“It feels very good,” said Cleanthony Early, a junior forward who, like most of his teammates, was passed over by higher-profile programs, “but we understand the fact that we’ve got to stay hungry and humble, because we’ve got two more games left to really be excited about.”
Old-timers might remember Louisville and Wichita State as former conference rivals. The Cardinals were a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in the 1960s and ’70s, which meant annual games against the Shockers.
Louisville holds a 19-5 edge in the series, but the teams haven’t played since 1976.
Michigan (30-7) is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five era of the early 1990s, when the Wolverines lost in back-to-back national title games.
This team has the same youthful feel, led by sophomore Trey Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, and three freshmen starters. They were downright fabulous against third-seeded Florida, never seriously threatened after scoring the first 13 points.
“A lot of guys said we were really young and that we couldn’t get here,” said Burke, who scored 15 points against Florida but really came through in an improbable comeback against top-seeded Kansas in the regional semifinals. “We’re here now and we still have unfinished business.”
One of the freshmen, Nik Stauskas, hit all six of his 3-pointers and scored 22 points to lead the Wolverines. Another of the youngsters, 6-foot-10 Mitch McGary, chipped in with 11 points and nine rebounds.
Florida became the first team to lose three straight regional finals.
The Wolverines will have their work cut out against Syracuse (30-9), a team that has totally stuffed its NCAA opponents with a stifling zone defense. The Orange are headed to their first Final Four since winning it all in 2003 largely because they have allowed fewer than 46 points a game in the tournament.
Syracuse leads the series against Michigan 8-5. Their last meeting was Nov. 26, 2010, when the Orange prevailed 53-50 in the Legends Classic at Atlantic City, N.J.
The schools have never met in the NCAA tournament.
Syracuse has been like an octopus when it settles in around the its own lane — shutting off passing routes, preventing anyone from penetrating, yet still managing to defend the 3-point line with quickness and long arms. Montana, California, top-seeded Indiana and Marquette combined to make just under 29 percent from the field (61 of 211) and a paltry 15.4 percent (14 of 91) outside the arc.
“We were as active these two games here in Washington as we’ve ever been,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after Saturday’s win over league rival Marquette, which is headed to a new version of the Big East next season. “I just really can’t say enough about how good these guys played on the defensive end of the court.”