Louisville and Wichita State endured gut-checks in the form of three-game losing streaks earlier this season. Until the Final Four, that’s one of the few things the Cardinals and Shockers have had in common.
Louisville lost to Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown from Jan. 19-26, putting the Cardinals’ national championship bona fides in doubt. Wichita State lost to Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois from jan. 29-Feb. 5, putting the Shockers’ tournament hopes in question at the time.
To give his team a boost, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall name-dropped to Louisville for inspiration.
“When we didn't win 'em, it's interesting now that we're facing Louisville, because I pointed to Louisville,” Marshall said. “I pointed to Kansas. Great teams with great coaches that also suffered that type of blip, if you will, in their run to a marvelous season.”
Louisville lost only once since then -- to Notre Dame on the road in five overtimes -- and appears to be the national championship favorite. Wichita State recovered, too, but really hit its stride when it defeated Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
So here’s Marshall at his first Final Four after being a head coach continuously since 1998. He has the lowest-seeded team standing. His roster is littered with transfers, mutli-year projects and unearthed recruits. He faces Louisville, which is led by a national championship coach who is making his seventh Final Four appearance with his third school.
“There's a lot of great coaches out there a lot better than me who have never been there,” Pitino said. “It's very difficult to get to a Final Four because along the way, you may need a little luck, along the way you may need a shot at the buzzer or a free throw.”
Final Four Preview: Michigan vs. Syracuse
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 9 Wichita State
Louisville projected starters
Wichita State projected starters
Louisville will win the national title if…
The Cardinals can maintain their current level of play. Louisville entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and has looked the part so far. The Cards were dominant in all four wins, controlling the game with their pressure defense and speed in transition. Rick Pitino’s club enters the Final Four as the overwhelming favorite to win it all.
Louisville will lose to Wichita State on Saturday if…
The Cardinals have trouble shooting the ball from the perimeter and their big men are hit with foul trouble. About the only thing Louisville does not do well is shoot the ball with consistency from the 3-point line. The nightmare scenario for the Cards is a 1-for-14 performance from the arc combined with two early fouls on Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan.
Related: Ranking the top 15 players in the Final Four
Wichita State will win the national title if…
They can continue to play outstanding defense while also staying hot from the 3-point line. In their four NCAA Tournament wins, the Shockers are holding their opponents to a combined 34.3 percent shooting. And since making only 2-of-20 from 3-point range in a Round of 64 win over Pittsburgh, Wichita State is connecting on 45 percent from three.
Wichita State will lose to Louisville on Saturday if…
They don’t play their finest game of the season. Wichita State has been terrific in the NCAA Tournament — knocking off a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed — but Louisville will be the best team the Shockers will play all season. They must protect the ball, something they didn’t do very well during the regular season (144th nationally in turnover percentage).
Related: How the Final Four teams were built
ATHLON SPORTS STAFF ROUNDTABLE
Who is the key player for the game?
David Fox: Malcolm Armstead
Wichita State is going to need just about everyone to play out of their minds to beat Louisville. Even if I take it as a given that Carl Hall is going to win his matchup on the boards, and Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are going to hit outside shots, the Shockers still need a standout game from lefty point guard Malcolm Armstead against the Cardinals’ backcourt. He’ll need to be sure-handed against a team that was second nationally in steals per possession. There’s evidence he can rise to the occasion -- Armstead scored 14 points (albeit on 21 shots) with three steals and three assists against Aaron Craft in the Elite Eight. He’ll need to top that if Wichita State is going to beat Louisville
Prediction: Louisville 77-66
Braden Gall: Gorgui Dieng
Rick Pitino's Cardinals are on the warpath right now and the Shockers won't be able to keep Louisville from the championship game. The Cards play the best team defense in the nation and the roster is loaded with star players who were in this exact situation a year ago in New Orleans. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva have the experience and talent to score at will and the backcourt duo won't be denied this time around. That said, Gorgui Dieng is the most important player on the court as he completely controls the paint and demoralizes opposing scorers. Look for the Cards defense to suffocate the Shockers out of the Final Four on Saturday night.
Prediction: Louisville 78-65
Mitch Light: Malcolm Armstead
In order to have a chance to beat Louisville, you have to keep your turnovers to a minimum. There will be pressure on Armstead to take care of the ball, something he has done well so far in the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers don’t need Armstead to score — they just need him to run the team and do his best to prevent Louisville from scoring easy baskets in transition.
Prediction: Louisville 89-73
Mark Ross: Gorgui Dieng
At 6-11, Dieng will have the height advantage inside against Wichita State. The Shockers' two leading rebounders, Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early, each stand just 6-8. Ehimen Orukpe is a seven-footer, but he is averaging around 15 minutes per game. Dieng has been a force inside for Louisville all season, averaging 9.5 rebounds per game along with 10.2 points and 2.5 blocks. In the Cardinals' march to the Final Four Dieng has been even more effective, totaling 44 points, 30 rebounds, 10 blocks and seven steals in four Tournament games while shooting 83.3 percent (20-of-24) from the floor. Outside of its Sweet 16 win over LaSalle (plus-21 rebound margin), Wichita State has been out-rebounded (minus-seven margin) in its victories over Pitt, Gonzaga and Ohio State. As long as Dieng can stay out of foul trouble (he fouled out against Duke in the Regional Final win), he should be able to have an impact on both ends of the floor Saturday night.
Prediction: Louisville 76-66
Nathan Rush: Carl Hall
Wichita State big man Carl Hall will have to defend the paint like he did against Ohio State — when he swatted six shots in a 70–66 upset win — if the Shockers hope to continue their Cinderella run against Louisville. The Cardinals, led by Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, were given too many uncontested layups against Duke. Hall must make Smith and Siva think twice about challenging the Shockers inside.
Prediction: Louisville 80-64