What will be the tangible effect of Kevin Ware's injury?
The effects of Ware's injury, an awful-looking broken leg suffered while contesting a 3-point shot against Duke, from a psychological standpoint are evident. His teammates rallied around his emotional departure from last weekend's Elite Eight game, turning a tie ballgame into a rout, once again living up to the favorite tag and appearing primed to put on a show in Ware's hometown of Atlanta this weekend.
There are T-shirts and taglines and social media campaigns pushing the Cardinals' newfound cause.
The tears speak for themselves.
Eventually, though, games must be played and their sophomore contributor still has a broken leg. This could cause a few issues for coach Rick Pitino. Not only did Ware provide backcourt depth behind stars Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, but he was also playing at a high level. Before the Duke game, Ware had scored 20 points in the tournament on 7-of-13 shooting. His final full game — against Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen — he scored 11 and tallied five assists.
"We had a great rotation. All three guards were playing well. Obviously when you press and run as much as we do, it becomes a great concern when you don't have a substitute," said Pitino, who is looking to win his second NCAA title. "Now we can't change our style of play because we won't win or have a chance of winning, so now we have to play a walk‑on. He's got to do the best job he can do."
That walk-on would be Tim Henderson, who played seven minutes against Duke last weekend. In all, he's played 88 minutes on the season; in other news, he's not Kevin Ware.
Pitino said he and his staff will be cognizant of conserving Smith's and Siva's energy, both through the usage of team and media timeouts as well as substitution patterns. Keeping the Cardinals backcourt stars, the ones who have carried the team back to its second-consecutive Final Four, could prove the difference between going home empty-handed or heading back to Louisville with a trophy.
Can anyone even keep it close against Louisville?
This was a better question before the injury to Ware, as the Cardinals had settled into an overwhelming groove, obliterating every opponent in its path. Over the past six weeks, Louisville had blown out the likes of tournament teams Syracuse, Duke, Colorado State, Notre Dame, Villanova and Cincinnati. There were other wins mixed in to extend the current winning streak to 14 games.
On average, the Cards are winning by more than three touchdowns over that stretch.
They have not lost since Feb. 9.
The assumption guiding a single-elimination tournament is that the competition gets stronger as the bracket narrows, but that is not necessarily the case for Louisville — at least not in the national semifinals. Sure, Wichita State has earned its way to Atlanta by taking out the top two seeds in the West, but are the Shockers really better than Duke or Syracuse or others Louisville has left in the dust during this winning streak? Not really.
Vegas did not blindly set the point spread in the double-digits.
There's no reason to believe it's impossible for Wichita State to wind up like the rest of Louisville's past 14 opponents, on the wrong end of an often 20-point blowout, especially if Smith and Siva get comfortable in the Georgia Dome.
(If the Cardinals are to advance, do not expect a rout of a championship game. Syracuse's zone would not allow a blowout, and Michigan's offense can score in bunches. So, in answer to the question above, yes. All three opposing teams can keep it close with Louisville. Their odds of winning, to date, just do not stack up in their favor.)
Is Russdiculous actually this reliable?
The diminutive Louisville guard is the tournament MVP so far, putting on a dazzling display of scoring acumen and resilience. In four games he's poured in 104 points. Most impressively, perhaps, is the efficiency with which he's lighting up the scoreboard.
This is not exactly the Russ Smith we have come to know and love as college basketball viewers — he hasn't shot below 45 percent in any NCAA tourney game. In fact, his season shooting percentages jumped from 36 to 43 percent during his junior campaign.
"Russ, when he first came, annoyed a lot of people because of his bad shot selection. He doesn't do that anymore," Pitino said. "Now he's a big‑time winner, plays to win. The one great thing, he gets to the foul line, shoots at a high percentage."
To Pitino's point: Smith has taken 40 free throws in the tourney, making 32 of them. Here's a rundown of his four NCAA games:
In last season's Dance, which came to an end against in-state rival Kentucky, Smith shot just 33 percent on 57 shots. He's shooting even more this time around, but his efficiency has improved noticeably over a one-year stretch.
Add that in with his pestering defensive abilities and Smith is the most explosive player left in this field, even at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds.
"Walking past him today as we were leaving the floor, they were coming out, I didn't recognize him," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "I mean, he is so incredibly talented for his build. … Russ Smith is like a contortionist with his body. He's incredible how he can get in and change angles and get to the foul line and finish."
Will Gorgui Dieng deliver?
As the second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and go-to shot-blocker on the nation's top-ranked team, Dieng gets overlooked far too often, at least in terms of national media attention. (Don't expect Marshall and his Shockers to make the same mistake.)
In many ways, Dieng and Smith walk similar paths after coming up short during the 2012 tournament run.
Dieng was primarily a rim protector and rebounder on last year's team, never breaking double-digits in scoring in tourney play before being outplayed by the eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick, Kentucky's Anthony Davis. Though he grabbed 12 rebounds in that Final Four Bluegrass showdown, he scored just seven points (3-of-10 from the field) in the loss.
Perhaps it is best not to judge Dieng on that one outing, though.
"Gorgui didn't really understand the game of basketball too well because of the language and terminology," said Pitino of the Senegal native. "Physically he came in at 190 pounds to this country, 187 pounds to this country. He had to get stronger and learn the game."
That process is far enough along to where Dieng appears to be the best big man left standing. He'll be tested by Wichita State's Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early — and, potentially, Mitch McGary (Michigan) or C.J. Fair (Syracuse) in the championship game — but he's prepared to offer a better performance this time around. He's misfired on just four of his 24 shots this tournament (44 total points) and is guarding the Cards' rim better than ever.
The more accurate question: Will Dieng's opponents event be able to operate the paint?