University of Louisville Cardinals - January 14, 2013From being the monolithic favourites for the NCAA Championship, Louisville have been installed as the sentimentalist’s choice. That won’t throw coach Rick Pitino off.

The horrific unwatchable injury which Kevin Ware sustained in the Elite Eight win over Duke has cast a shadow over Atlanta, the site of this weekend’s Final Four.

The guard, who broke his leg during the first half of the Cardinals’ 85-63 win, will join his team-mates on the biggest stage in college basketball.

Like last time out, they hope he will serve as an inspiration. “I don’t know,” Pitino laughs. He’s such a celebrity right now, he’s doing David Letterman’s top 10.  I don’t know if he has time for us.”

In truth, the absence of Number 5 is a blow but also a driving force.

“I think it’s going to be a great motivator for us,” Pitino adds. “We found out a lot about Kevin that we didn’t know.  We really did. When he went up, I think he was almost thinking that he was going to fall off the stage or something, and he got up really high, was trying to back off a little bit.

Ware (right) is a loss (ESPN)

Ware (right) is a loss – and inspiration

“When that happened with him, we all witnessed a different side of Kevin, something we haven’t seen. It’s just incredible how adversity brings out the best.”

On Saturday (11pm, ESPN America), Louisville will try to keep going and justify the status which comes from being the only number one seed to survive to the last four.

But they’ve got the most unlikely of opponents, unheralded Wichita State, who battled through from ninth seed by stunning such favoured powers as Gonzaga, Pittsburgh and Ohio State to reach this stage for the first time.

But call them Cinderellas? Pitino says not.

“I’ll say this without any exaggeration.  They’re the best team we will have faced this year at the defensive end.  They are Marquette on steroids in terms of the way they play defence.

“If you grab an offensive rebound, they slap it away.  They don’t let you go into the paint without four guys attacking you.  They are the toughest team to score against.

“Listen to what they’ve done in this tournament and who they’ve beaten.  But they haven’t just beaten Pittsburgh, like we did, by 3 points, they beat Pittsburgh by 25 points.  They’re up 20 against Ohio State.  They pound Gonzaga.  They pound LaSalle.  They’re not just winning, they’re pounding teams.

“You can’t do that unless you’re a great basketball team, and they are.  They’re ranked in the top 15 for most of the year.  But they are a team that can make a lot of threes.  But I’m really impressed with what they do defensively.”

Wichita State (in Kansas, in case you wondered) have built their rise on players from many places and varied backgrounds, all brought together by their coach Gregg Marshall.

The presence of the appropriately nicknamed Shockers here is a surprise, even to him. But results, he claims, are down to the common qualities his recruits share on and off the court.

“We want winners,” Marshall reveals. “We want guys that really want to win, that want to commit to something bigger than themselves.  We want guys that are tough and athletic so they can defend and rebound at a high level.  And ultimately some guys that can put the ball in the basket.

“I think we have a great blend of those guys.  But the biggest thing we have are character kids.  We really have high‑character young men in our programme because they buy into the whole.  They’re not interested in individual stats.”

The experience has been remarkable. But there is one thing to remember, he has underlined. “What we’ve been teaching to the victor go the spoils, and when we win, everybody gets a piece of it, can never be more true than right now.”

If Final Four is a novelty to Marshall, this is familiar ground for Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. At the age of 68, in his 37th year in the job, with one championship and three final appearances behind him, his team’s meeting with Michigan will stir up old memories at the end of a season which has brought numerous changes to the NCAA landscape.

Few expected the Orange to get this far. Few anticipated, however, that Boeheim would still be in the job at this age, having battled through cancer  a decade ago and achieved his ambition with a title in 2003.

“I think coaches, we always feel we can get there, whether it’s realistic or not,” he said. “I wouldn’t have expected going into the tournament that we were going to be here.  But, you know, the thing you say all year long, which sometimes people think it’s just coach talking, coach speak, whatever it is, that you have a chance.  You do.  You really do.  If you’re one of the top 20 teams or 30.

Boeheim is still teaching

Boeheim is still teaching

“I remember seeing Wichita State play a couple times during the year and be impressed, but they lost.  They lost.  It was a couple games.  I can’t remember exactly the game.  But they played good teams in their conference and they lost the games.  But you could see they were a pretty good team.

“You know, I always thought Gonzaga was good all year.  Wichita State made seven or eight threes in a row and 14 threes to beat ’em, and they needed all of them to beat them.  In retrospect, Gonzaga looks pretty darn good now.

“No, we didn’t expect to get here, but you always do have that hope.  So it’s a great feeling.  This team has come together.  Sometimes that happens at tournament time.  It happened to us in ’96 when we kind of came together and got here.  And other years, you know, we’ve come close.

“But, you know, you lose a heart‑breaking game to somebody that you think you could have won, that happens in this tournament.  You’re going to get upset in this tournament.  You’re going to upset people in this tournament.”

This may be his last tournament, or it might not. There have been ups and downs and a few of the latter still hurt. “But over 37 years, it’s really not a lot.  I still get mad.  That’s why I’m still coaching.  When I stop getting mad about this stuff, then I won’t matter and I won’t be coaching.”

Women’s Final Four: Cardinal promotion

Louisville will be the darlings of the women’s Final Four, which starts on Sunday in New Orleans, after the Lady Cardinals ousted defending champions Baylor in one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.

They’ll now face second-seeded California for a place in Tuesday’s final.

While the other last four tie is a battle of two top seeds as undefeated Notre Dame takes on Big East rival Connecticut, with three of the Huskies’ four defeats all season coming at the hands of the Irish.

Two regular season meetings were conceded by a total of just four points while their third meeting went to triple overtime before Notre Dame won 96-87.

Catch the conclusion of the NCAA Tournaments exclusively on ESPN America

Photos:  Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

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