ATLANTA — What does Wichita State need to do to be able to beat Louisville?
I’ve been asked that question upwards of 20 times heading into Final Four weekend, and the answer is alarmingly simple: protect the basketball.
You see, what Louisville does better than anyone is to use their press to force turnovers, converting those turnovers into easy buckets at the other end of the floor. They lead the country in pick-sixes, if you will. Since they can only get into their press when they score, those pick-sixes become even more devastating; not only do you turn the ball over and give up a bucket, you now have to try and get the ball over half court against Russ Smith and Peyton Siva again.
Louisville plays streaky defense. They can get on these roles where they look absolutely suffocating because those turnovers and those easy baskets wear on you, both physically and mentally. Not only do those guards get in your head, they’re in peak physical condition. They don’t get tired. You will. And if trying to dribble against Smith and Siva wasn’t tiring enough, then you have to drop back and defend them at the other end.
The Cardinals have solved some of their issues with half court offense as the season has gone on, but they still aren’t a great team in that aspect of the game. Avoiding turnovers allows your defense — in Wichita State’s case, Pitino referred to them as “the best team we will have faced this year on the defensive end” and “Marquette on steroids” — to get set.
But it will also allow Wichita State to capitalize on what may be their greatest advantage heading into Saturday.
For all that Louisville does well, they’re not a great defensive rebounding team. the Cardinals allow opponents to grab almost a third of the available offensive rebounds. The Shockers are 18th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. Fewer turnovers means more shots, and even if Wichita State shoots a low percentage, that’s beneficial for them; Gregg Marshall’s best offense on Saturday may be a missed shot.
Now think about this: Kevin Ware isn’t playing. The first guard off of Louisville’s bench? Tim Henderson, a walk-on. Ware isn’t Smith or Siva, but he’s the biggest of the three of them and had been playing the best basketball of his career before getting injured on Sunday. He’s just as much of a turnover creator as Smith and Siva can be. Henderson isn’t.
“We don’t have a back court substitute,” Pitino said. “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. We substitute every game and give those guys breaks. Now we can’t change our style of play because we won’t win or have a chance of winning.”
“Now we have to play a walk-on. He’s got to do the best job he can do.”
Ware’s a good player, but he was anything but a household name before his injury.
It’s ironic that his absence in the lineup could end up being what costs Louisville.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.