ATLANTA -- At full strength, Louisville is the best team in college basketball. That's something I believe with all my heart, and something that was discouraging to discover after watching the Cardinals in person in the early-round games of the NCAA tournament and realizing that the bracket I posted online, for the world to see, had Louisville losing in the Final Four.
Because Louisville wasn't going to lose in the Final Four. Not the team I saw in the early rounds.
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But this Louisville isn't that Louisville. It's because of Kevin Ware. His injury, heartbreaking as it was in the real world, undermined Louisville's greatness. On the surface you wouldn't think that would be possible. Ware is seventh on the team in minutes (16.6 per game), eighth in scoring (4.5 points per game), ninth in rebounding (1.8 per game). Nobody likes to lose a rotation player, but a guy that far down the rotation? How bad can it be?
You saw the Wichita State game, right?
Wichita State almost beat Louisville, and not because Ware is that great, but because he's that important. The key to Louisville's greatness is its full-court press, and the way it uses that press for 40 minutes. The Cardinals don't go full throttle for all 40 minutes, but they go hard more than they don't. At a minimum they pick up the ball in the backcourt and apply pressure for 94 feet. At a maximum they fill the backcourt with defenders and try to force a steal or 10-second violation. They pick their spots to turn up the heat, but they turn it up quite a bit. More than enough to make the other team sweat.
Louisville didn't make Wichita State sweat on Saturday night. It couldn't. Without Ware, the Cardinals didn't have that great defender off the bench to give a break to Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, which means Siva and Smith couldn't afford to play the harassing style they prefer. They couldn't turn up the heat on Wichita State, and Wichita State flourished in the cool. The Shockers, a mediocre ball-handling team, committed just 11 turnovers -- the lowest number allowed this season by Louisville -- and led by 12 in the second half.
"They were all trying to play very cautious, didn't get after people," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of his backcourt. "Besides the great play of Wichita State, it was one of the reasons we didn't force turnovers. Everybody was afraid to foul."
Smith and Siva played a combined 70 minutes, well above their season average of 61 combined minutes per game. Whether from fatigue or not, they combined to go 7 of 26 from the floor with more turnovers (seven) than assists (six).
And now they will play two nights later. Against the most efficient offense in the country. And the team least likely to turn it over in college basketball at 9.4 turnovers per game. Under the best circumstances, opposing defenses do not make the Wolverines sweat. Not even Syracuse, with that nasty zone, could do it.
And for Louisville, these are not the best circumstances. No Kevin Ware. It affects the rotation, the mentality, the aggressiveness. It affects everything.
"As hard as you play, Kevin Ware is not going to check in for you," Smith said. "That's kind of a tough pill to swallow. ... When you have a fresh-bodied Kevin Ware coming in, you can kind of take your foot off the pedal just a little bit. It relieves so much pressure. I think that's what we were missing [against Wichita State]."
They'll miss it against Michigan, too, and Michigan isn't Wichita State on offense. Michigan is much better, more explosive, more dangerous. Point guard Trey Burke is the national player of the year. Wings Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III are averaging in double figures. And fifth-leading scorer Mitch McGary (7.5 ppg this season) is the team's top scorer in the NCAA tournament at 16 ppg, shooting 69.8 percent from the floor.
To beat that offense, to hold it in check more than Syracuse's celebrated zone -- which Michigan beat for eight 3-pointers and produced 17 assists on 21 field goals -- Louisville sure could use its pressure. The nasty kind, not the 94 feet of man-to-man defense. Louisville didn't dial it up much against Wichita State and found itself trailing 47-35 in the second half.
"Then we started making steals, picking up the heat," Pitino said. "Then, of course, the guy were brilliant."
And Wichita State was in trouble. After going more than 26 minutes without a turnover, the Shockers dissolved. They committed six turnovers in 4 1/2 minutes late in the second half, which Louisville turned into a game-changing run. When it was over the Cardinals led 65-60. They hung on to win 72-68.
How much heat can Louisville afford to apply on Michigan? How much heat can it afford not to apply? That's the riddle for Pitino to solve, but Siva has his vote.
"We don't trap the entire game, but we definitely need to use our press and try to tire Michigan out," Siva said.
Because why, Louisville center Gorgui Dieng?
"Sometimes when we can't get into our press," Dieng said, "we struggle."