ATLANTA — His full-leg cast and crutches aside, Kevin Ware is no different than the rest of his Louisville teammates this week. He’s at team meetings. He’s going to practice. He’s riding the bus. He even put on his jersey to pose for the stock images that will be used during the Final Four telecast.
“He’s doing everything he would normally do,” Peyton Siva said.
Ware’s presence at the Final Four is an emotional boost for the Cardinals, coming just days after he broke his lower right leg in gruesome fashion. But his absence on the floor leaves the top-seeded Cardinals vulnerable for the first time in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s going to take a great effort without Kevin to win this thing. We know that,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Thursday. “I would have said we probably were offensively and defensively one of the better teams in the country. Now I think we’ve got some problems that we’ve got to overcome. If we can do that, we can win. But we’ve got some problems.”
The Cardinals (33-5) play Wichita State (30-8) on Saturday night.
Ware started only one game this year for Louisville, and that was back on Jan. 2. He is averaging fewer than 6 points in the NCAA tournament, and had a total of five assists and four steals in the first four games.
But he’s been invaluable for the Cardinals, giving Pitino a much-needed backup for Siva and Russ Smith, the high-octane guards at the heart of Louisville’s suffocating defense. The Cardinals don’t know the meaning of the words “personal space,” putting pressure on anyone who’s got the ball, using their hands and arms so opponents can’t get a good look at the basket, and sneaking in to bat away the ball or swipe a pass. It’s exhausting to watch, let alone play, and Pitino has made liberal use of his bench to keep everybody fresh during the NCAA tournament.
Ware averaged 20 minutes in the first three games, above his 16.2 during the regular season.
Take away Ware, however, and Pitino’s options are limited. Mike Marra missed the whole season after getting hurt in September. Luke Hancock can play guard, but the junior has been outstanding as a backup forward and Pitino might not want to mess with that. At least, not for long stretches. Wayne Blackshear could be moved over, too, at least on defense, but he’s one of Louisville’s starting forwards.
That leaves four walk-ons. Tim Henderson is the most seasoned, but even he’d only played 10 minutes in the NCAA tournament before Ware’s right tibia snapped in the first half of the Midwest Regional final.
“We don’t have a backcourt substitute,” Pitino said. “Obviously when you press and run as much as we do, it becomes a great concern when you don’t have a substitute. ... (Smith) needs a sub, he plays so hard. Peyton needs a sub. We have to use those TV timeouts, steal 30 seconds here and there, because they’re going to have to play a lot of minutes tomorrow.”