ATLANTA — Tim Henderson is the Louisville player the Cardinals probably hope doesn’t have to play much Saturday.
He’s a walk-on junior who played 88 minutes this season and just over 200 for in three years. He has been the fourth guard in Louisville’s three-guard rotation.
But that was before Kevin Ware, the Cardinals’ first guard off the bench, splintered his right leg in the Elite Eight victory over Duke.
“The day after Kevin had his surgery, he text me and said, `Be ready. You have to really step up,’ ” Henderson said.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino has a contingency plan if starters Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, the tournament’s leading scorer, get tired or in foul trouble. He may juggle some forwards into the backcourt.
“But Tim is our main plan,” Pitino said.
He’s let Henderson know it in practices this week.
“Coach has been really on me, telling me, `You won’t be able to take that shot in the game, you won’t get away with that in the game,’ ” Henderson said. “Usually, he doesn’t say much to me because I don’t get many minutes.
“But I’m confident. I’m ready to go for it.”
In a practice last week, Pitino called him Benjamin Button, the fictional character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and later a movie about a character who was born old and grew young.
Pitino told Henderson, “You started out smart but you’re getting stupider.”
“That was before Kevin got hurt,” Pitino said with a chuckle. “Now, there’s no question he’s a Hollywood star and is going to have the game of games.”
Nothing about Henderson’s history would indicate that would happen, although this time of year has a way of bringing out unlikely heroes.
Henderson’s father was on Louisville’s swimming team and his mother played tennis for the Cardinals. He does have a sister who played college basketball.
He also was in the same graduating class from same small Louisville high school, Christian Academy, as Antonita Slaughter, a starter on the Cardinals’ Final Four women’s team.
“How about that coincidence?” Henderson said with a burst pride.
When Ware broke his leg with less than six minutes before halftime, Henderson came in and immediately forced a turnover. He made his only shot – a three-pointer – and had one rebound in his seven minutes of playing time.
“I play defense really hard,” Henderson said. “I know I don’t hit that much in a game, but I can really shoot.”
When Louisville lost to Kentucky in last year’s Final Four semifinals, he never saw the court.
“I was there more to cheer the team on,” Henderson said.
His teammates are confident that he’ll give them something Saturday to cheer about.
“A lot of people talk about how he’s only a walk-on,” Siva said, “but he’s been guarding Russ Smith the whole year. If you can guard Russ Smith in practice, you can pretty much guard anybody.
“I feel like Tim can come in and spell anybody.”
Henderson is counting on it.
“This is a dream come true,” he said.