Wichita State may have surprised the basketball nation by reaching the Final Four, but not Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“I picked Wichita State to go to the Final Four,” Pitino said Monday during a conference call.
Well, sure, a lot of people say that now. And besides, Pitino’s Cardinals play the Shockers on Saturday in a Final Four semifinal in Atlanta, so he’s supposed to say such things.
No, Pitino insisted, he thought the Shockers could get this far in the NCAA Tournament after watching them win 53-51 at Virginia Commonwealth way back on Nov. 13.
He distinctly recalled a conversation he had after the game with his son, Richard Pitino, who is the coach at Florida International.
“I told him I thought Wichita State had a great chance of being the surprise team in the Final Four,” Pitino said. “Anybody that can go into VCU and win is mentally and physically tough. I was very, very impressed with that. And each game, they looked better and better.”
Pitino knows something about Final Fours because this will be his seventh, including one last year. But his first trip looked a whole like the one the Shockers are making.
In 1987, his second year at Providence, his sixth-seeded Friars knocked off No. 2-seed Alabama in the Sweet 16 and No. 1 Georgetown in the regional finals. No. 9-seed WSU took out No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State on the way to Atlanta.
“I guess you could call us both Cinderella teams,” Pitino said, referring to the ’87 Friars and today’s Shockers. “But Wichita State has much more talent that we had at Providence.”
Billy Donovan, now Florida’s coach, was his ace.
“We didn’t have much else,” Pitino said. “Billy was sort of carrying us on his back. We just caught fire offensively at the right time.”
Riding the Cinderella wave only goes so far, he said. Providence lost in the Final Four semis that year to Syracuse, which in turn fell to Indiana in the title game.
“We all look for those motivational keys,” Pitino said. “But really, it’s all about execution.”
Ware, a key reserve guard for the Cardinals, was recovering Monday in an Indianapolis hospital after undergoing surgery to repair a compound break in his lower right leg that he sustained in Sunday’s 85-63 Elite Eight victory over Duke.
“As long as there is no infection, he’ll come home Tuesday night,” Pitino said. “He’s anxious to get out and back with the guys.”
Ware’s presence would be an emotional boost for the Cardinals. Even as he lay on the floor with a bone sticking out of his leg, his pleading declaration to his shocked teammates — “Just win the basketball game, and I’ll be fine. Get me home to Atlanta” – was credited for inspiring Louisville to victory.
“If it wasn’t for Kevin,” Pitino said, “I don’t know if we could have gotten through (Sunday) night. It was pretty gruesome. We were all pretty distraught.”
Ware, whose hometown is Atlanta, was up and walking with crutches by Monday morning about 10 hours after a steel rod was surgically inserted in his splintered leg, Pitino said.
“Kevin was in great spirits,” he said.
While Ware will have a lengthy recovery, Pitino said, “We expect him to make a full recovery.”
Pitino said Ware didn’t have a pre-existing injury that contributed to the injury as the sophomore landed after trying to block a shot.
“His leg went one way, his shoe went the other way,” Pitino said, “and the bone split.”
The game was delayed almost 10 minutes while Ware was carefully treated at courtside before being taken to the hospital. A referee asked Pitino if his team wanted to warm up before play resumed.
But Pitino said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told him, `Rick, I think you’re better off just getting out there and playing.’ That speaks volumes of what kind of guy he is.”
Pitino took the Midwest Regional trophy to the hospital Sunday night and asked Ware on Monday if he wanted him to take it with him.
“He said, `It’s staying with me,’ ” Pitino said. “I told him not to lose it.”