Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Louisville's journey to the Final Four has been even more impressive than that of Kentucky a season ago.
John Calipari's Wildcats outscored their first four NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game in 2012. Rick Pitino's Cardinals have out-produced their tourney foes by an average of 21.8 ppg.
Kentucky then took care of business in the 2012 Final Four, first by downing Louisville, and then Kansas.
Now it will be the Cardinals hoping to bring the national title home to the Bluegrass State. Pitino did it once before, but that was in 1996 when he was in charge of the Wildcats. His team is the favorite heading to Atlanta. It has won 14 games in a row and set a school record with its 33rd win in the Elite Eight.
Kentucky is arguably the most intense state for college basketball. Louisville has the top-rated basketball market and its fan base certainly backed up the numbers as it traveled to support the squad during the regional rounds.
"It means an awful lot to them because we do not have professional sports," said Pitino. "If the Jets are doing poorly, you go to the Giants. If the Mets are doing poorly, you go to the Yankees. Or you pick up hockey. It's picked up now with back-to-back Final Fours, Kentucky winning the national championship last year. It means a lot in our state."
Although a glance at the box score of the regional final matchup against Duke might look like it was an easy win for Louisville, anyone who watched the game knows it was far from a pleasant experience. The game was close in the first half and the Cardinals were tested mentally as they watched their teammate Kevin Ware suffer a gruesome leg injury.
"It was really hard for me to pull myself together," Russ Smith said. "I didn't ever think in a million years I would ever see something like that. And that it happened, especially, to a guy like Kevin Ware, I was completely devastated."
Smith then made a layup with 15:44 left to give the Cardinals a 44-42 lead, which they would never surrender. He finished with a game-high 23 points with 11 of them coming on fast break points. Smith was the motor to the Cardinals' engine all season long, scoring 18.9 ppg with the help of his tremendous quickness. The junior from Brooklyn has netted 26 ppg in four NCAA Tournament games this year after failing to score more than 19 in a single game as a sophomore.
The loss of Ware is unfortunate, as he had begun to elevate his play at the right time. He scored 11 points in the team's Sweet 16 victory over Oregon, and tallied three points in five minutes before his season-ending injury. The sophomore guard may have been the only member of the Louisville program to keep his composure at the time of his injury.
"I don't think we could have gathered ourselves -- I know I couldn't have -- if Kevin didn't say over and over again, 'Just go win the game'," Pitino said. "I don't think we could have gone in the locker room with a loss after seeing that. We had to gather ourselves. We couldn't lose this game for him."
Smith certainly stepped up his play after Ware's departure, and so did Peyton Siva, who is just as vital for the Cardinals. The senior guard may be just as quick as Smith, but he uses his athleticism to control the pace and set up his teammates. Siva, who averages 5.8 assists per outing, was very aggressive last Sunday as he scored 16 points. The program's all-time leader in steals is obviously also a factor at the defensive end, which could come into play against the top-tier point guards on the other side of the bracket.
Louisville's backcourt has given it a fighting chance against all teams it has faced this season, but the guys in the frontcourt have made the difference. Gorgui Dieng is a rare type of athlete that seems to be improving with each passing game. The junior from Kebemer, Senegal showed he can do it all against Duke as he finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks. Dieng did exhibit his one glaring weakness as he went just 2-of-8 at the free-throw line in the win.
Dieng has less pressure to produce offensively than most players of his talent level due to the presence of guys like Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock. Behanan, who scored 30 points in an overtime loss at Notre Dame earlier this season, has been held to eight points or fewer in every tournament game so far. He seems to step it up when needed most though. Behanan is due for a big game, as he typically sacrifices his personal success to help the team survive.
Although just a sophomore, Blackshear is the glue for the Cardinals. The swingman from Chicago doesn't do anything outstanding, but he is unselfish and asserts himself at the defensive end. Hancock has been the x-factor so far. The reserve wing has excellent control of his jump shot right now, and he chipped in 10 points against Duke. Hancock has knocked down 22-of-46 from beyond the arc during the team's current winning streak.
Louisville has matched a school-record with 33 wins this season, the same number accumulated by the 1980 NCAA Championship team. It will have to take down Gregg Marshall's Wichita State Shockers, who are the most unlikely of the four schools making the trip to Atlanta.
The Shockers are a very physical and confident squad. There is still clearly work to be done for Louisville, which is determined to bring the national title back to the state of Kentucky. The Cardinals have made a difficult journey appear to be somewhat easy, and stopping them will take a nearly perfect performance by the opposition.