LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- With Kevin Ware on the mend, on crutches and hoping to be back on the University of Louisville bench to support his teammates in the Final Four in Atlanta, the Cardinals now must undertake the task of making up for his considerable absence in the lineup.
Heading into this season, U of L coach Rick Pitino had repeatedly said Ware had the best summer of any player on the team, and was playing better than any player on the team -- anyone -- heading into the start of practice in October.
It was frustrating, then, when Ware seemed to struggle finding his niche with the Cardinals. And there was frustration on both sides. Cardinals coaches wanted to get more out of Ware. And Ware felt like he'd put in the work to be on the court more.
It turned out, both were right. But it was a matter of moving Ware into the right spot. Ware came to campus as a point guard, but struggled at the position as a freshman. When Pitino, on a hunch, moved Ware back into the point guard spot to take a look in February, it was a key moment in the Cardinals' season.
Ware was comfortable with the ball. He had become a better ball handler and passer, and had always possessed the ability to get to the rim. But his length, athleticism and hard work had turned him into a ball-defender every bit as dangerous as Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
From the time of that move, the Cardinals have not lost a basketball game. And that's no coincidence. The presence of Ware, along with the offensive emergence of Gorgui Dieng, the brilliance of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva's consistency, has been a major building block of U of L's late-season run.
Ware's emergence was fully established when Pitino gave him the keys to the offense and he brought home a road victory over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome when Siva was struggling. Ware logged 24 minutes in the game, Siva 27.
The next time U of L faced Syracuse, Ware was just as critical, logging only 13 minutes off the bench but going 3-for-3 from the field, two of those from three-point range, and keeping the defensive heat on Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
In fact, it has particularly been against Syracuse that Ware's worth has shown, which poses a problem.
Because Syracuse has resurfaced in the Final Four. And Ware won't be around to deliver this time around.
"Kevin was a big, big component to our defense and our offense," Pitino said. "With Russ and Peyton pressing full court, dropping back and dogging the ball, run all those pick-and-rolls, you can't do it unless you get a break. Kevin allowed them to play their games. His presence gave this team confidence."
Pitino said he'll do two things to try to deal with the loss of Ware.
"We've got to get Tim Henderson going," Pitino said. "And we've got to get Luke Hancock working in the backcourt a little more."
1). Henderson. The junior out of Christian Academy in Louisville made an immediate statement when he came into the Regional Final game against Duke. He made a close-out on the press that forced a turnover. He also punctuated the victory with a three-pointer at the end of the game.
Some people thought it was gratuitous. But Hancock, who set up the play to get Henderson the three, had a very practical purpose.
"He'll need to make more," Hancock said.
Pitino has not hesitated to use Henderson when foul trouble persisted this season. Now he'll turn to him on the biggest stage in college basketball.
Henderson said he's embracing the challenge, and using Ware as inspiration to do it.
"I'm going to go out and compete and play the best I can," Henderson said. "There's no making up for Kevin Ware and the way he got out there and competed and got after people. He gives us a whole different presence. So when I went out on the court, what I was thinking was, 'Try to be like him.' Get after people and pressure them and give it everything I have."
2). Pitino used Hancock at shooting guard early this season. He'll now look at more lineups with Hancock and Wayne Blackshear on the court at the same time.
It's a lineup that puts plenty of perimeter shooting on the court at once, but it also could expose the team to foul trouble at the small forward spot -- something it already experienced, against Duke, after Ware left the game.
"We just all have to pick it up without Kevin," Hancock said. "It's a big loss for this team, a big loss. But we're a team, and we'll pull together and we'll do our best to overcome it."