ATLANTA (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville basketball players have fielded a few questions about tonight's national semifinal game against Wichita State over the past several days. But they have fielded many more about their now-famous teammate, Kevin Ware.
What was it like when Ware came back to see the team? Will Ware inspire them? What will it be like playing without Ware? It can border on the distracting.
Don't expect U of L's players to cross that border.
Ware wasn't with the team for its final shootaround in the Georgia Dome or its last interview session before the Final Four, but his name was everywhere -- including on signs in the crowd, and in almost every conversation the U of L players had. In fact, between Ware, their coach being voted into the Hall of Fame, and the general hype of a Final Four, U of L players at times seem to be answering questions about everything but their upcoming game.
But the focus of the public is not the focus of the team, according to junior center Gorgui Dieng.
"Oh, Kevin is the most famous person I know," Dieng said. ". . . Every Final Four team has, I don't want to call it a distraction, a topic that people want to focus on. Kevin's getting all the attention and I'm sure he's going to handle it well. I'm sure my teammates are going to handle it pretty well. Kevin did what he was supposed to do. He helped this team get to the Final Four. He can have all the attention. We don't need it. Once we step on the floor, we're going to play our roles. Every team that wins the national championship, they play their roles. Everybody knows what's at stake."
In fact, instead of being a distraction, some say that the focus drifting to Ware has itself been a positive for the team. There is, no mistaking it, a great deal of pressure on the Cardinals as an overwhelming favorite. The Ware story hasn't shifted the weight of expectations, but it has cooled the glare of the spotlight a bit.
"I'm glad all the attention has been on him," sophomore Chane Behanan said. "The focus of everybody on this team remains the same. Everyone knows what our goal still is. We haven't hit it yet, and that's winning a national championship. Kevin is going to be a big part of that, and I don't think we will lose focus."
U of L coach Rick Pitino has been watching his basketball team closely all week. He has many concerns heading into the game against Wichita State. His players losing focus on the game is not one of them.
It is not an overwhelmingly talented team that has raced to the Final Four. But they have paid such painstaking attention to detail that opposing coaches from Mike Krzyzewski on have all paid tribute. Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy called them the most-prepared team he had ever played against. Krzyzewski said that they force teams to make so many decisions so quickly that, if on their game, they are nearly impossible to beat.
Pitino this week said the Ware situation has continued to bring out the best in his players.
"I don't think I've ever been more proud of a basketball team," Pitino said. "Obviously I was frightened at the moment, what I saw. Then when I went to the hospital, got the great news that surgery went well, he came back, there was no infection, because that's what they're most concerned about for the first 48 hours. When that was all past, I don't think I've ever been more proud of a group of young men the way they acted and cried their brains out for Kevin, and then the way Kevin got them together and the way he reacted.
"I don't think I could be any prouder of young men, the outward emotion of love that they showed each other was, for me, just a great thing as a basketball coach to witness. Now we are refocused. Kevin's with us. We know we have to play a great team. We know we have to have a great night to win. . . . I think it's going to be a great motivator for us. . . . It's just incredible how adversity brings out the best in people. It certainly brought out the best in Kevin, as well as his teammates."