AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- When the NCAA tournament field was announced a couple weeks ago, Louisville coach Rick Pitino wasn't a whole lot different from millions of other college basketball fans.
He started poring over the bracket for potential upsets.
His eyes quickly settled on Wichita State.
"I was talking with my son," Pitino said Monday, "and I said I thought Wichita State had a great chance of being a surprise team to the Final Four. He asked me, 'Which teams would you think?' I said VCU and Wichita State. ... I was very impressed with them."
Now, Pitino will have to figure out a way to beat them.
His top-seeded Cardinals (33-5) ran roughshod through the Midwest Region, and now roll into Atlanta as the heavy favorite to win their first national championship since 1986.
But first, Russ Smith and the rest of the Cardinals will have to get by a gutsy, gritty and grossly underestimated Wichita State team Saturday night that blitzed through Pittsburgh, knocked off another No. 1 seed in Gonzaga, and ousted second-seeded Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
"Each game," Pitino said, "they looked better and better."
Pitino said there are some similarities between the Shockers (30-8) and the Providence team that he led to the Final Four in 1987, long before he won national titles at Kentucky, forayed into the NBA and landed back on the college basketball map at Louisville.
The Friars were the No. 6 seed that year, and beat second-seeded Alabama and top-seeded Georgetown on their way to the Final Four, where they lost to Syracuse -- which just so happens to be playing Michigan in the other match-up on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
"I guess you would consider both Cinderella teams, but Wichita State has much more talent than we had at Providence," Pitino said of a Friars team that featured a young Billy Donovan.
"He was sort of carrying us on his back, amazing young player," Pitino said. "I think Wichita State is a much better defensive team. He was a better guy making everybody better. But like some teams, we just caught offensive fire at the right time."
In much the same way, everything has come together at the right time for Wichita State.
The Shockers opened the season 19-2, climbed to No. 15 in the AP poll and ran their home-court winning streak to 19 games, beating eventual Missouri Valley Conference champion Creighton in a high-profile meeting at Koch Arena, the Shockers' venerable on-campus home.
Then came a disastrous loss to Indiana State, and the start of a three-game skid that included a vexing road loss to Southern Illinois, which finished 6-12 in the Valley this season.
It was similar to a three-game losing streak that Louisville had in January.
"It's interesting. I pointed to Louisville, I pointed to Kansas, great teams with great coaches that also suffered that type of blip, if you will, in their run to a marvelous season," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said on a conference call with reporters.
Marshall admitted thinking that the season was lost after losing to the Salukis.
The Final Four couldn't have been further from his mind.
"I'm thinking, 'Oh boy, we may have just shot our chances to get in the NCAA tournament right in the foot, we might just have blown it.' I'm thinking that to myself, obviously, not relaying that to the team," he said. "Thank goodness our non-conference run where we only lost one game and beat some very good teams helped us, enabled us, to get into the tournament."
The signs were there, though, even before the start of the madness, that Wichita State was a dangerous team. Their only losses the rest of the way came against Evansville, which has won 21 games this season, and Creighton, which ousted them in the Valley tournament title game.
"We're better all year long when we're the underdog, when nothing is expected," Marshall said. "We got to 9-0 and lost. We got to 15-1, and then we lose. This team has done better when nothing is expected, when they're the underdogs, which we'll clearly be on Saturday."
That doesn't mean that Wichita State doesn't like its chances.
The Shockers, who will travel to Atlanta on Wednesday, are the toast of the town this week, but keep insisting to anybody who will listen that merely making the Final Four isn't enough.
They went want to win the school's first national championship.
"Cinderella found one glass slipper. We won four games. I don't think she found four glass slippers," Marshall said. "Cinderella usually wins a game or two, but much like Butler a couple seasons ago, when you get to this point, you're good enough to win it all."
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