Monday, March 9, 2009 Updated: March 10, 11:43 AM ET
Bingham brings calm to Cardinals
By Graham Hays ESPN.com
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Twelve months ago, "Ace and Ice" took over the NCAA tournament, as Tennessee's Candace Parker eventually led her team past Stanford's Candice Wiggins in the national championship game. Now a familiar name is again rising over the basketball horizon.
Candyce Bingham plays many roles for Louisville, from all-conference forward to mom and from counselor to the Cardinals' calming influence.
Could this be the Year of Yce?
All right, it leaves a little something to be desired as a marketing slogan, unless perhaps you're the airport in Centralia, Ontario, that already claims those three letters as its code. But attention rarely comes Louisville senior Candyce Bingham's way easily. She not only shares a first name, if not a spelling, with Parker and Wiggins but also shares the court with another All-American and likely WNBA first-round pick, Angel McCoughtry.
On a team whose star wears her heart on her face and whose coach puts the hoarse in horse country with his running reprimands from the sideline, Bingham is the quiet rudder in the gale of emotion that accompanies the Cardinals.
And it's not entirely clear whether it's more impressive that she's a 6-foot-1 forward who can guard the opposing team's point guard on one end of the floor and post up its power forward on the other end, or that she can keep her Zen-like calm around this crew.
"I hear it all time," Bingham said of her level-headed reputation. "If I was fiery, I don't think that would be good. But I've always been like that; I've always been composed. I think it just helps. I mean, you have different personalities [on a team], and that's my personality -- just calm everybody down and say, 'It's OK.' And I really do believe that they listen to me."
She chuckled a little bit as she spoke the last line, perhaps aware that it might seem beyond believable that anyone could rein in either the Cardinals' two dominant spirits -- or make her words resonate with a group of six freshmen and three sophomores.
But she played both of her roles with Oscar-worthy aplomb Monday in her team's 69-63 win against Pittsburgh in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. She was there on defense, coming up with five steals, including a game-sealer in the final minute. She was there on the boards, pulling down eight rebounds. And she was there on the scoreboard, calmly knocking down a 3-pointer for the second night in a row after making just five in 30 regular-season games.
But the All-Big East first-team honoree was also there with a high five and a quiet word of encouragement for Becky Burke, who bore the brunt of Walz's admonitions during the game when the freshman jogged downcourt after diving onto the hardwood in pursuit of a ball.
Big East Tournament
No. 1 and unbeaten Connecticut plays Louisville on Tuesday in the championship game of the Big East tournament (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Click here to read Graham Hays' blog from the Big East tourney. For complete Championship Week coverage, click here.
"She gets overlooked so much because of what Angel does," Walz said of Bingham. "But if you watch the 50-50 plays, as coaches call it, where it's a loose ball or a rebound, she's in there fighting. And the kid's about a buck-65; it's not like she's 190 [pounds] and big and bulky and throwing elbows."
As is usually the case for Louisville, McCoughtry earned the headlines against Pitt. She finished with 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting and 14 rebounds. When the Cardinals needed baskets after a stretch of carelessness in the face of a trapping defense let the Panthers back in the game, they turned to McCoughtry. And with her typical array of physics-defying pull-up jumpers and forays to the basket, she delivered.
But when McCoughtry was fouled on an inbounds pass with 1:12 to play and converted the three-point play to put Louisville back in the lead for good at 65-63, her brilliance came as a result of Bingham's own brand of basketball craftsmanship, pulling down an offensive rebound and drawing a foul that gave her team the ball out of bounds.
"She comes down with that huge offensive board, where we get to draw up the inbounds play to score off of," Walz said. "That kid, I think, gets overlooked a lot in what she's done for us the two years she's been here."
The symbiotic relationship between McCoughtry and Bingham extends well beyond one sequence against Pitt. Homesick and slowed by injuries after two seasons at Xavier, Bingham took notice of what seemed to be happening at the program back in her hometown, first under the direction of former coach Tom Collen and now under Walz. When she made the decision to transfer, she discovered some of what she had heard about the famously fiery McCoughtry might have been overstated.
"Coming in, with Angel, I'd heard different stories," Bingham said. "But I think she just needed someone to say, 'Hey, calm down, relax,' instead of firing back at her, if that makes sense? Just saying, 'It's OK, it's OK,' because she's so competitive. She wants to win, and that's mainly what it is. She just wants to win and she wants everyone to do well. It's more so you have to take it as she wants to win and realize that."
For his part, Walz only got a quick look at Bingham before summer break after taking the Louisville job, but that audition, combined with positive reviews from Xavier coach Kevin McGuff, a friend of Walz's, convinced him that she not only had the personality to help his star grow but the game to complement her on both ends of the court.
"I knew she would be able to play in the system I wanted to play," Walz said. "And that's pressing, and that's trying to attack, create turnovers. And she's done an outstanding job for us with that. We're going to miss both of them tremendously, but I don't think people realize how much we're going to miss Candyce."
As the No. 2 seed in the Big East tournament, with a likely No. 2 or possibly even a No. 1 seed waiting in the NCAA tournament, Louisville is one of a handful of teams with legitimate aspirations of getting to the Final Four in St. Louis. But it's easy to forget that it is also a team with those nine freshmen and sophomores, and a team that lost one of its only true post presences, Chauntise Wright, to a season-ending injury before its first game. Along with McCoughtry, Bingham is a big part of that, because of how she harasses opponents from the point position in Louisville's trapping defense and how she crashes the boards on offense. But it's also because of her role when the whistle blows and play stops.
"They call me the mom and Angel the crazy aunt," Bingham said. "I don't mind it. I feel like I am that motherly role, telling them things maybe they don't want to hear, but in the end, they might think that it's the right thing to hear. But they do listen. I know sometimes it's hard coming from the coaches and me as a player and Angel, but they do listen."
With an extra year of school because of her transfer, Bingham has already completed her backelor's degree in psychology and is now working on her master's in social work. She wouldn't mind pursuing work in psychology if an interest in broadcasting doesn't pan out, but, for now, her studies are coming in handy as she plays the role of mom, counselor and calming influence for the combustible Cardinals, in addition to all-conference forward.
"I think it's really helping out right now," Bingham said with a laugh.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.