Monday, April 6, 2009
Cardinals quickly climb into spotlight
By Graham Hays
ST. LOUIS -- Louisville coach Jeff Walz likes to compare his team of supposedly ill-fitting, underrecruited upstarts to the "Bad News Bears" of film legend. But it's another tribute to Hollywood that better symbolizes how his program, which spent much of this season ranked in the top 10, reached the Final Four in just his second season on the job.
At halftime of a game last season, Walz approached assistant coach Stephanie Norman with a question. Had she ever seen the movie "The Mighty Ducks," the coach inquired? Familiar enough with the way his mind worked to be only slightly perplexed at the apparent non sequitur, Norman assured him that she had.
Good, Walz concluded, because he wanted to run the "Flying V" in the second half.
Sure enough, he drew up the play during the break and, with massive post Chauntise Wright at the point of the "V," a wall of Cardinals escorted Angel McCoughtry up the court, where she was left with an open 3-pointer. McCoughtry missed the shot, but the story drives home the point that Walz isn't exactly afraid of going where few dare tread.
Like trying to build a championship program in the geographic shadow of neighboring Tennessee to the south and the conference shadow of Connecticut, Tuesday's opponent in the national championship game at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Two of the earliest building blocks once Louisville hired then assistant Maryland coach Walz after the Terps' 2005-06 championship run were assistants Michelle Clark-Heard and Norman. Clark-Heard gave up the head-coaching position at Kentucky State, a Division II program she took from one win the year before she arrived to a 19-9 record in her second and final season. Norman came north from Vanderbilt, believing in Walz's vision and undaunted by the prospect of going from the frying pan to the fire in shifting from Tennessee's shadow to Connecticut's shadow.
"As a coach and a human being, I think you want to be challenged by the best," Norman said. "And if not, you're not very competitive. And I would say on this staff, more than any other staff I've been on, we have the most competitive people around. We're a little bit different because we show our emotions on our sleeves sometimes. It's not always the candor that everyone wants that professionalism to be or whatever, but we are who we are. And I think people have fallen in love with that because it is different."
Love might not have been the first emotion that came to mind when Louisville administrators caught wind that their new women's basketball coach was up on a lift in the athletic offices, cleaning some particularly high windows he felt were unacceptably dirty. It was suggested to Walz -- in what he makes sound as though was probably much the same way he suggests to Deseree' Byrd that she shouldn't turn over the ball -- that it might not be appropriate for one of the school's high-profile coaches to be commandeering equipment and circumventing procedures.
Then again, as all the Cardinals will attest, what you see is what you get with Walz. So who is going to fault him for wanting to be able to see clearly out a window?
"He's a me-first person, meaning 'I'm not going to ask anybody on our staff to do something I wouldn't otherwise do.'" Norman said. "And I think because he's young, he's energetic and this is his first program -- he takes so much pride in it that he wants to leave his stamp and his impressions on things. So that's why you see the results of why these kids buy into him."
|Jeff Walz is 60-14 in his two seasons at Louisville, including a 34-4 mark and the program's first title game appearance this season.|
Some of that buy-in process began last season. Walz helped focus most of the energy radiating out in all directions from McCoughtry into a single, consistent beam directed at opponents. He sat Byrd for an entire game for what seemed like the rather odd transgression of having unruly hair, only to see her take over point guard duties this season and emerge as one of the game's best leaders. And in leading the team to the Sweet 16 and a near upset against North Carolina, he proved to the players that there was a method to his madness.
Then he had to start almost anew this season with six freshmen, a class that had to step in and play significant roles for a short-handed team that lost Wright to injury early.
"There's a few of them, I wondered if they would ever get it," Walz said. "It's tough. I mean, we're trying to compete at the highest level of college basketball, and we've got to get more than everybody else gets. Like I said, we've got great kids -- I love them to death -- who are starting to buy into playing hard. And when we do that, we have some talent. We can't just walk out on the floor and be like, 'OK, we're good.' And all these kids are starting to buy into that, and I'm really, really proud of them."
Eight years ago, at another Final Four in St. Louis, Connecticut squared off against another Big East foe. It lost that game to eventual national champion Notre Dame, but it was Connecticut that went on to win three of the next seven national titles, while the Fighting Irish have yet to return to a regional final. So you'll forgive Geno Auriemma if he isn't ready to show the secret handshake to the newest would-be member of his club.
"It's always interesting for us in the last 10 years or so, however long, it was going to be Connecticut and Notre Dame for the rest of Big East history," Auriemma said. "And then it was Connecticut and Rutgers for the rest of Big East history. Now it's Connecticut-Louisville. It just seems to me that if you consider yourself the best team, or the best -- more importantly, the best basketball program in the conference -- then it's just natural that as other programs get better, you're going to have to deal with that."
Auriemma also brought up McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham as the cornerstones of this team's run, as if to remind a world going gaga over the newest fad that recruiting is still where titles are won and lost and that Louisville is still a newbie in that game.
Norman concurred that nobody on Louisville's staff is foolish enough to think either their system or their passion is more important to the program's quick success on their watch than inheriting one of the game's best all-around players in McCoughtry and one of its best-kept secrets in Bingham. But -- as has been the case in recent years for champions and runners-up such as Michigan State, Baylor, Maryland and others -- getting to Tuesday night at least opens doors, no matter what the outcome.
"Before now, getting here to this national championship game, we never had the name," Clark-Heard said. All those schools had been to the Final Four -- the Rutgers, the Notre Dames. It is hard to sell a kid, like, 'Hey, we can get there, but we need you and other players to help us get there.' Well, now they can see, 'Hey, this is true.'
"There is proof in the pudding because any kid, when you take a chance, they want to know that it can feasibly, possibly be done."
Back in its home region, where five of this season's six freshmen came from, that's already happening. Just ask Bingham, a Louisville native who left her hometown briefly before transferring before Walz arrived. The school's women's basketball program has long been competitive, whether in Conference USA or the Big East, but never to quite this degree and never to quite the interest of the locals in a basketball-crazy region.
"When I was a kid, nobody was in the stands, maybe 50-60 people at the most," Bingham said. "But now, getting 5,000, 6,000 fans a night was just amazing to see.
No one ever knew of Louisville basketball until last year getting to the Sweet 16 and then now getting to the national championship game. I mean, I heard the city of Louisville was crazy yesterday, so no telling what's going to happen if we do win [Tuesday]."
The odds are against them on that count. But win or lose, what has already happened in Louisville is at worst a breath of fresh air and, at best, a triumph of the unconventional.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
[Jeff Walz] a me-first person, meaning 'I'm not going to ask anybody on our staff to do something I wouldn't otherwise do.' And I think because he's young, he's energetic and this is his first program -- he takes so much pride in it that he wants to leave his stamp and his impressions on things. So that's why you see the results of why these kids buy into him.
-- Louisville assistant Stephanie Norman