Since becoming Louisville’s coach in 2007, Jeff Walz has done a masterful job imposing his blue collar, open collar style on a program that was basically faceless before he arrived.
In just six seasons, the Cardinals have been to five NCAA Tournaments and two national championship games, a evolutionary pace exceeding the one laid down by Geno Auriemma at UConn after his arrival in 1985-86.
“We’ve well exceeded our original expectations,” Walz said. “The program had never been past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. We are 15-5 in our five NCAA appearances.
“In the previous years, the program was 3-11 in its 11 appearances. We had to change the culture, change the expectations. And although we are going to graduate a very talented class after this season, we have another one coming in that we are excited.”
For Walz, there has been only one big road block – Auriemma and UConn, the program that has blocked the sun for so many upstart and established programs in the last 29 seasons.
He lost a Big East final to the Huskies in 2008. He lost the national championship to them in 2009. And he lost another last year. In fact, Walz has lost all 10 games he’s coached against Auriemma since leaving Maryland’s national champion to come to Louisville.
On Sunday, he has another chance when the No. 4 Cardinals (23-1, 11-0) play No. 1 UConn (24-0, 11-0) for first place in The American at Gampel Pavilion.
“So far, yes, we are doing some good things,” Walz said. “It’s a new year a new league and new challenges.”
The Cardinals come to Gampel on a 16-game winning streak, a program record. Their only loss this season was at Kentucky, 69-64 on Dec. 1.
However, Louisville will be without Bria Smith, their athletic junior guard (knee) and physical junior forward Shawnta’ Dyer (stress fracture) for the game.
“I wish she was healthy. Her athleticism helps us so much on both ends,” Walz said of Smith.”But we’re excited about [the game]. It’s going to be fun. Is the be-all, end-all? No. But it’s going to be a great environment to play; two teams excited to play. And one of them is going to emerge a game up in first place in the league.”
Of course, UConn is also short-handed without Morgan Tuck and, most likely, Brianna Banks, who did not practice Friday because of her sore ankle.
Walz offered Auriemma some good-natured sympathy over this plight.
“I feel really bad for Geno,” Walz said laughing. “I feel awful for him because Breanna Stewart is such a terrible player. To have to play her 38 minutes or so must be tough for him. He has to play Bria Hartley for 35 or 40 minutes. And Stefanie Dolson is terrible, too.
“Man, that must stink. It don’t know how he does it. I’m surprised he hasn’t resigned yet.”
The Cardinals are coming off a lackluster win at Central Florida, one followed by a snowstorm in Kentucky that prevented the team from returning immediately home.
“If we didn’t take care of business, Sunday wouldn’t have mattered,” said senior forward Asia Taylor, whose double-double [19 points, 12 rebounds] led the Cardinals’ 74-59 victory.
If there is anything different about this Lousville team its embodied by Taylor and Tia Gibbs, a senior guard, who both missed last season with hip injuries. They have melded with established stars Shoni Schimmel and Sara Hammond to beef up the attack.
But there is also a new defensive resolve, which Walz credits for a lot of the team’s success.
“We’ve always been a cohesive team. But what we are doing a better job of is not letting our offensive [problems] dictate how we play defensively,” Walz said. “In the past, if we struggled some offensively, we didn’t guard because we’d be in such a hurry to get the ball back. Now we’re finally to the point where we don’t do that anymore. Instead of getting frustrated, we’re working at it.”
The Cardinals have had to work through some much more serious than that, as well.
During a home game on Dec. 3 against Missouri State, senior guard Antonita Slaughter collapsed near the bench three minutes after the opening tip. Walz and his staff rushed to her aid.
“She was unresponsive on the floor and was taken off the same way,” Walz said. “We had no way of knowing what was going on, how she was, what was wrong. Usually, when someone is taken off the field on a cart or a stretcher, they can tell you how they are doing with a thumbs-up. We didn’t have that.
“But once we got word during the game that she was in the hospital and doing well, it gave us all a sigh of relief and we kept on playing. I told them it wasn’t something any of us could control and we needed someone else to step up and fill her void. And the kids did a nice job.
“And then after we sent her to the Mayo Clinic for evaluation and found out the blood clot no longer was there and she was cleared to return, it was the kind of big lift in the past we hadn’t received. When someone was hurt, it was usually for the entire season.”