Commentary

It's a hard-knock life for Louisville

Originally Published: January 23, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Angel McCoughtryAP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyAngel McCoughtry is averaging 21.4 points, 8.7 boards and a nation-best 4.7 steals.
Jeff Walz is hardly the first parent who, while watching television with his kids, found himself confronted with the prospect of potential programming-induced nightmares. That the nightmares in question would have been his own puts the Louisville coach in more unusual company.

Such is the danger when the television is tuned to Connecticut's 30-point demolition of second-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill and you're the next team on the Huskies' schedule (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET Monday), without even the benefit of home court.

"I tried not to watch it," Walz laughed. "I've got a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old, so we sat there and played downstairs and watched part of the game. I saw enough to know I didn't need to watch the rest of it. I played with my kids instead."

That sums up the harsh reality confronting every team remaining on UConn's schedule. It doesn't mean one (or perish the thought, maybe even two) of them won't play the game of the season once the ball is tipped and sink the unsinkable SS Auriemma. But when neither North Carolina nor Oklahoma -- which have spent the rest of the season looking every bit the part of the second- and third-best teams in the nation -- can come within 30 points of the Huskies, there's no pleasurable preamble to playing them.

In the Cardinals' case, there might at least be comfort in knowing they share one trait with their conference rival: an ability to focus inward rather than worrying about the name on the other jersey. Of course, for UConn, that's the luxury born of dominating teams by 20 or 30 points every game.

[+] EnlargeDeseree Byrd
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyDeseree' Byrd didn't play point guard in high school or even last season. But the sophomore has filled in the position with aplomb.

For Walz's team, it's more of a survival instinct.

The Cardinals are almost certainly the most hard-knock one-loss team in the country, a sentiment that's easier to express given that they're also one of only eight remaining teams with one or fewer losses. Expected to make a deep postseason run after coming within a few minutes of upsetting North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last March, Louisville suffered a loss that threatened to define this season before it ever played a game. Senior Chauntise Wright, a 6-foot-3 pillar of post presence, suffered a torn ACL in her right knee in an October practice, leaving the team with just three upperclassmen and little post depth.

"Defensively, Chauntise, the last month and a half of the season, two months of our season last year, she did such a good job defending in the post," Walz explained. "We could put her on [UNC's] Erlana Larkins; she held her to seven points in the Sweet 16 game. [Wright] did a great job when we played UConn in the championship game of the Big East. Not only was she able to score in the low post, she did such a very good job defensively."

Forced to improvise, Walz has tried to up the tempo, running and pressing more. That's not necessarily immediately apparent from the stats -- the Cardinals are averaging two fewer field goal attempts and one fewer free-throw attempt per game this season than last season -- until you consider they're keeping pace with last season's numbers despite turning the keys over to Deseree' Byrd, a point guard who wears No. 50. And who didn't play point guard in high school, let alone as the eighth member of the rotation last season.

"That was the one spot that I was really concerned about starting off the season, was what kind of point-guard play we'd get," Walz said. "Des Byrd had never played the point-guard spot before. … I kind of threw her in, and I've been very pleased with the way she's responded to it. She's still not a natural point guard. She's still learning the game from that spot. But I'm very pleased with how she's played."

In Louisville's lone on-court loss this season, an 85-82 stunner on the road against Nevada in November, Byrd had 15 points and six assists. She also finished with six turnovers, including four in a first half in which an 11-point lead for her team all but vanished by halftime. Those ups and downs haven't leveled off just yet; she's averaging slightly more assists than turnovers in conference play. But -- perhaps as importantly for a team that said goodbye to the program's single-season assists leader, Patrika Barlow, after last season -- neither have the rough spots dulled her voice nor slowed her motor.

"We know she's going to make mistakes and stuff -- she's human -- but she's been great at that spot and she's learning more and more," Angel McCoughtry said. "Every day, she's getting better and better. And that's what it's all about, just getting better and better and learning from her mistakes.

"She's been a vocal leader on the court; she's been a leader off the court, showing the younger players by example."

The same could be said for McCoughtry. In at least one sense, Louisville has been McCoughtry's team since a breakout sophomore season in which she averaged 21.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. But after a memorable display of frustration against UConn in that season's Big East tournament and a subsequent second-round exit in the NCAA tournament (not to mention a so-so 10-7 record away from the comforts of home), it wasn't clear from the outside if it was her team beyond the box score.

[+] EnlargeJeff  Walz
J. Meric/Getty ImagesJeff Walz has guided Louisville to a 19-1 record and No. 10 ranking in the coaches' poll.

That McCoughtry might have made for a combustible mix with a point guard learning on the fly and a roster with six freshmen. The newer version -- while not unwilling to flash the emotion that fuels one of the best all-around games the Big East or any conference has seen in years -- is also one who added a measure of patience to her repertoire; perhaps not in quite the same abundance as steals or points, but present nevertheless.

In Tuesday's win against Cincinnati, there was a moment early in the game when Byrd locked in on waiting for a baseline cutter, even with McCoughtry open in the near corner. The cutter didn't find an open space, and Byrd's forced pass bounced out of bounds for a turnover. McCoughtry didn't flash exasperation or frustration, didn't do anything but clap her hands in encouragement and head down the other way to play defense, where she grabbed a rebound and went end-to-end for a baseline jumper.

"I've had opposing coaches in the league say she's grown and matured the past two years," said Walz, who spent his first year with McCoughtry last season. "Which, you know, I pass that on to her, because that is something she has tried to do."

Louisville would not be 19-1 without McCoughtry averaging 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.7 steals (best in the nation) and 1.4 blocks per game. But the Cardinals likely wouldn't be 19-1 without other elements of their star's game that she honed over the summer.

"I worked on just being a better leader on and off the court," McCoughtry said. "I worked on my ballhandling a lot, just playing within the offense, taking good shots, being patient and letting my game come to me. … Leaders make their teammates better. That's one thing I had to work, making everybody else around me -- encouraging them when they make mistakes and stuff like that."

Despite replacing a point guard and a post, the Cardinals are tied for first in the Big East. They pushed UConn in the championship game of the Big East tournament a year ago in Hartford, holding their own against Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles in front of nearly 10,000 fans cheering for the other team. They are not lambs being led to the slaughter Monday, even if the odds of them staying within single digits, let alone winning, are longer than the trip from Kentucky.

What lurks in the otherwise rolling hills of Connecticut is a mountain. But Louisville has been trekking against an upward incline all season.

"It's going to be a challenge," Walz said. "It's like we tell our kids: These are the games that are going to help us for March. And it's going to be a test to see where we are. At the same time, we aren't going to judge our entire season on Monday night. It does us no good.

"If we go up there and play a great game and pull out a win, we still have to play at Providence the following week. So it's not going to come down to one game for us, but it is going to be a good test for us to show where we are, how far we've come and what we still have to work on."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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