Cards aim to reload this season
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Dressed in shorts, sneakers and a long sleeve T-shirt, beads of perspiration sprouting as he scrimmages with his players the night before a game at Hartford, Louisville coach Jeff Walz doesn't look like a guy burdened by the pressure of living up to last season's eye-opening run to the national championship game.
He doesn't schedule like someone sucking up antacid, either, opening this season with back-to-back road games at Dayton and Hartford, two quality mid-major programs and two places where you wouldn't find many national contenders willing to start the season after graduating cornerstones like Angel McCoughtry and Candyce Bingham.
Walz is a competitor first and foremost -- you get the feeling he might be the rare coach who would not only go all out in a scrimmage but might end up in foul trouble if there were anyone with a whistle around. So if expectations in Louisville have grown in the wake of the program's first trip to the Final Four -- and winning the unofficial prize as the best team that wasn't Connecticut last season -- it only means they're approaching those he held all along.
"Everybody in the city and the state has been great to us since we got the job," Walz said of his arrival prior to the 2007-08 season. "It's an established program -- been to, I think, five straight NCAA tournaments, been to 13 or 14 NCAA tournaments throughout the program's history. But now there are higher expectations. It's not just get into the NCAA tournament; [it's] what are you going to do when you get in? Which is good; that's what we all coach for. So it has changed a little bit of the fact that no longer is it just a good thing to make the Big Dance. Now you want to win some ballgames in there."
Of course, he's also still in full possession of all his faculties.
"But it's going to take some time," Walz added.
That much was evident the following night, when the current Cardinals looked every bit the part of a work in progress during a 62-50 loss against Hartford. With four freshmen and a junior-college transfer accounting for 102 of the team's 200 total minutes, Louisville committed 25 turnovers, shot 37 percent and gave up 21 offensive rebounds. Asked if he expected his team, which trailed by double digits most of the game, to make a second-half run, he quipped he didn't think his team could have kept the ball playing five-on-one.
"For some of [the freshmen], they didn't quite realize it was going to be as hard as it is," Walz said after the loss. "When you're playing two or three freshmen out there at a time, and you're counting on your freshmen to play for you, some of them aren't used to this. They think it's like high school: 'When I want to score, just throw me the ball; I'll go score.' It doesn't work like that. I hope now my freshmen understand that because they just took a butt-kicking."
Even Louisville's media guide poses the question on most everyone's mind this season, putting the headline "Rebuild or Reload" atop the page containing the season outlook. McCoughtry and Bingham accounted for 50 percent of the team's points last season, 41 percent of its rebounds and 52 percent of its steals and blocks. And those numbers might still understate their importance. The All-American and the perfect all-conference complement (not to mention the "crazy aunt" and the maternal presence), respectively, McCoughtry and Bingham meant as much to their team as any two players in the nation.
The only returning player who started more than 13 games last season was guard Deseree' Byrd, but after making a go of it on a bad right knee to start the season, she'll have surgery and redshirt (Gwen Rucker, who started 27 games last season, will return once volleyball season concludes). Beyond that, a lot depends on the newcomers and how Monique Reid, Keshia Hines and Becky Burke, all of whom played substantial minutes during the postseason run, adapt to expanded roles.
"[We] don't really expect any of them to be able to put up the numbers Angel did," Walz said in a tone that acknowledged the inherent understatement. "But I think [Reid] showed in our first game she's capable of getting between 14 and 20 every night for us. And if she can do that, it's going to really take a load off of our freshmen. It's going to be a committee. We're going to have to get six or eight kids in here that can give us four or six more points each night. And then we're going to count on our freshman."
It worked in the first game of the season, a 67-65 road victory over a Dayton team with a good chance to make the NCAA tournament. Reid put up 18 points and 14 rebounds, Hines added 10 rebounds, and LaToya Johnson (the 5-foot-5 junior-college transfer who Walz praised effusively) rewarded his trust with 10 points and just one turnover in 33 minutes. That left the freshmen -- particularly starter Ashley Rainey, who has taken McCoughtry's place at the top of the traps that so frustrated opponents in the past -- with support work to do.
But when Hartford challenged Reid -- who got to the free-throw line 11 times against Dayton -- to beat them from outside, she struggled to adjust. She took just six shots from the field and four free throws, while Hines couldn't establish a consistent post presence against Hartford's small, nimble posts. Time and again, the Cardinals were instead left with little more than one-on-one forays, hasty jump shots and few second chances.
Two games and two early examples of both the highs and lows the season might bring.
"We've been known to execute and run things," Walz said before Tuesday's game. "But at the same time, in our Dayton game, I could tell when we got to about seven or eight on the shot clock, we're used to being able to throw the ball to Angel and kind of watch. She didn't make every shot, but she'd get a shot off and we did a pretty good job of rebounding it. So right now, when we get under 10 on the shot clock, everybody's kind of like, 'OK, who wants the ball?'"
Rebuild or reload. Whatever happens this season, the momentum still leans heavily in one direction. Save for senior post Chauntise Wright, the entire roster returns next season and will be joined by a recruiting class that includes four players ranked among the nation's top 100 prospects by HoopGurlz.
"We've got a lot of youth," Walz said. "But I really like where the program is going and the direction our recruiting is going and what the future looks like."
Just don't count on him ceding the present while he waits.
"Jeff Walz is one of the best coaches in the country," Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. "I think that their team is going to be a lot harder to beat at the end of the year than they are now. And I think that Louisville is going to be a team that's in the top echelon of women's basketball for a long time if he's there."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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