Can Walz outmaneuver Final Four?
ST. LOUIS -- Whether it's Henry V taking on the French at Agincourt or Rollie Massimino taking on the Hoyas in Lexington, it pays to follow the person with the perfect plan.
And after two years of playing for Jeff Walz, the Louisville Cardinals aren't about to stop listening to the guy whose long-term plan for lifting the program suddenly finds itself in the fast lane, courtesy of a Final Four appearance earned in large part because of his propensity for outmaneuvering the competition 40 minutes at a time.
"He's the best, as far as X's and O's, that I've ever been around," Cardinals guard Becky Burke said. "As far as getting ready for opponents, preparing us for opponents, he's just amazing. I've never seen somebody as good at him at just preparing and knowing what the other team is going to do and then drawing a play for us to do that will work against it. It's just amazing how his mind works in basketball ways."
Most teams that reach the Final Four have a knack for imposing their will on an opponent. Like a baseball reliever with a great pitch, they know that you know what's coming. And they know that you know that you can't do anything about it. But with a team short on McDonald's All-Americans and long on freshmen recently removed from ordering Happy Meals, Walz attacks from the other side of the equation.
Instead of will paving the way, Louisville wins by deconstructing the other team's way.
"They do a lot of things defensively, which keeps you from scripting too much offensively," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. "When you don't know what's coming, it's hard to be prepared for it. So I think our guards have to be real heady; we have to handle all those changes and adapt. And we'll see how deep our basketball IQ really is, because we're going to have to make decisions on the fly and react."
After losing just twice to teams other than Connecticut during the regular season and conference tournament, Louisville hoped for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and a chance to play its first- and second-round games in front of friendly crowds in nearby Bowling Green. Instead, it found itself the unwitting loser in bracket bingo. Not only were the Cardinals seeded third, but they also had to play their first two games in Baton Rouge, including a second-rounder against host LSU.
There's a lot of coaches out there that if you don't practice it, we're not going to put it in. [Walz will] be at timeouts and draw up a play and we'll go out and execute it and we've never ran that play before. It just comes to him in his brain and he's like, 'I think we can do this,' and then it's magical.” -- Louisville assistant Stephanie Norman
That's when Walz made his now-familiar guarantee to his players: Get through those two games in Baton Rouge, and he'd get them to St. Louis. Lo and behold, here they are.
"We believe him 100 percent," Burke said of the team mood after wins against Liberty and LSU sent them to Raleigh to play Baylor and Maryland. "He can't come out to the court and play for us, but it's just like, 'OK, coach, we did our part,' and we have complete confidence that he's going to give us everything we need to put us in a position to win."
Rallying cry aside, it's not as if studying opponents and devising strategies is anything new for Walz. The players have seen it time and again over the course of the last two seasons, but assistant coach Michelle Clark-Heard saw it long before that. Clark-Heard joined Walz's staff when he got the Louisville job, but she also worked alongside him when both were assistants on Paul Sanderford's staff at Nebraska from 1997 to 2001.
It was Sanderford who gave Walz his first college coaching position at Western Kentucky in 1995, the same year Walz graduated from Northern Kentucky.
"[Sanderford was] phenomenal at X's and O's," Clark-Heard said. "And you could tell that Jeff, at that point, he was really soaking it all in. He was involved in everything, so I knew when his time came and wherever he was going to get a chance to go, he was going to be phenomenal because he worked at it."
How he works isn't quite something out of the Bill Belichick school of all-consuming coaching. Walz said he didn't even watch the regional final between Oklahoma and Purdue in real time Tuesday. As has been the case throughout the season when he leaves the office, he was at the mercy of supporters who demanded his undivided attention upon his return from Raleigh -- daughter Kaeley and son Jacob.
But once the staff knew whom it would play in St. Louis, the planning process spun into action. Assistant Stephanie Norman and Clark-Heard scouted personnel and plays, and by the first afternoon of practice, the team had already run through half of the plays they'd likely face against the Sooners. Some of the corresponding game plan on defense will involve implementing new twists, but a lot will involve simply focusing on details of established material. The trick is the Cardinals have almost every conceivable defense at their disposal.
Of course, there's always the chance that as the game unfolds, Walz will simply reach for the clipboard and come up with something on the fly.
"There's a lot of coaches out there that if you don't practice it, we're not going to put it in," assistant coach Stephanie Norman said. "He'll be at timeouts and draw up a play and we'll go out and execute it and we've never ran that play before. It just comes to him in his brain and he's like, 'I think we can do this,' and then it's magical."
Sometimes the plan works, as it did so impressively in containing Kristi Toliver and leaving Maryland rudderless. And sometimes it doesn't work, even if executed well.
In the first of two games against Connecticut, Louisville came out with a triangle-and-two defense designed to make someone other than Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery or Tina Charles beat it, much like what Stanford accomplished in last year's Final Four. For most of the first half, it worked. Then Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes hit a 3-pointer to give her a team a lead it wouldn't relinquish. Hayes finished with 23 points, leaving Walz to lament that the Huskies beat him exactly the way he challenged them to.
Just as a spy doesn't remain alive by handing out business cards, a tactician doesn't maintain his advantage by handing out game plans ahead of time. Walz and his assistants weren't quite ready to hand out the complete schematics Saturday. Clark-Heard talked about containing Danielle Robinson and slowing the Sooners in transition, a task that might require a collective effort but could offer Burke a chance to reprise her standout effort against Toliver in the regional final.
But the game will likely ultimately come down to Paris and her ability both to score on first looks and to demoralize a defense that forces the shot it wants, only to watch her corral the offensive rebound and finish.
"We're going to have to throw a lot of players at her," Walz said. "She's so strong and does a great job of getting position. And Keshia Hines, our post player that comes off the bench, is probably our best matchup with her, and that's still not a great one. So we'll have to go small at times. We'll have to throw our entire team at her."
It's safe to say that with five full days to prepare, Walz and his staff have come up with something a little more carefully constructed than that. It's a task few before have accomplished, but as the days have progressed, there have been some telltale signs of a plan taking shape.
"I think the energy level they bring is when I know they get it," Norman said of a game plan. "And the energy has been good, especially [Friday]. Our group doesn't always catch on the fastest, but we've gone over it a few days and now they really understand what we're trying to get them to do."
Either Oklahoma will impose its will, or Louisville will find a way to break it.
At least, that's the plan.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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