LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jeff Walz and his University of Louisville women's basketball team still haven't beaten Connecticut. But after Monday night's 72-52 loss to the unbeaten Huskies in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship in Uncasville, Conn., Walz wasn't about to lose the press conference.
He rolled in and after congratulating Geno Auriemma and UConn, settled some unfinished business from something a Connecticut outlet had written after the teams' last meeting, in the KFC Yum! Center.
"We know that we very well could play them again. And, you know, I believe we can beat them. I mean, hell, what do you play the game for?" Walz said. "I had a reporter ask my player last time, do you think you could beat UConn, and they said yes, and then they blasted them for it. What the hell you supposed to say, no? What kind of reporter is going to bait a kid into a question like that and write crap like that?"
Walz was just getting warmed up. The man says what he thinks. I saw him a couple of weeks ago after he'd been a "guest sportscaster" on a competing station and he said, "That's all you guys do? Read stuff off a screen? I stutter and I can do that job." It's not as easy as all that. But still, it's easier than beating the Connecticut women.
"Yeah, we show up to play the game to win," he said. "If nobody thinks they can beat them, let's save a bunch of money and not have the tournament and give them the trophy now. But I believe everybody thought the same thing about Baylor last year. It might not be us that does it, it might not be, but I know how Geno prepares his kids. And he's not in that locker room right now going, ‘It's going to be a breeze for the next three weeks. Let's go to the casino and roll some dice for the next three days.' That's not how he prepares his kids. I'm excited we're going to get the opportunity to continue to play."
Walz and the Cardinals understand, they still have a roll or two left. They have played all season under the theme, "Unfinished Business." They might as well have used, "Beat UConn." That's the business the Cardinals have to finish.
They completed conference tournament play 30-4. Three of those losses were to Connecticut. The average margin of those losses was 19 points. Connecticut's average winning margin in the rest of its games was 37.4 points. Connecticut beat then No. 2-ranked Duke by 21 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. They beat a Stanford team in the running to be the No. 1 seed in the West Region by 19.
The question, then, that was put to a feisty Walz after Monday night's loss was, should the committee put UConn, which is the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, in a situation of having to possibly play a No. 2 seed on its home court?
"How am I supposed to answer that question without getting reprimanded? I'll lose my per diem money and everything," Walz quipped. "I will be wearing a tee shirt to coach in next time. It all depends what we view as important. If we're trying to put a true NCAA Tournament together -- which I think we're at that point now that we can -- then if we're the fourth No. 2 and UConn is the first one, then they should come to our place, and I've got no problem with that."
But there's always a "but." Walz also looks around the nation and sees a regional sitting there in Lincoln, Neb. And if UConn fans are going to have to fly to wherever their team plays anyway, he said, "If you're trying to run a true tournament with the true seeding, (sending UConn to Lincoln) is what you would do if we're not the fourth No. 2 seed. I still look at it as I think we're the only team that has not lost to anyone who is not below 50 in the RPI who is looking to fight for a No. 1 seed, and I know everybody is going to say, well you haven't played ten top-25 teams in the RPI, that's true, because we can only play who is on our schedule, and we had some good nonconference games and some teams had some injuries after we played them -- they were healthy when we played them, but we can't control that. At the same time we had a lot of opportunities to have teams try and beat us."
U of L won the preseason NIT on Oklahoma's home court. It won at LSU by 21. It beat a Colorado State team that was nationally ranked at the time. It's only loss other than the UConn setbacks was to a Kentucky team that was playing as well as anyone in the country late in the season.
Of more concern for Walz, however, is the way his team is playing. He knows, there's a lot of basketball to be played even before the regional tournament gets to Louisville. There's the matter of two early-round games. And there can be no looking ahead, whether UConn is in their path or not.
The Cards fell behind 8-0 to UConn right off the tip in Monday's AAC title game. They were still down only eight with about six minutes to play when a 12-2 Huskies run opened it up. UConn didn't extend its lead much after that. But neither did U of L manage much of a threat, closing just once within eight points early in the second half.
What U of L did better Monday was defend in the half-court -- for most of the game, at least. When it got into transition, UConn scored points in bunches, and it got several transition opportunities from quick shots by the Cards. It still was outrebounded, but held its own on the boards.
The problem for Walz is this -- you can't just show flashes against UConn. You've got to execute every time, on offense and defense.
"I told our kids, they're going to make some contested shots," Walz said. "That's fine. You can't give them the easy ones. We got beat in transition again and we talked about that and that's something we will break down on film and we understand now the urgency was there tonight, but now it's really got to be there from here on out because the next game we lose is our last."
Louisville's other problem Monday was that it didn't get to the free throw line. It shot only two in the game. Somehow, the Cards have to figure out a way to challenge UConn in the post and pick up fouls, rather than having shots blocked every time in. Settling for jump shots only plays into UConn's hands -- unless the shots go in.
But make no mistake, taking those open shots and making them was a huge part of U of L's run last season. You're not going to beat UConn unless those shots fall. Senior guard Shoni Schimmel was 7-for-25 in the game. Some of those were forced. Some she needed to force. But she said regardless, it's up to the players to execute what Walz gives them.
"You've just got to keep continuing to believe in what he's preaching," Schimmel said. "He knows what he's talking about and for us to believe in that, that's what we have to carry over into the game. He got us to the Final Four coaching us and us following him and going out and executing the game plan and we've got to continue to keep doing that. Tonight we had times where we didn't necessarily do what we were supposed to and it came back and got us. So for us to just actually believe in what he's saying and put two feet into this whole thing, we've just got to trust in him."
Against most teams in the game, Walz is able to draw up effective enough game plans to give the Cards an edge. Even in last season's upset of Baylor, he saw some things to exploit. UConn's only vulnerability is its lack of depth. And so far this season, no one has been able to take any kind of advantage.
Walz, clearly, still thinks his team can. He doesn't have much company, but you get the sense that the guy who orchestrated perhaps the biggest upset in women's basketball history last season kind of likes it that way.