CRAWFORD | Louisville's Walz speaks from the bottom of his heart, and the top of his game
University of Louisville women's basketball coach Jeff Walz is at the top of his game, but he's also showing a great deal of perspective during his program's third Final Four run.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz has coached his third Cardinals team to a Final Four, and there are two things I need to tell you about him.
No. 1. Walz is not the guy you expect to see shedding a tear on an NCAA Tournament podium. He’s the guy standing in the back waiting to give the crying guy a hard time.
Sarcasm? Absolutely. Brutal honestly? He’s a No. 1 seed. Biting critique? Ask his players. But tears? He’s the guy who praised his players for keeping personal emotions out of it once they walk on the court for practice.
Yet here was Walz, Sultan of Snark, tearing up on the podium as he talked about his University of Louisville basketball players after they beat Oregon State 76-43 to advance to next week’s Final Four in Columbus.
“These young women here,” he said, sitting beside Myisha Hines-Allen, Asia Durr and Sam Fuehring, “I can't say enough about their character. The basketball stuff is there, that's great. It's their character. It's who they are. It's what they do off the floor. You can't be a great basketball team and have the results you want if you don't carry it over in your personal life. And we truly do have wonderful young women who are wonderful role models to my children . . . and that means more to me than winning basketball games.”
Then Walz’s voice began to crack, and he continued.
“When my daughters were out there in the yard, and Lola tells me she's Lola Hines-Allen today, and Lucy, you're going to be Lucy Durr, and then she tells Mom, you're going to be the official, and Dad can still be the coach, you know, it's the impact that they have on their lives that means everything to me. It's a wonderful experience to have the opportunity to get back to a Final Four again, but I want to thank them for being the people they are.”
I don’t want to say Walz is a kinder, gentler coach than he used to be. Because he isn’t. Let’s not misunderstand that. But he probably is a more introspective coach than he was. As you get older, you start to appreciate a different set of things, and worry less about some things you used to obsess about.
So it’s a little strange to see someone as competitive as Walz is on the bench less than 15 minutes before a game bouncing his two-year-old, Lucy, on his knee. I’ve talked to him shortly before many games. Before the ACC Tournament championship game, Rick Bozich was there covering for WDRB and expressed surprise that Walz was shooting the breeze with him as the seconds ticked down toward the starting lineups.
“He was going on and I finally said, ‘Hey, you better go coach your team,’” Bozich said.
Walz said that at some point, the feeling of being nervous went away and the attitude of “let’s go to work” kicked in for him. So why would he be too nervous to talk to people, even minutes before big games?
“I haven't missed a shot in 22 years,” he said. “I keep telling them all the time, everybody is like, ‘Hey, man, I don't want to talk to you.’ No, I'm fine, I'll talk to anybody. You know, we've done all of our work, and then my time comes when the game starts. Before that, I'm not one of those, ‘You can't talk to me, don't do that.’ Again, that's why I love coaching women's basketball. You asked me that question about would you be interested in a men's job. No. I mean, I want to sit there with my daughter to experience it. . . . That's what it's all about. Memories like that that I'll be able to sit there and share with her in 10 years.”
How is he able to get away with saying some of the things he says to players? I’ve been asked the question a few times.
The main reason is that he cares, and they know he cares. And every once in a while, if they give it back, he doesn’t go nuts. He was rather forcefully trying to make a point to Sam Fuehring during Sunday’s game, and she, nearly as forcefully, pointed out to the court and offered a counter-point. It got a bit heated. It took a few seconds to get her walked back into the huddle. A minute or two later, Walz waved her back into the game. Not a lot of coaches would’ve called her number so quickly without batting an eye.
But Walz likes her passion for the game, and her effort.
There came a time on Sunday when he just had to stop for a minute and enjoy the all-out effort and precision execution his team was giving him.
“I’ll sleep well tonight,” he said. “I would have slept well if we hadn’t won. We come out here and we compete, we give it everything we have. I’m going to go home, and my four-and-a-half year old and my two-and-a-half year old, all they’re going to talk about is the confetti on the floor. They have no idea. To them, if we win, there’s confetti on the floor and I got to play on it. That’s it. . . . A national championship would be fantastic. You know, it’s why you play this. But I’m not going to be defined, or our program is not going to be defined by, ‘Oh, it was a bad 20 years, or 15 or 16 years, because they never won a national championship.’ That’s not what it’s all about. It’s about the consistency of what you’re able to do year-in and year-out. I’ll never define what we do by one trophy.”
Walz might’ve said that seven or eight years ago. But I’m not sure he would have. He’s no less hungry or driven. But he is more thoughtful about what he’s doing.
No. 2. Walz knew his team was going to win after the game’s first play on Sunday.
Most of us didn’t think much about it. Louisville’s first play of the game was a simple one. A couple of passes, then Durr got the ball beyond the top of the key. Fuehring ran up to set a screen. Durr dribbled off it to shake her defender, and shot an open three just to the right of the key. It bounced off, but Walz felt good.
Why? Because Oregon State’s Gülich stayed in the lane, and didn’t charge up to challenge Durr.
“I saw how they were going to defend it, and figured if that’s how they were going to play it, we were good,” Walz said.
The Cards missed a lot of shot early. Fuehring missed two layups. And they led just 31-24 at the half. But Walz was confident.
“I just told them, we’re getting good shots,” he said. “If we kept getting those shots, we were going to make them, and we would be fine. And I thought they were having to work for every field goal they got.”
One early second-half adjustment: Oregon State passed to Gülich in the post for two early scores in the third quarter. Walz pointed out to Fuehring that Gülich was getting the ball and extending her arm to her side and going up and under.
“We just kept telling them, you can't keep backing up, you've got to hold your ground or she'll dominate you, and Sam did a great job of holding her ground,” Walz said. “That made her shoot over Sam instead of around her. Starting the third quarter, she scored back-to-back buckets because she got Sam on the top side, and then all she did was shoot it around her, and we're like, ‘Sam, she's got to shoot over you, you've got to make you shoot over you.’ Then we made that adjustment, and Sam was fantastic.”
These are the little things that mean a lot in basketball games. And Walz trots out dozens of them per game.
What makes his team dangerous is that it has begun to understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and is dialed into his adjustments. They view the first minutes of games like the opening rounds of a boxing match. They’re just sizing up the opponent on both ends.
“I think we pay attention to every play, especially in the first quarter, first two, three minutes of the game, we could definitely tell how they're going to play, how they're going to guard us,” Durr said.
Another indication that his players were especially on point Sunday – they turned the ball over only three times.
“Usually, we throw it away more than three times just passing it around with nobody guarding us,” Walz said. “To play with that few turnovers in a game on this stage is a pretty big thing.”
When this happens, things start to get fun for coaches. I saw it with Rick Pitino and his team in 2013. After its regional final win over Duke, I talked to assistant coaches who said, “We missed only three defensive assignments in the whole game. With what we do, that’s nearly impossible.”
When players get that focused on what a coach who knows what he is doing is telling them, it’s a dangerous combination.
And Walz’s team is a flashing red light as it heads to Columbus this week.
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