LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – There are teams in every tournament that, somehow, find another gear. They play above their already accomplished heads. Every player off the bench seems to contribute. They seem to find their own momentum, and don’t lose it.
Louisville basketball coach Jeff Walz knows the look, because he’s had some of those teams. He saw it in 2013 with a team that bounced Baylor from the NCAA Tournament and crashed the Final Four. He saw it in 2009 with a national runner-up.
My question, as his talented 2021 team enters an NCAA Tournament unlike any other next week, that is what “it” is, and whether he sees signs of it with his current team, which will carry a 23-3 record and a No. 2 seed into Monday’s 8 p.m. meeting against No. 15 seed Marist in San Antonio, where all tournament games will be played this season. The winner will get the winner of a matchup between Central Florida and Northwestern.
“Our teams that have turned out to be something special are the ones that don't worry about when I'm yelling at them, because it's all in love,” Walz said. “If they miss a box-out, instead of working about, did coach see that, is he going to get on me? They're already apologizing to their teammates, because they let a teammate down. When I start seeing that, then I know we've got a chance to be special, because then, they're in it for each other.”
The obvious next question: Has he seen it with his current team? The Cardinals began to do some things better in the ACC Tournament, which wrapped up nine days ago. The wins weren’t pretty, because All-American Dana Evans struggled offensively like she hasn’t all season. Despite that, the Cardinals lost by only two in the championship game, to eventual No. 1 seed N.C. State.
Forget the loss, Walz started seeing the kind of things he wanted to see during that tournament.
“They really started to hold themselves accountable,” he said of his players. “If we can continue to carry that over, we've got a chance, because we've got the ability to score the ball, there's no question about it. If we can defend like we did against N.C. State, and then get a little sharper on half-court execution, then I think we can make a run.”
This women’s tournament will be marked by a long break for most teams – Louisville will go 15 days between their ACC championship loss and their first NCAA Tournament game. It will also be a mental test. Walz said there will be no time outside the hotel for the first two rounds, except for trips to practice, and for meals. Players must take daily COVID tests, and won’t be allowed out of their rooms until they get a negative result.
It’s a mental test, as well as a physical one.
“It’s what we want,” Walz said. “We can laugh about it and shake our heads about it, but we wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Evans added, “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge challenge for us, because even when we’re here, we’re kind of in a bubble anyway. All we do is go to the gym, go home, and repeat. . . . We’ve been in this pandemic for a year now. We know what to expect and we know what to do.”
Evans, in particular, was crestfallen after the ACC Tournament loss. She took it hard, but also has used it for motivation in the days that have followed.
“Finally just being able to play again soon, we know who we’re playing, that’s a big relief for me,” Evans said. “It’s been a challenging week, to get over that loss. . . . I gave myself a couple of days, because it was really hard for me to let it go. After that, I got into the gym and did what I needed to do. . . . I just needed not to get down on myself and carry something from the last game over to the next. As a leader and captain of this team, I can’t do that, and I can’t let them see me like that.”
Walz said his team returned with a positive attitude after the ACC Tournament.
“It's been good. Our practices have been very competitive,” he said. “We played Sunday in ACC championship. Gave off Monday and Tuesday. Came back, practiced Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. What I realized from that practice on Wednesday is I can't just give them two straight days off. We just looked winded, we looked like we'd lost some conditioning. But we had three great practices, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. We came back in on Saturday, we have to get COVID tested every day, so we got COVID tested and I just had them do conditioning for a half hour. Then we came back on Sunday, obviously, had COVID test, then it was a day off, then came back (Monday) and I was really pleased with how we competed with each other.
“We'll break some film down (Monday) night, and work on a few things that all three teams might do, if we can find a common thread, that all three might do with Marist and Central Florida and Northwestern, we'll do some of that tomorrow because Wednesday is our travel day, then we'll come back and be able to practice Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because I believe we open up on Monday, the 8 p.m. game. We're the last game in the first round. I'll have to drink some coffee before that one.”
He might need coffee, but his team, he’s hoping, will be ready to shift into a higher gear.
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