LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The coaching style that has yielded 350 coaching wins for University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz hasn’t varied much over the years. I was around when they hired him. I was around for win No. 350 when his No. 5-ranked Cardinals beat Virginia 71-56 on Thursday night.
I remember the story years ago about a coach asking Walz how he got his players into such great shape. “Well,” Walz supposedly said, “I tell them they’re fat.”
That story is from a decade ago. Times, and teenagers, have changed. Walz’s blunt, sarcastic tone may have modified some, but not much. There’s no telling what you’ll hear if you stay around long enough.
In the second half of Thursday’s win, after a failed play, he yelled at senior Kylee Shook, “When you have your own team you can run it however you want. Just run it the way I asked you to.”
Tough love. Brutal sarcasm. Even more brutal honesty. No participation trophies. Walz is not your typical coach. He can do what he does because the players know he cares about them.
Back in the old days, he used to get a frequent two-word text from then-athletic director Tom Jurich. “Get players.” (He also, I believe, got the text “Beat UK,” which he now has done for four straight seasons.)
He’s gotten plenty of players lately. An ACC player of the year in Myisha Hines-Allen. Another in Asia Durr. The clubhouse leader for this year’s winner of the award, Dana Evans. The McDonald’s All-American team came out on Thursday. Louisville had two recruits on it, Olivia Cochran, a 6-1 forward out of Georgia, and Washington prep star Hailey Van Lith, who just a couple of weeks ago made headlines when Kobe Bryant and his daughter took a trip up to Cashmere, Wash., just to watch her play.
I wonder, sometimes, if people realize just how improbable Walz’s accomplishments at Louisville have been. When he arrived, the school was hoping just for an occasional Sweet 16 appearance. It had won four NCAA Tournament games in its history. By the end of Walz’s second season, he had won seven.
Over the past seven years, he has averaged better than 30 wins a year. Think about that. Or this. Louisville has won 37 of its 40 ACC games the past three seasons, and gone 19-1 on the road in that stretch. Louisville’s women’s team has been in the top 10 in every poll since November of 2017, a string of 50 straight polls. Before his arrival, the program had never been ranked in the Top 10.
In Walz’s second season, the program went to the NCAA championship game. He went again in 2013, behind the play of Shoni Schimmel, who was a groundbreaking recruit and player for the Cardinals, garnering national attention – and a national following --- as the first Native American Division I women’s basketball star.
Louisville was back in the Final Four two years ago. This year, the Cardinals are working to overcome the loss of three seniors, including a Wooden Award finalist in Asia Durr. And they’re 19-1 after last night’s win.
“I’ve been very blessed to work with great staffs,” Walz said, when he was asked about reaching his milestone win. “. . . I’ve been very fortunate to work with some wonderful people. But at the end of the day, players win games. Coaches get way too much credit for wins, and I always laugh because we get way too much blame for losses. The players are the ones who step up and make plays. Our job is to put them in a position to be successful, but they’re the ones that have to make a read, and make plays. It’s been a great run, 13 years of growing expectations. We’re sitting here at 19-1 and I don’t know if people expected that, after losing Asia Durr, Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter.”
This year’s team is a work in progress. Dana Evans has embraced the go-to role, after being ACC sixth-player of the year last season. She’s a consistent 20-point scorer who is shooting better than 45 percent from three-point range.
She had 21 in the win over Virginia, while Jones added 13 and Shook 10. Sophomore Elizabeth Balogun pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds.
Louisville jumped on top early, led 25-13 at the end of the first quarter, extended its lead to 21 early in the third quarter, then cruised the rest of the way, though it did see its lead shrink to 11 points at one point in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we lost a little focus,” Walz said. “And we scored the first four points of the second half and got up 21 and I thought we were about to put it away. But that’s been our M.O. lately. We get it up to 20, and then we just can’t finish it off, get it up to 26 or 27. We did that at Miami. But we were up 20 at North Carolina, up 19 in one, up 21 here. We’re at a point where every time we break down on defense, we get scored on. I’m telling our players, we’ve got to just follow the scouting report. . . . We’ve got to get to a point where we get more consistent, where we can build and build and build, instead of going 3-4 minutes without scoring.”
Whatever the issue, expect Walz to work out a solution. And, usually, he’s able to get players to implement it.
He may not be conventional, but he is effective. Among his 350 wins are many of the biggest wins in program history -- a couple of upsets of No .1 teams, an ACC Tournament title, wins over traditional powers Baylor, UConn and Tennessee.
And with another Top 5 team this season, the reputation he has worked to establish for Louisville over 13 seasons continues to grow.
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