University of Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz threw cold water this week on a tweet rumor that he would be named the next coach at the Tennessee, a famous women’s basketball power that won eight NCAA championships under the late Pat Summitt — but has been blanked in recent years.
Walz says there’s nothing to it.
“It starts up every year,” Walz says. “It’s at all levels of sport, where you start hearing the rumors going around. He’s getting fired. She’s getting that job. At the end of the day, 3 percent of them actually happen.”
As denials go, the water Walz was throwing on the rumor wasn’t exactly ice-cold. But it probably cooled things down enough for Louisville to attend to chores as one of the top choices in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
After blazing to runaway victories in first and second round games on its home court last weekend, No. 1 seed Louisville (31-3) moves on to the Albany, N.Y., Regional, where it takes on fourth-seeded Oregon State (24-7) Friday night at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2).
In the first game on Friday in Albany, No. 2 seed Connecticut (33-2) is matched against UCLA (20-12). The winners on Friday play Sunday in the regional final for the chance to advance to the Final Four on April 7 in Tampa, Fla.
Most fans — and most experts, too — expect the Albany Regional to evolve to a super slam-down matchup of Louisville vs. Connecticut. Louisville beat Connecticut 78-69 in a nationally televised game in KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 31. It was Louisville’s first victory ever over Connecticut, the school that succeeded Tennessee in national dominance. Connecticut boasts 19 Final Four appearances with 11 NCAA titles. That includes two wins over Louisville in the final (’09, ’13).
Always ‘shot-ready’ Asia Durr
Walz, of course, is talking about nothing but Oregon State. Even though a coach must think ahead, he or she can’t go around talking about any game beyond the very next one they’re in — “taking it one game at a time.” If they violate that taboo, things could go wrong. Fast.
Louisville stopped Oregon State last year on its way to the Final Four. A tall player the Beavers relied on in 2018 has graduated, but the current Oregon State roster includes three players 6-foot-7 or better. Despite the height, Oregon State is paced by 5-9 guard Destiny Slocum.
“She’s very, very explosive,” says Walz, who once coached Slocum in a summer all-star series. “I kind of liken her to (former UofL star) Shoni Schimmel. She’s fearless. She’ll shoot it. Just knows how to play the game.”
While coaches may be forbidden to look ahead, writers aren’t. So we’ll note that Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has been kind of downplaying his team all year. And, for a change, the Huskies have not been ranked No. 1 every week of the season in the Associated Press Poll. That’s mostly been Notre Dame and Baylor (two No. 1 seeds heading other regions.)
“We kind of suck this year — we’ve lost two games,” says Auriemma with a laugh.
Connecticut got a lift recently as star guard Katie Lou Stevenson, a two-time All-American, returned to the lineup. Stevenson played in the game here versus Louisville, but we were very impressed with Connecticut’s 6-2 forward Napheesa Collier. A thoroughbred.
Louisville’s speed is its best suit, and the Cardinals aren’t just fast up and down the court, but very quick to react defensively. That was probably the biggest plus for the Cardinals in the victory here over Connecticut. The idea for Louisville would be to do that again, cutting off the Connecticut fast break and slowing the Huskies’ slashing drives to the basket.
Louisville has been buoyed by the return to health of center Sam Fuehring, who bounced back from an ankle injury to score well in the opening NCAA rounds. Also on the mend is guard Arica Carter, who played some minutes in wins over Robert Morris and Michigan.
“Arica was only one-for-eight shooting last weekend, but she brings a poise to our team,” says Walz. “She sees the open man and gets the ball to them early — when they’re shot-ready.”
Always “shot-ready” is 5-10 Louisville guard Asia Durr, who has been named to the watch list of every player-of-the-year award and will be named a first-team All-American in coming weeks.
Durr is averaging 21 points a game. Twice in her career, Durr has scored 47 points in a game, and her silky left-handed jumper has been splashing through the nets as the tourney unfolds.
Walz certainly is one of the bright young (he’s 47) coaching talents in basketball. In 12 years at Louisville, he’s 330-99 — averaging 27 wins a season. He’s guided Louisville to eight NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, three Finals Fours, with two championship runners-up finishes.
The personable coach is a great one for quips, and full of quotes. He rolls with the flow of coaching job change chatter, telling reporters the only call he would be interested in taking would be from the Los Angeles Lakers.
But Walz is dead serious about the trajectory he has dialed in for his Louisville Cardinals.
“We’ve done a wonderful job here,” says Walz. “I don’t think anybody anticipated us to be where we are now. We’re recruiting well, the kids are excited, and our goal is to keep this thing going and win the national championship.”
‘It’s a great day to be a Jackrabbit’
Looking around the NCAA Sweet 16 round, defending NCAA champion Notre Dame (32-3) is playing in the Chicago Regional this weekend, with Stanford (30-4) and Cinderella Missouri State (25-9) the top contenders.
No. 1-ranked Baylor (33-1) is the favorite at Greensboro, N.C. The final there could match Baylor’s 6-7 center Kalani Brown against 6-5 Megan Gustafson of Iowa (28-6).
Way out in Portland, Ore., Mississippi State (32-2), which edged Louisville last year in the Final Four, arrives as the No. 1 seed, headed by 6-7 Teaira McCowan. But Oregon (31-4) has 5-11 all-around flash Sabrina Ionescu, who dropped in 29 points, with 10 rebounds and 12 assists in a romp over Indiana last weekend. It was the 18th “triple-double” this season for Ionescu.
Of course, to get to a game with Mississippi State, the Ducks will have to quack back the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State (28-6), who upset Syracuse last weekend — prompting South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston to declare, “It’s a great, great, great day to be a Jackrabbit.”