By Jeff Nunn of CardinalSportsZone.com | Photos by Adam Creech, courtesy University of Louisville Athletics
The old saying is “If you wanna be the best you gotta beat the best.” The University of Louisville Women’s Basketball team wants to be the best and they are dominantly marching their way straight to the top and taking on all comers.
Louisville came into this season ranked No. 10 in USA Today’s preseason coaches poll. The schedule ahead of them appeared daunting, as they would have to face six teams ranked in the preseason top 25 (No. 1 UConn, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 8 Ohio State, No. 12 Duke, No. 14 Florida State and No. 24 Miami).
Louisville also had the possibility of playing No. 11 Oregon and/or No. 23 Michigan in the Preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament, making that potentially eight preseason top 25 teams as well as a trip to Lexington to face nemesis Kentucky – never an easy trip.
The Cards are coming off of a season that ended in the Sweet 16 and are returning nine players from that team. Included in that nine are Asia Durr, the ACC’s preseason player of the year, and Myisha Hines-Allen. They also bring in the nation’s top recruiting class that includes Dana Evans, Lindsey Duvall and Loretta Kakala.
UofL head coach Jeff Walz confidently marched his wealth of talent into this season like a proud peacock. The look in his eye during preseason interviews was as easy to read as a mother goose nursery rhyme. And that message was that he was sitting on something very special.
It didn’t take long for everyone to see exactly what coach Walz already knew when, in the second game of the season, Louisville played No. 8 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. It took overtime, but Louisville prevailed 95-90. Just four days later, Louisville faced No. 24 Michigan in the Preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Louisville destroyed them by 25 points and, only two days later, would play No. 11 Oregon in the championship of the NIT. The Cards easily handled that challenge winning by 13 points.
Since winning the NIT, Louisville has been smashing opponents like they are driving an armored tank through a pumpkin patch. This well-oiled machine has enjoyed a school record run of victories that include a 22-point win over Vanderbilt, a 13-point victory at Indiana, a 24-point victory at Kentucky, a 6-point win over Duke and highlighted by a 100- 67 win over then second ranked Notre Dame.
With that victory over Notre Dame, Louisville climbed to the second ranked team in the country, which is the highest regular season ranking in school history. Also with that victory, the Cards improved to 19-0 that extended a program record for consecutive wins to start a season, which previously stood at 15.
All the winning is fun for the Cards but looming ahead is a date with top ranked UConn. On Feb. 12, Louisville will travel to Storrs, Connecticut, for a 7 p.m. battle that will likely be the barometer of how close they are to being the best.
UConn is, and has been, the gold standard in women’s college basketball. Over the past 10 seasons, they have made it to the Final Four each and every year, winning six national championships, including four straight championships from 2012-16. They have won 11 total national championships since 1995. From Nov. 23, 2014, to March 31, 2017, UConn put together a 111-game winning streak where 108 of those were won by double digits and 61 of those were victories of at least 40 points.
This season, UConn is undefeated and still holding that No. 1 spot that they were voted to during the preseason. UConn and Louisville have one common opponent that is worth noting if you are trying to find some way to compare these teams. Both have played Notre Dame. UConn won by 9 and Louisville won by 33. While I don’t put a ton of stock into that comparison, it’s all we have until they clash in February.
If both teams win out until they meet, as expected, it should be No. 1 (24-0) vs No. 2 (25-1).
As epic as this confrontation sounds, the outcome will not make or break either team’s season. The winner of this game, barring any late season bad losses, should set themselves up to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The loser should be in line to receive one of the three remaining No. 1 seeds.
While UConn has plenty of NCAA tournament success, Louisville has done pretty well themselves. Under Walz, Louisville has made 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances. During that span, Louisville has finished as the NCAA runner-up to UConn twice (2009 and 2013).
In both of those runner-up years, Louisville had one of the best players in the country leading their team. In 2009, Angel McCoughtry led the Cards, and in 2013, Shoni Schimmel was their leader. This season, Louisville has, in my humble opinion, the best player in the country in Asia Durr. But the difference between this team and the two runner-up teams is that Louisville has Myisha Hines-Allen, who would be the best player on about 98 percemt of every other team in the country. Yes, Louisville has an amazing 1-2 punch, as well as a very good supporting cast that seems to keep getting better as they gain experience. Also, the development of junior Sam Fuehring and sophomores Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook really makes them a deep team. That depth makes Louisville a team that just wears you down over the course of a game.
Could the star power balanced with the great supporting players be the perfect formula that takes the Cards all the way to the National Championship? I’m not sure, but I definitely wouldn’t bet against it.
Regardless of whether they win it all or not, the Cards have marched their way straight to the top and given themselves the opportunity to see if they have what it takes. It should be very fun and interesting to witness. Stay tuned.