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ON THE VERGE OF SOMETHING SPECIAL

BY JEFF NUNN OF CARDINALSPORTSZONE.COM

Head coach Jeff Walz and his lady Cards are coming off another trip to the sweet 16. It was their seventh straight year making the NCAA tournament and ninth out of the ten years that Jeff Walz has been coaching at Louisville. And it appears that they are poised for what could be a very special year. Another sweet sixteen appearance will not be considered a successful year. This team has title aspirations and they are on a mission.

The lady Cards finished the 2016-17 season with a 29-8 record. From that team, they return their top two scorers, Asia Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen, along with 2 juniors, 4 sophomores and the 4th ranked recruiting class. Gone from last season are starters Mariya Moore (12.0 ppg), Briahanna Jackson (6.1ppg) and Corinne Walton (2.6ppg).

But the most important returning piece to this steaming freight train is their engine, Head Coach Jeff Walz.

There were many rumors circulating around Louisville that if Athletic Director Tom Jurich was let go, many of the coaches he hired would soon leave as well. Walz put that fear to rest at the annual women’s basketball Tip Off Luncheon where he said he would be remiss if he didn’t “give a shout out to Tom” because 11 years ago he “sold me on the University of Louisville – sold me on what this place could become as a women’s basketball program.”

Walz also said he is forever grateful to Jurich for giving him the opportunity and that he wasn’t leaving because “Tom sold me on Louisville – not Tom – on Louisville, because that’s what he cared about.”

Walz went on to say that “Louisville is home to me” and “I plan to retire here or get fired here. It’s one or the other.”

Walz is the winningest coach in Louisville women’s program history with a 263-93 (.739) record. Louisville had never won 30 games in a season in its previous 32 years. Walz coached Louisville to a program-record 34 victories in 2008-09 and then 33 wins in 2013-14.

He has two national runner-up finishes (2009, 2013), three Elite Eight appearances (2009, 2013, 2014), seven trips to the Sweet 16 and nine NCAA Tournament appearances in his 10 years at Louisville. I have been on record saying that I believe Walz will win a national title in the next three years and multiple titles before he retires. Could this be the year?

It doesn’t hurt that Walz has two of the ESPN Top 25 women’s basketball players for 2017-18 season on his team. Junior Asia Durr comes in at No. 7 on the list while senior Myisha Hines-Allen is ranked No. 24.

Durr, who averaged 19.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals last season as a sophomore, was the highest-rated recruit to sign at Louisville in school history. In her sophomore year, she was voted to the all-ACC Tournament first team, selected to the Blue Ribbon Panel and coaches’ all-ACC first team, named to the Naismith Trophy Top 30, which recognizes the national player of the year, and the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25. She also was selected to the midseason list for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s player of the year honor. Durr also became Louisville’s 28th 1,000-point scorer and broke the program’s single-season record with 119 3-pointers.

Entering her junior year, she has been selected as the 2017-18 Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason Player of the Year, as voted on by the league’s coaches. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Durr is one of 20 watch list candidates for the 2018 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, which is an annual award that recognizes the top shooting guard in women’s NCAA Division I college basketball. She was also named to the College Sports Madness Preseason All-American Team. It appears that she is going to have a great year and is already a professional level talent.

Myisha Hines-Allen is entering her senior season as a woman on a mission. She is a physical inside player who will work the perfect inside-outside game with Durr. She will be a major factor in the success of this team as well as being counted on as the team leader.

As a sophomore, Hines-Allen was named ACC Player of the Year, averaging 17.6 points on 54.7 percent shooting and 8.4 rebounds. As a junior, she only averaged 13.9 points as teams began to game plan around her, but that allowed her to learn how to become an even better rebounder. She also had 17 double-doubles, which ranked 12th in the country.

Coach Walz has said that she has often started the season off slowly only to pick it up as the season goes along. If they want to be a great team, she has to bring it from the start.

It appears as though Hines-Allen has received the message as she enters the season in the best shape of her career at Louisville. She also has worked hard on becoming more efficient with her mid-range shot.

While Louisville’s success will rely heavily on its two leaders, it will also need a lot of steady contributions from junior Sam Fuehring and sophomores Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook.

The Cards have four sophomores who saw the court last season, and they will all need to take a step forward to help develop the depth required to make a deep tournament run. They also have three very talented freshmen who are capable of playing major minutes right away. This deep team may not need them to contribute early, but I’m sure Coach Walz will find minutes for them so he can add even more weapons to his arsenal.

Louisville entered the season ranked 9th in the first preseason Associated Press poll. Personally, I believe they are a top 5 team, but it doesn’t matter what I think because they will have a chance to prove it. They face a very tough schedule with six non-conference opponents who reached the NCAA Tournament last year, five of them before conference play begins. The other being nemesis UCONN, whom the Cards will play on Feb. 12 in Connecticut.

If the Cards want to make a run to Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, for the 2018 NCAA Final Four, they must have their stars be stars, they must develop the sophomores, they must cut down the turnovers (14.2 per game last season), improve free throws (69.2 percent last season) and, finally, they must bring it every game.

I feel very confident about the stars and the sophomores. Improved guard play will help cut down on the turnovers, and word on the street is that they have been in the gym working hard on their shooting. If Coach Walz can convince them to bring it every game, then this team is on the verge of something special.

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