April 4, 2022
Louisville isn’t changing ‘a damn thing’ and isn’t going anywhere
Since 2007, Jeff Walz has turned the Cardinals into a consistent winner
MINNEAPOLIS — The color of Jeff Walz’s face began to take on a different hue, nearly matching the red polo he had sported on the sidelines of the Final Four. The coach of Louisville was, in real time, processing a lengthy question that could’ve been boiled down to simply: Why haven’t the Cardinals brought home a national championship?
An unfiltered Walz responded with a tone that was fiery, declarative and confident.
“We’re not going to change anything. I don’t think there’s any reason to change anything,” Walz began.
He then added: “If your narrative wants to be that we can’t win the big game, so be it, that’s what your narrative is going to be… But I’m pretty damn impressed with my group. I love my kids. We ain’t going to change a damn thing we do, no matter what y’all write.”
There’s a pretty good argument for Walz’s Cardinals to keep doing what they’re doing, despite their 72-59 loss to South Carolina on Friday at the Target Center.
To understand what Louisville has become, and what it used to be, we need to step into a time machine.
Back in 2007, Walz was one year removed from helping the Maryland Terrapins win their first-ever national championship as Brenda Frese’s top assistant. Ready for a new challenge, the Kentucky native was hired as the head coach at Louisville.
At the time, Louisville had no real history or tradition to speak of in women’s college basketball. The Cardinals had won the Metro Conference and CUSA a handful of times, and beat UConn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 1993 – before the Huskies became the sport’s behemoth – but Louisville had never appeared in the Sweet 16. That drought ended in Walz’s second year on the job. And in his third season? The Cardinals played for a national championship. And yes, Louisville lost to arguably one of the sport’s greatest teams ever in that game – a UConn squad that featured the likes of Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, each of whom became all-stars in the WNBA. Louisville was outmatched in the championship game, as every other team in the country would’ve been.
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Louisville wasn’t just a one-hit wonder with that run in 2009. In 2013, they were back in the title game. And again, unfortunately, were the victims of bad luck and bad timing, running up against a dominant UConn team with Breanna Stewart and seven other future WNBA players. In 2018, Walz’s Cards returned to the Final Four, but fell in overtime to Mississippi State.
“Do we want to win a national championship? Of course we do. But again, you’ve got to get lucky,” Walz said. “You’ve got to get a few breaks to go your way. In ’18, I thought that was probably our best shot to win one, and unfortunately, we didn’t get some breaks.”
Sure, there is a national championship that’s missing from Louisville’s resume. But look at the larger picture. Before 2007, no one really thought about the Cardinals as a contender for the national championship. And now they’re a mainstay in the polls and the later rounds of the tournament.
In Walz’s 15 years on the job, Louisville has played in seven Elite Eights. Essentially, they’re playing for the opportunity to go to a Final Four every other season. With Louisville appearing in the Final Four this season, Mykasa Robinson continued a Cardinals’ streak; since Walz took the reins of the program, every player that he has coached for four years has played in at least one Final Four. Not many programs can tout that claim – perhaps none outside of Louisville, UConn and Stanford.
Since 2009, only UConn, Stanford and Notre Dame have been to more Final Fours than Louisville. Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks have just as many appearances as Walz’s Cardinals. Also, Louisville is the only program in the country to be a No. 1 seed in three of the last four tournaments.
“I listen to people talk about other coaches who have a dynasty going and they’ve been to four Final Fours,” said Walz, who is one of just 11 coaches to reach four Final Fours. “So have we.”
After the loss to South Carolina, Walz began his postgame press conference by crediting the three young women sitting to the right of him: Hailey Van Lith, Kianna Smith and Emily Engstler. He became emotional, pausing to collect his thoughts, when speaking about them.
“I told them in the locker room… I’d put this group right up there at the top. You start back in the spring and the summer, all the way through April, and it was just an absolute joy to coach them, to watch them grow as people, watch them grow as individuals, and then to watch us grow as a team,” Walz said. “There’s not one second that I regret about it, a damn thing that we did, and I am so proud of these three that are sitting here, and we’re going to cherish the moments that we shared together, the games that we played.”
Walz is undoubtedly a good basketball coach, a master motivator and talented schemer. He’s at the top of his craft.
But his success at Louisville has been sustainable largely because of the people he’s surrounded himself with, on the floor and on the bench. And he deserves credit for that too.
Louisville has become a destination school in women’s basketball. And not just for highly touted recruits like Van Lith and Payton Verhulst, but for the top players in the transfer portal too, like Engstler and Smith, who came from Syracuse and Cal, respectively.
And Walz doesn’t just take any player from the portal; he takes ones that he believes will not only help the Cardinals win, but will elevate the culture. Walz has repeatedly told the story this season of how, when Engstler entered the portal and Louisville identified her as a potential target addition, the coach went to Mykasa Robinson – because he knew that her playing time would be impacted the most if Engstler came to Louisville. Robinson got to share her side of that story this past weekend.
“When we recruited Emily and Coach Walz talked about it – playing time is great, but I want to win,” Robinson said, confirming Walz’s telling of the tale. “Whatever it takes to win. Whatever it takes for the team to be successful and win, it’s what I’m willing to do.”
And Robinson isn’t just some run-of-the-mill player. As a junior in the 2020-21 season, she made the All-ACC Defensive Team and ESPN tabbed her as one of the 12 best defenders in the nation. She started in 17 games as a junior. With the addition of Engstler, Robinson didn’t start at all, but she still made the most of her playing time, finishing with 3.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists per-game and a career-best 43 steals. And again, for the second time, Robinson made the All-ACC Defensive Team. And because of Robinson’s unselfishness and willingness to welcome Engstler into the Cardinals, Louisville was a better team this year than it was a season ago.
As an elite and versatile defender, Engstler had a lot of options for a landing spot when she entered the portal in the 2021 offseason. At Syracuse, she underperformed as a freshman, but transformed herself into one of the ACC’s top players by the end of her junior season, winning the league’s Sixth Player of the Year Award. As part of the exodus from Syracuse ahead of reports of verbal abuse, unwanted physical touching and misconduct by coach Quentin Hillsman, Engstler was in need of a change of scenery. She needed a team that would embrace her, but she also wanted the chance to win at the highest level as the clock kept ticking on her college career.
So, why Louisville? Walz was a big reason why. Engstler, fighting back tears after the Cardinals’ Elite Eight win over Michigan, explained.
“He’s meant the world to me, personally. I think it’s been a difficult three years for me, and he was just somebody who took me under his arms and didn’t really care who I was, or where I was coming from on a mental level, and I really appreciate him. He’s a good person,” Engstler said. She paused as Walz came over and gave her a hug. “I love you too, man… He’s a good person, and he’s a good person on the court. He’s just really fun to play for. He lets you be yourself and he protects you, and you can trust him, and that’s hard (to find) in this industry.”
And indeed, Engstler got the chance to win a lot at Louisville – 29 victories this season (or 30, if you count Virginia’s forfeit). The Cardinals will raise a banner in the Yum Center for this Final Four appearance, and it wouldn’t have happened without Engstler.
But the other thing Engstler got out of playing for Louisville was an elevated and sharpened set of skills that turned her into a legitimate first-round prospect in the WNBA Draft.
The lanky 6-foot-2 forward posted career-bests this season in field goal percentage (46.1%), three-point shooting (37.2%), rebounds per-game (9.4), steals per-game (2.7), blocks per-game (1.8) and points per-game (11.9). She finished the season ranking seventh nationally in steals (93), second in defensive win shares (5.2) and fourth in defensive rating (64.3), according to HerHoopStats.
Walz believes that Engstler is pro-ready right now.
“Emily is going to be good. That’s the type of player she’ll be – a good one,” Walz said. “She’s going to continue to grow and continue to develop and continue to work… But you can’t teach her instincts, you can’t teach her length, you can’t teach her ability to disrupt at the defensive end of the floor. It’s just remarkable what she’s able to do. She’s going to have herself a pretty darn good professional career.”
Like Walz was once poached from Frese’s staff at Maryland, Power Five programs have targeted his assistants for high-profile jobs too. This run for Louisville was its last with Sam Purcell, a 39-year-old native of Dalton, Georgia who spent nine seasons as one of Walz’s top lieutenants. Purcell had considered jobs before, but waited patiently for the right opportunity. That came a few weeks ago, when Mississippi State hired him as its next head coach.
Asked about Purcell’s impact, Walz – with his tongue in his cheek – jokingly blamed the loss to South Carolina on the man he said has been “like a brother.”
“Well, you know,” Walz said. “It was Sam’s game plan tonight, so I mean, I don’t know if that bodes well for Mississippi State or not.”
The room laughed, then Walz got serious.
“No, Sam is fantastic,” Walz continued. “When I was an assistant, I had aspirations and dreams of being a head coach one day, and a lot of my staff – they have those dreams, they have those aspirations. And I’ve always told them, it doesn’t matter if you’re here for one year, five years, 10 – whatever it is, when those opportunities present themselves, then we need to go after them. This presented itself for Sam, and we’re just so excited for him to be moving on to become the head coach… What a way to be able to send him out with a Final Four run.”
Purcell, Engstler and Smith are moving on, but things won’t change at Louisville. Walz will reload with recruits, and he’ll be picky about who he brings in via the portal. Again next season, Louisville will be ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll all season long, they’ll compete for the ACC’s top spot, and they’ll be expected to make a deep run in March.
Because those are the standards at Louisville. This is what Walz has built. And at this point, anything less would be shocking and a disappointment.
So, yes – Walz is correct. It would be counterintuitive for him to change how he operates and the culture he’s created. Since he took over, all the Cardinals have turned into is one of the flagship programs of not just the ACC, but women’s college basketball as a whole.
With Engstler and Smith leaving, the team now belongs to Hailey Van Lith. She is a 5-foot-7 firecracker who talks a big game and backs it up in a bigger way. She never lacks for confidence or tenacity, she has sharp vision on the court, and a pretty smooth shot too. South Carolina considered her to be a formidable opponent, face-guarding her the entire time. Van Lith was limited to nine points, but also had a season-best nine rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“She’s really damn good,” Walz said. “The kid is going to be a pro… I love coaching her. The kid is going to be an All-American next year, at least she should be.”
Speaking about her departing teammates, Van Lith got choked up when she was asked about Smith and Engstler’s impact on her. It was apparent that, she wasn’t just talking about people she played basketball with; she was talking about members of her family, ones that empowered her.
“I think what they contributed the most, especially for me as a player, was they taught me how to be a leader, and the team needed me to do that,” Van Lith said. “I think, after the Miami loss (in the ACC Tournament), we didn’t really have anyone that could pull the team together and get us all going, and they taught me to be that person. And I think that, them being willing to look at me and tell me that they needed me to be that for us, to get to this spot as a team, is really big-time.”
“I’m going to be there at the draft. I’m going to be cheering for them on my feet screaming because those are my girls.”
It remains to be seen what kind of cast surrounds Van Lith, Robinson and Olivia Cochran next season. But one thing is clear: as long as Walz is on the sidelines for Louisville, the Cardinals will be contending for championships.
And they’ll be doing it their way.