October 31, 2020 

Louisville’s Jeff Walz will be flexible with scheduling, lineups

Walz is prepared to adjust his team's non-conference schedule on the fly, if needed. Expect him to roll out a few different starting lineups too.

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Louisville head coach Jeff Walz calls out to his team during a game at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum on Feb. 13, 2020. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Entering the 2020-21 season, things are both the same and different for the Louisville Cardinals.

On one hand, Louisville is expected to contend for the ACC title and a Final Four berth again. They will likely be a top 10 team in the preseason Associated Press poll, largely because they return ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans, former ACC Freshman of the Year Elizabeth Balogun and bring in a strong host of newcomers, led by McDonald’s All-American Hailey Van Lith and former NJCAA All-American Ahlana Smith.

But then, this is 2020 — the year of the coronavirus pandemic — where everything can change in an instant.

For now, the women’s college basketball season is happening. Louisville is set to play in five non-conference games and 20 ACC games.

As the fall sports calendar has shown, plans can be altered drastically with little notice. Cardinals head coach Jeff Walz is trying to stay one step ahead of the pandemic and is attempting to build in some insurance plans, should games get canceled.

“It’s been a challenge,” Walz said. “I’m trying to get about 10 schools within driving distance that aren’t necessarily on my schedule right now.”

Those 10 unknown schools are Walz’s sort-of break-in-case-of-emergency-opponents. For example — hypothetically speaking — if Middle Tennessee State had a positive test and had to cancel its game against the Cardinals, Walz is hopeful that he could call up one of these schools and throw a replacement game together quickly.

Being within a four-hour drive of Indianapolis, St. Louis, Columbus and Nashville gives the Cardinals some options if a game has to be unexpectedly scrapped.

“We’re trying to get ahead of it, to where if a non-conference game is canceled, we have the ability to hopefully find someone to play,” Walz said. “The coaches that I’ve talked to are all in agreement. They’re excited about it. We’re hoping it doesn’t happen. And we’re not worried about, ‘Oh, I didn’t have days to prepare for your game. I need game film.’ No, we’re just going to show up and play. That’s what these players want to do.

“We want to make sure it’s safe and done right, but if we have to adjust our schedule on the fly, that’s what we’re going to do. Everybody that I’ve talked to, we’re all doing the same testing protocols.”

Louisville will play three road games and two home games in non-conference play. Aside from a Dec. 4 trip to UConn, the other two away games — at MTSU and Cincinnati — are both within driving distance for the Cardinals. Louisville will host Eastern Kentucky and Bellarmine.

The Cardinals’ 20-game ACC slate is likely to begin on or around Dec. 10. Their non-conference schedule will go on without facing longtime in-state rival Kentucky. It’ll be the first time since the 1974-75 season that the Cardinals and Wildcats have not played in women’s basketball.

It’s another scheduling casualty from the pandemic, as the two in-state foes have met 56 times over the years. Kentucky leads the all-time series 34-22, though Louisville won by a single point last season in Rupp Arena. The series is expected to resume next year.

“I’d hate to play a Louisville-Kentucky game with possibly nobody at the game. I’ve always had a good working relationship with them at Kentucky,” Walz said. “Instead of playing a huge game in front of nobody, we’re able to push that off for a season.”

Walz is also trying to stay flexible with his lineups.

Evans and Balogun feel like locks to start, but Walz has a full roster to experiment with and said he could see the Cardinals using multiple different starting five’s early on. The Cardinals have used a different starting lineup in each of their preseason scrimmages against the scout team.

“What’s going to be the best combination? I want to be able to not just maintain, but raise our level of play when we start to sub,” Walz said. “We have 12 that are eligible to play and I can honestly say that I’ve got 12 that I can play in every game, and it’s not a huge drop-off… All three of my freshmen are going to play, and play significant minutes. And then Ahlanna Smith, our junior college transfer, she’s played extremely well. She’s fitting in well.”

A native of Charlotte, North Carolina and a former top 30 recruit, Smith spent the 2018-19 season at UCLA before playing last year for Gulf Coast State College, where she averaged 20.3 points per-game. She’ll be in the mix in the guard rotation along with heralded incoming freshman Hailey Van Lith, tabbed as the seventh best player in the 2020 class by ESPN.

In the paint, five-star freshman Olivia Cochran and former ACC All-Freshman team selection Elizabeth Dixon will attempt to fill the void left by New York Liberty draft pick and last season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Kylee Shook.

“Our guard play is extremely good right now. Our post play is getting better. Liz Dixon has had some great improvement over the summer; excited where she is,” Walz said. “Olivia Cochran, a freshman, looks better than what I anticipated. I knew she was good, but she’s better than what I thought this early in her career.

“Her strength, her ability to finish around the basket with contact — even though she’s 6-foot-2, she’s by far the best back-to-the-basket post player that we’ve had here as a freshman in my 14 years.”

Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center will allow fans this basketball season, but it will be capped at 15% capacity. That means about 3,000 fans will be spread out across the 22,090-seat arena. Safety measures for concession sales will also be in place and additional hand sanitizer dispensers will be placed throughout the building. Face masks will be required.

The Cardinals averaged 9,159 fans per-game last season, which was the highest in the ACC and fifth-best in the nation. Games will sound and feel a bit different, but Walz says he’s “grateful” to have a crowd.

“For a lot of the places we go, (3,000 people) is the biggest crowd that school has had for a women’s basketball game,” Walz said. “So, it’s going to change the environment for us some, but I’ve got a lot of confidence and faith in our fans… I’m still expecting a very good environment.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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