Contrary to what you may have heard, the Louisville Cardinals will participate in the NCAA Tournament. To make matters even better, they'll begin their March Madness run with two games inside the KFC Yum! Center.
Though the UofL men wrapped up their season on March 5, the Louisville women are hoping their relationship with the month of March is just getting started. The Cards are the No. 3 seed in the Dallas Region of the women's NCAA Tournament, and will open play on their home court Friday at 2:30 against Central Arkansas. If they advance, they'll get to play one final home game against either DePaul or James Madison on Sunday.
With a basketball crazy city still hurting from last month's postseason ban announcement on the men's side, UofL coach Jeff Walz knows he might have even more eyes on his team than usual this March. With the Cards having the benefit of hosting the opening two rounds, he hopes his team can help turn a negative situation into at least something of a positive.
"If we could get the lower bowl (at the KFC Yum! Center) full, I would be elated," Walz said. "We're looking to have one of those loud, crazy environments that we've been fortunate enough to have so many times before at the Yum Center. We'd love to have all of our regular fans come out and watch, and if you're a men's fan that didn't have the opportunity to ever see one of our games, please come down and check us out. I think you'll enjoy what you see."
The reason Walz feels so confident about that assertion is a team which enters the NCAA Tournament having won 22 of its last 24 games. He also engineers a group which plays an up-tempo brand of basketball that local fans who are used to the pressing style of Rick Pitino should find aesthetically pleasing.
Of course it wasn't all that long ago that a No. 3 seed seemed like a near impossibility for the Cardinals. After starting the season ranked in the nation's top 10, UofL fell out of the national polls thanks to a 1-4 start. They then dropped an embarrassing 72-54 rivalry game at Kentucky before going on the tear that has carried them back to the top 10.
Walz blames the slow start on a combination of some early injuries and an over-reliance on a group of talented, but then unprepared, freshmen and sophomores. Despite the fact that youth is still a defining characteristic of this group, the Cardinal coach believes they've grown more than enough since the calendar flipped to 2016 to be ready for the bright lights of their sport's biggest stage.
"I'm fully expecting our kids to be ready to play and understand what's at stake," Walz said. "I'm not going to use our youth as an excuse, because they've all played enough ball games this year. We've been in some big time games over the past month and they've handled it well. At this point you have to say that your sophomores are juniors and your freshmen are sophomores. They'll be ready."
There will be no opportunity for Louisville fans to see Damion Lee and Trey Lewis survive and advance this March, but there will be an opportunity to see ACC Player of the Year Myisha Hines-Allen continue to thrive as a double-double machine. There will be a chance to see Asia Durr show everyone why she was the No. 1 high school player in the country this time last year. There will be a chance to see Briahanna Jackson run the point with grace and terrorize opposing guards on the other end of the court.
Most importantly, there will be a chance to see a Louisville basketball team celebrate a postseason victory, and do so on its home court. Walz hopes Cardinal fans take advantage of that gift, especially since it comes with this particular squad.
"I feel very fortunate to coach a very good group of young women," Walz said. "They're not only great players, they're great people who represent our university and our city the exact way you'd want somebody to. I'm not only proud of them as players, I'm really proud of them as people, and I really hope they're ready for a deep run in March. If you've been waiting until now to see what we're all about, this is the perfect time to find out."
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune