Louisville's Walz seeks 200th career win vs No. 23 Syracuse
Coach Jeff Walz hasn't had much time to reflect upon approaching 200 career wins in his Louisville tenure.
Walz can reach that milestone when No. 8 Louisville (18-2, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts No. 23 Syracuse (14-5, 4-2) Thursday night. He didn't envision it when he took the job eight seasons ago. His sole focus was guiding the Louisville women deeper into the NCAA tournament.
Walz has surpassed that simple objective with two NCAA runner-up finishes while building the Cardinals into a regular championship contender. He's on the cusp of reaching 200 wins sooner than Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
''I don't think he's too concerned about that,'' Walz said of his friendly rival. ''He's got nine national titles.''
The Cardinals have known what it's like to play for championships in 2009 and 2013. Both times, they lost to Auriemma's Huskies.
Louisville is a top-10 team that's in a three-way tie for first place in its ACC debut season, not bad considering it lost No. 2 career scorer and All-American guard Shoni Schimmel to the WNBA. That just highlights Walz's fast-paced philosophy and skill at motivating players to overcome challenges.
''Louisville has a tremendous amount of resources, but a lot of other schools have the same types of advantages and they haven't accomplished what Jeff has,'' Auriemma said Wednesday. ''So his success is due in large part to his personality. He has gotten more accomplished in a short amount of time than anyone I can think of.''
The Cardinals have offset the absence of perimeter offense by sharing the ball, resulting in freshmen Myisha Hines-Allen and Mariya Moore leading three players in double-figure scoring and senior guard Bria Smith close behind at 9.8 points per game.
''I have loved coaching every game and the two national championship games,'' Walz said. ''I enjoy it, but it's got to be an unbelievable experience for the players to actually play in it.
''It's something I hope to have the opportunity to do several more times, and our goal here is to win a national championship. We've proven that we can do that. We just have to get over that final hump and win that last game.''
No matter where the road leads, the 43-year-old Walz wants to enjoy the ride.
Last season, he bought the first round of beers for fans at one home game. Walz occasionally pokes fun at himself about his stutter, which he's had since childhood yet isn't noticeable until he mentions it.
The coach is known for his casual attire, including plaid shirts with rolled up sleeves, compared to his well-tailored counterparts in a jacket or tie.
''I like to be comfortable,'' Walz said, ''but it's not always easy to find red shirts in the department store.''
For Walz, tallying victories with the Cardinals has been easier than expected.
A win over the Orange would tie him for 21st-fastest to reach 200 in 272 games, tying him with Sylvia Hatchel and Kevin McGuff. That better than Auriemma, who needed 281 contests.
Walz also has a chance to join Auriemma and Georgia's Andy Landers to make at least two Final Fours within their first 200 wins. His .750 overall percentage ranks third among active Division I coaches, while a similar average in the NCAA tournament stands fifth.
Not that he's counting.
''I had forgotten all about it,'' said the Kentucky native, who earned a title ring as a Maryland assistant in 2006 before taking over the Cardinals the next season.
''I'm fortunate to have had some really good players that I've had the opportunity to coach here,'' Walz said. ''I wasn't expecting this kind of success this early, but a lot of it has to be credited to players that bought in to play as hard as they do and believe in what me and my coaches have been trying to teach them.''