No. 5 Louisville expects faster start with 5 starters back
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville has an experienced roster of players determined to show how much they've learned.
The Cardinals stumbled out of the gate last year, needing time to develop after returning just one upperclassman (forward Cortnee Walton) and relying on seven newcomers. The growing pains of finding someone to take charge showed as they lost four of their first five.
Louisville figured it out quickly enough to win 25 of its final 29 games, including 15 in a row, until a surprising season-ending loss to DePaul in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. With five returning starters, including junior forward and reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Myisha Hines-Allen, the No. 5 Cardinals intend to start off on a positive note.
''We started off rough last year and know it can't be that way this year,'' said Hines-Allen, an Associated Press All-American who averaged 17.6 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.
''We know what we did wrong, taking people for granted and teams for granted. We know we have to bring it in practice and bring it in games.''
Louisville certainly brings its share of offense.
The Cardinals also return another all-ACC first-teamer in junior forward Mariya Moore (14.1 points, 4.7 rebounds) and senior guard Briahanna Jackson, a Central Florida transfer who averaged 11.1 points after sitting out the 2014-15 season per NCAA rules. Walton, a 6-foot-3 senior, was ninth in ACC rebounding at 7.3 per contest.
Sophomore guard Asia Durr averaged 11 points and is part of a rotation that has added 5-7 graduate Taylor Johnson, who was a 1,000-point scorer at Loyola-Chicago. Louisville appears so stocked for a run at its first Final Four since 2013 that coach Jeff Walz won't assure any starting spots and relishes the luxury of having multiple combinations to choose from.
''There's so much depth and competition that nobody can feel real good about, `Hey, I'm a guaranteed starter, I'm going to play 25-30 minutes a game,''' the 10th-year coach said. ''So, it's a good problem to have for me.''
Hines-Allen and Moore meanwhile had to step into leadership roles.
Moore said that the previous years' veterans did a lot to make her and Hines-Allen ''look good'' and get comfortable as freshmen. But Louisville's top two scorers discovered they also had to do more.
Now more comfortable, they're ready to lead Louisville's latest top-five recruiting class that includes 6-4 forwards Ciera Johnson and Kylee Shook - both high school All-Americans.
''Now that we've learned from last year,'' Moore said, ''I think we can lead because we have that under our belts and can show that experience to the freshmen.''
Louisville got an early opportunity for team-building during a weeklong trip in August to Cuba, where it won two of three games against the national team. The Cardinals also bonded off the court during cultural tours of the Communist island nation.
''You just had to be with your teammates,'' sophomore guard Arica Carter said of those shared experiences. ''I think the trip really helped us learn each other and our strengths and weaknesses.''
Louisville's next step is applying all those lessons learned against another tough non-conference schedule that begins Friday night at Tennessee-Martin. The Cardinals follow that game with matchups against league champs such as Belmont (Ohio Valley), Middle Tennessee (Conference USA) and Chattanooga (Southern) before a four-game stretch against No. 4 South Carolina (Southeastern), No. 6 Maryland (Big Ten), Western Kentucky and No. 19 Kentucky.
Having developed team chemistry by necessity last fall, the Cardinals are eager to see what it can yield from the start.
''It's not going to define our season,'' Walz said of the schedule, ''but it's going to let us know where we are with some of the top teams in the country.''